Lazy System 2

This is a request that you read Thinking, fast and slow, by Daniel Kahneman. It will change your view of humanity forever. I kid you not.

A good place to get started is this excellent New York Times book review. It's the best summary I've found of Kahneman's work, and it is definitely worth ten minutes of your time.

(As you'll learn in the book, you're already looking for ways out of spending those ten minutes. That's because half of your brain is a lazy bum. It's called System 2.)

Looking through the lens of Kahneman's work, the prognosis for North Carolina politics is not very encouraging.

Please read the paragraph below.

Note again that your first instinct, it is happening at this exact second, is to glance at that paragraph below and decide whether you can get away with skimming or ignoring it. The paragraph looks complicated, right? It's got that weird name and all those numbers. It's a lot of words. This is your lazy brain operating again. Thinking is hard work!

To see how, consider what Kahneman calls the “best-known and most controversial” of the experiments he and Tversky did together: “the Linda problem.” Participants in the experiment were told about an imaginary young woman named Linda, who is single, outspoken and very bright, and who, as a student, was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice. The participants were then asked which was more probable: (1) Linda is a bank teller. Or (2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. The overwhelming response was that (2) was more probable; in other words, that given the background information furnished, “feminist bank teller” was more likely than “bank teller.” This is, of course, a blatant violation of the laws of probability. (Every feminist bank teller is a bank teller; adding a detail can only lower the probability.) Yet even among students in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, who had extensive training in probability, 85 percent flunked the Linda problem. One student, informed that she had committed an elementary logical blunder, responded, “I thought you just asked for my opinion.”

What has gone wrong here? An easy question (how coherent is the narrative?) is substituted for a more difficult one (how probable is it?). And this, according to Kahneman, is the source of many of the biases that infect our thinking. System 1 jumps to an intuitive conclusion based on a “heuristic” — an easy but imperfect way of answering hard questions — and System 2 lazily endorses this heuristic answer without bothering to scrutinize whether it is logical.

This is the world we live and vote in. A world where intuition runs the show, often into the ground.

Clearly, much remains to be done in hedonic psychology. But Kahneman’s conceptual innovations have laid the foundation for many of the empirical findings he reports in this book: that while French mothers spend less time with their children than American mothers, they enjoy it more; that headaches are hedonically harder on the poor; that women who live alone seem to enjoy the same level of well-being as women who live with a mate; and that a household income of about $75,000 in high-cost areas of the country is sufficient to maximize happiness. Policy makers interested in lowering the misery index of society will find much to ponder here.

For those whose lazy brains have rushed to the end of the post looking for the bumper-sticker version and a connection to North Carolina politics, here's the best I can do:

  • Gut intuition (system one) trumps reason (lazy system two), especially in familiar situations.
  • Overconfidence is the norm.
  • People will hold desperately onto erroneous ideas, even in the face of clear evidence that they're wrong.
  • Actual hard thinking is needed in the face of new and complex situations, but the lazy System 2 won't do it. You are not the boss of it.

All these human conditions play to the strengths of master manipulators. It is a world in which wishful thinking has evolved to carry more weight than actual facts. There is literally no room for reason.


We're in trouble

but I'll live forever and never get sick (if my better half is correct in calling me an optimist).

Another tome for the list I'll never finish.


"...the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be."

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

I have to read it for work

This isn't the kind of book I'd likely read willingly, thanks in part to my lazy System 2. Fortunately, I need to read it for a business project I'm working on. It's a trip.

Watch this

with the sound on, and see if you can actually get the count right

Thinking Fast and Slow

Thanks, Dave

I hope folks will follow the links and read this material. It certainly makes the name of your blog (Applied Rationality) an interesting discussion topic!

Kahneman's got me seriously

Kahneman's got me seriously re-evaluating the blog name :)