What if many of the judgments and decisions you make had little to do with facts or even probabilities? What if the bulk of what you are thinking was automatically triggered by random circumstances in the environment? What if that tendency was the source of many arguments, conflicts and poor results in your life? Would that surprise you? Would you be a little alarmed? Could knowing this really help you?
I’m reading a fascinating book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In it Kahneman describes two thinking systems that influence our experiences, judgments, and decisions—what he calls System 1 and System 2. In a nutshell, System 1 is quick, intuitive, emotional, automatic, and efficient. System 2 is slow, methodical, rational, deliberate, and time and energy consuming.
In our fast-paced, get-it-all-done-yesterday culture, it’s no wonder that most of us use System 1 as our default mode most of the time. This has obvious advantages in helping us speed through life and not get overwhelmed.
For example, as quickly as you can, answer the following simple math problem:
Together, a bat and a ball cost $1.10. If the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
If you answered 10 cents, you’re not alone. Many people give that answer. That’s a quick answer that seems intuitively correct. That was a System 1 response.
Let’s do a little System 2 math to check it:
If the ball is 10 cents, then the bat would have to be $1.00 to add up to $1.10. $1.00 minus 10 cents is a difference of 90 cents. We were told that the difference between the two prices was $1.00, so this answer is incorrect.
The correct answer is 5 cents for the ball and $1.05 for the bat, which leaves a difference of $1.00 between the two and they add up to $1.10.
As you can see, System 1 has some drawbacks. It may be fast and efficient, but it can lead to wrong answers. It turns out that System 1 has all sorts of tendencies that lead us to false information and beliefs. For example, System 1 is biased by what is easiest, what agrees with what we already know, what we like and don’t like, what happened most recently, what was emotionally intense, what is reported in the media, and even words we just read or heard.
Here’s another example to check your own inner process. When you are asked a question, how often do you take time to define terms, understand exactly what is being asked, survey relevant evidence on different sides of the issue, question the validity of that evidence, and then express an opinion based on which evidence you consider to be the strongest?
When I turn that lens on myself, I am amazed at how quickly I answer without doing any of the above. I often have an intuitive “quick hit,” then I will go on to tell a story that backs up my quick response.
The next time you end up in a political discussion, notice if you do something like that. Do you really know what you’re talking about? Do you really understand the complexity of the issue, the evidence on the different sides of it, and the credibility of that evidence? Or are you quickly reacting from prejudgments, biases, and personal likes and dislikes? Which is it really?
Kahneman’s book shares a wealth of research revealing how we make judgments, form beliefs, and make decisions. Surprisingly, in some of our most important life decisions we are “winging it” on the basis of false assumptions we’re not even aware of.
So, what’s the quick moral of this story? For me, it’s this:
Mindfulness is invaluable.
In other words, it is well worth the time and energy to slow down and pay a bit more attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, assuming, and believing—especially when it comes to things that are important to us.
If you have an important judgment or decision to make, call in System 2 to help you out. Slow down and clearly define the issue. Seek as much evidence as you can on different sides of the question. Gather a wide range of opinions from others. Ask yourself, what if the opposite of what I’m thinking were true? Seek proof for and against your position. Check your sources. Double-check your calculations.
It’s not that intuition should never be trusted. Intuition is the source of our most amazing insights. At the same time, our “quick hits” can mislead us. Understand that subconscious biases often take over and lead you to false conclusions. So bring in System 2, when things really matter. Use your intuition to come up with a range of possible solutions, then test and fine-tune those solutions with your rational mind.
Can you see how using both systems can help you come to better solutions?
Can you see how that helps you work better with others?
Together fast and slow thinking lead us to more conscious, compassionate, accurate, and effective solutions.