February 2012, Week 3


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Wed, 15 Feb 2012 20:38:05 -0500
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Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - review

     An outstandingly clear and precise study of the
     'dual- process' model of the brain and our embedded
     self- delusions

Galen Strawson
13 December 2011

A human being "is a dark and veiled thing; and whereas
the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven
times seventy skins and still not be able to say: This
is really you, this is no longer outer shell." So said
Nietzsche, and Freud agreed: we are ignorant of
ourselves. The idea surged in the 20th century and
became a commonplace, a "whole climate of opinion", in
Auden's phrase.

It's still a commonplace, but it's changing shape. It
used to be thought that the things we didn't know about
ourselves were dark - emotionally fetid, sexually
charged. This was supposed to be why we were ignorant of
them: we couldn't face them, so we repressed them. The
deep explanation of our astonishing ability to be
unaware of our true motives, and of what was really good
for us, lay in our hidden hang-ups.

These days, the bulk of the explanation is done by
something else: the "dual-process" model of the brain.
We now know that we apprehend the world in two radically
opposed ways, employing two fundamentally different
modes of thought: "System 1" and "System 2". System 1 is
fast; it's intuitive, associative, metaphorical,
automatic, impressionistic, and it can't be switched
off. Its operations involve no sense of intentional
control, but it's the "secret author of many of the
choices and judgments you make" and it's the hero of
Daniel Kahneman's alarming, intellectually aerobic book
Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 2 is slow, deliberate, effortful. Its operations
require attention. (To set it going now, ask yourself
the question "What is 13 x 27?" And to see how it hogs
attention, go to theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html and
follow the instructions faithfully.) System 2 takes
over, rather unwillingly, when things get difficult.
It's "the conscious being you call 'I'", and one of
Kahneman's main points is that this is a mistake. You're
wrong to identify with System 2, for you are also and
equally and profoundly System 1. Kahneman compares
System 2 to a supporting character who believes herself
to be the lead actor and often has little idea of what's
going on.

System 2 is slothful, and tires easily (a process called
"ego depletion") - so it usually accepts what System 1
tells it. It's often right to do so, because System 1 is
for the most part pretty good at what it does; it's
highly sensitive to subtle environmental cues, signs of
danger, and so on. It kept our remote ancestors alive.
Système 1 a ses raisons que Système 2 ne connaît point,
as Pascal might have said. It does, however, pay a high
price for speed. It loves to simplify, to assume WYSIATI
("what you see is all there is"), even as it gossips and
embroiders and confabulates. It's hopelessly bad at the
kind of statistical thinking often required for good
decisions, it jumps wildly to conclusions and it's
subject to a fantastic suite of irrational biases and
interference effects (the halo effect, the "Florida
effect", framing effects, anchoring effects, the
confirmation bias, outcome bias, hindsight bias,
availability bias, the focusing illusion, and so on).

The general point about the size of our self-ignorance
extends beyond the details of Systems 1 and 2. We're
astonishingly susceptible to being influenced --
puppeted -- by features of our surroundings in ways we
don't suspect. One famous (pre-mobile phone) experiment
centred on a New York City phone booth. Each time a
person came out of the booth after having made a call,
an accident was staged - someone dropped all her papers
on the pavement. Sometimes a dime had been placed in the
phone booth, sometimes not (a dime was then enough to
make a call). If there was no dime in the phone booth,
only 4% of the exiting callers helped to pick up the
papers. If there was a dime, no fewer than 88% helped.

Since then, thousands of other experiments have been
conducted, right across the broad board of human life,
all to the same general effect. We don't know who we are
or what we're like, we don't know what we're really
doing and we don't know why we're doing it. That's a
System-1 exaggeration, for sure, but there's more truth
in it than you can easily imagine. Judges think they
make considered decisions about parole based strictly on
the facts of the case. It turns out (to simplify only
slightly) that it is their blood-sugar levels really
sitting in judgment. If you hold a pencil between your
teeth, forcing your mouth into the shape of a smile,
you'll find a cartoon funnier than if you hold the
pencil pointing forward, by pursing your lips round it
in a frown-inducing way. And so it goes. One of the best
books on this subject, a 2002 effort by the psychologist
Timothy D Wilson, is appropriately called Strangers to

We also hugely underestimate the role of chance in life
(this is System 1's work). Analysis of the performance
of fund managers over the longer term proves
conclusively that you'd do just as well if you entrusted
your financial decisions to a monkey throwing darts at a
board. There is a tremendously powerful illusion that
sustains managers in their belief their results, when
good, are the result of skill; Kahneman explains how the
illusion works. The fact remains that "performance
bonuses" are awarded for luck, not skill. They might as
well be handed out on the roll of a die: they're
completely unjustified. This may be why some banks now
speak of "retention bonuses" rather than performance
bonuses, but the idea that retention bonuses are needed
depends on the shared myth of skill, and since the myth
is known to be a myth, the system is profoundly
dishonest - unless the dart-throwing monkeys are going
to be cut in.

In an experiment designed to test the "anchoring
effect", highly experienced judges were given a
description of a shoplifting offence. They were then
"anchored" to different numbers by being asked to roll a
pair of dice that had been secretly loaded to produce
only two totals - three or nine. Finally, they were
asked whether the prison sentence for the shoplifting
offence should be greater or fewer, in months, than the
total showing on the dice. Normally the judges would
have made extremely similar judgments, but those who had
just rolled nine proposed an average of eight months
while those who had rolled three proposed an average of
only five months. All were unaware of the anchoring

The same goes for all of us, almost all the time. We
think we're smart; we're confident we won't be
unconsciously swayed by the high list price of a house.
We're wrong. (Kahneman admits his own inability to
counter some of these effects.) We're also hopelessly
subject to the "focusing illusion", which can be
conveyed in one sentence: "Nothing in life is as
important as you think it is when you're thinking about
it." Whatever we focus on, it bulges in the heat of our
attention until we assume its role in our life as a
whole is greater than it is. Another systematic error
involves "duration neglect" and the "peak-end rule".
Looking back on our experience of pain, we prefer a
larger, longer amount to a shorter, smaller amount, just
so long as the closing stages of the greater pain were
easier to bear than the closing stages of the lesser

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for economics in 2002
and he is, with Amos Tversky, one of a famous pair. For
many in the humanities, their names are fused together,
like Laurel and Hardy or Crick and Watson. Thinking,
Fast and Slow has its roots in their joint work, and is
dedicated to Tversky, who died in 1996. It is an
outstanding book, distinguished by beauty and clarity of
detail, precision of presentation and gentleness of
manner. Its truths are open to all those whose System 2
is not completely defunct; I have hardly touched on its
richness. Some chapters are more taxing than others, but
all are gratefully short, and none requires any special

* Galen Strawson's Selves: An Essay in Revisionary
Metaphysics is published by Oxford University Press.


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