Yesterday, Bryan Caplan of Econlog blog wrote about an excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Kahneman suggests that when folks confront a difficult-to-answer question, we substitute a not so difficult-to-answer question and go with the substitute answer — whether it applies the original question or not.
For example, you may be asked, How happy are you with your life these days? You may substitute that question for, What is my mood right now? Then you go with the answer to that substitute question, even if it isn’t a very good answer to the original question.
Bill Frezza, writing on Forbes.com, covers Kahneman’s with additional detail:
Kahneman’s Nobel Prize-winning research ranges across a lifetime of psychological experiments, all of which point to the inescapable conclusion that we have two systems of thought that are at best loosely connected. Bridging that gap is the key to keeping democracy from destroying itself. Let me explain.
The first bit of mental machinery, which Kahneman blandly calls System One, works 24/7 to keep us out of trouble, while alerting us to fleeting opportunities. Appropriate for a species that is both predator and prey, System One lives in a world of snap judgments, extensible metaphors, ill-informed biases, and loosely constructed rules of thumb. We sometimes call this decision making apparatus intuition. Man’s intuition is sophisticated enough that it has helped us thrive across a variety of ever changing environments.
Despite its utility, System One is often wrong, especially if numbers are involved. For a trivial example, answer quickly: If the sum of the cost of a ball and bat is $1.10 and the bat cost a dollar more than the ball, what does the ball cost? Your System One answer (most likely wrong) is good enough to avoid mistaking a hungry lion for a tasty chicken. But it’s not good enough to build an airplane or design an effective income tax code. (The answer is a nickel, not a dime.)
System Two is associated with enumeration, computation, objective analysis, and complex chains of logic. It is our rational brain. Kahneman’s work shows that even scientists like himself use System Two very sparingly, calling on it only when System One asks for help. In addition, in order to function at the highest levels, System Two requires training, discipline, concentration, skeptical and impartial evaluation of purported facts, and the ruthless elimination of contradictions.
…when it comes to electing increasingly all-powerful political leaders whose policies can unravel entire industries at a whim, it’s all System One all the time. Our political discourse has no room for System Two thinking. In fact, the opposite is true. Every ounce of campaign energy and the lion’s share of media attention are devoted to manipulating our snap judgments, extensible metaphors, ill-informed biases, and loosely constructed rules of thumb.
It sounds a bit like right and left brains, intuition and logic. But, it appears well articulated and helpful.
Allowing our System One and System Two selves to get to know each other better may help improve the weaknesses in our thinking.
Maybe we’ll better learn to say things like, “well, my intuition is telling me…, but I need to think about it some more,” instead of adamantly going with our intuitive answer and not giving it another thought.
Kahneman may also help answer a great question posed by a Freakonomics podcast listener last week:
Why do people feel compelled to answer questions that they do not know the answer to?
It could be System One kicking in. Intuitively, we feel that giving some answer is better than giving no answer, even though that’s not true.
I base that on my own experience in giving presentations. Early in my presentation career, I tried to answer every question. I believe that was my instinctive, fight-or-flight response based on System One.
Somewhere along the way, my System Two found a more effective approach. When asked a question, instead of rushing into the answer, I would pause and repeat the question to make sure I understood it. This also helped others in the audience hear the question.
At the same time, I was thinking about whether I knew enough to answer the question. If I didn’t, I said something like, “That’s a good question. I haven’t been asked that before and I’m not sure I can give you a good answer. Let me check that out and find the answer for you and get back with you.”
It seems to work better than making up stuff or thinking out loud.