Thinking: Fast or Slow?

For most of human history we have assumed our decisions to be the result of a conscious and rational process, and that we are in control of our most of our decisions and actions most of the time. Now a whole raft of research and books has called this into question and it suggests that our instinctive and intuitive selves in fact ‘run the show.’ The evidential basis for this seems incontrovertible and there have been very few dissenting voices calling the findings or conclusions into question. Many now accept there are only two main ways in which people think. What does this mean for rational thought? Is intuition quite as unreliable a tool for decision making as researchers suggest? Are we then to reduce the number of Ways of Knowing from eight to two?

The most recent and influential book on these issues is “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman and published to to rave reviews in 2011. The book is the culmination of decades of research by Kahneman and his late co-researcher Amos Tversky; the former received the Nobel Prize for Economics as a result of it.

In it he argues that our decision making is entirely rooted in two systems (called System 1 and System 2), and that most of our decisions/actions come from intuitive but mostly faulty and irrational biases built into System 1. Our rational self (System 2) is left mostly uninvolved and only intervenes in the decision making process when ‘it can be bothered’ and when it feels the stakes are too high not to.

System 1 is fast, instinctive, is biased to believe and confirm, it infers and invents causes and intentions, it exaggerates emotional consistency (It is Intuition).

System 2 is slow, deliberate, rational, logical, relies on facts and knowledge (It is Reason).

By setting up numerous psychological experiments, Kahneman and Tversky (and others), have demonstrated that our intuitions seem to follow specific biases and that people often make the same mistakes again and again. Our intuitions, they tell us, evolved in order to facilitate survival and therefore are not equipped for handling the complexities of modern lifestyles. They are also prone to following built-in biases or habits which lead to what appear on the surface to be logical and coherent answers to many of the challenges of everyday life. The problem, as Kahneman candidly admits, is that even one has identified, categorized and explained the most common of these cognitive biases, we are mostly impotent to change them all all the time.

However, Kahneman does believe that a more consistent application of ‘slow thinking’ can enable people to take some degree of control over their decision making. This supports the philosophy and purpose of what TOK is in part about and tries to achieve in terms of learning. We cannot do away with our instinctive or intuitive biases altogether, and neither should we as they serve us pretty well in daily life, but a disciplined and reflective application of logic as well as of purposeful and careful reasoning may help us to be less at the mercy of a way of thinking more interested in our immediate survival than our future happiness and success.

Whilst we have Mr Kahneman to thank for pointing out the distinction between Systems 1 and 2, and to provide the scientific and evidential material to support his central thesis, some might take issue with the assumption that any decision arrived at rationally is de facto better than one arrived at intuitively. One might also suggest that TOK offers a more subtle, comprehensive and therefore more rounded picture of human thinking than the purely two-tiered one of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and therefore that the exploration of Ways of Knowing other than Reason and Intuition is still very much a worthwhile pursuit.

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