[ This is post #6 in the series, “Finding reality in a post truth world.” ]
What happens when you view this image? Most people immediately sense anger, and possibly danger. If you encountered this person on the street, you might very well back away. You would probably be very cautious if you engaged in a conversation with this man. All this takes place with no analysis. It’s an instinctive reaction. The picture is devoid of context, but your brain instantly created one.
Welcome to Automatic System 1, which instantaneously combines the senses with past experience and conjugates future actions based on that. This system is what, despite the inadequacies of our senses, allowed us to prosper as a species. It would be a mistake to think this system is a purely sensory one, though. Automatic System 1 combines memories of past experiences with current sensory inputs and creates heuristics to help us avoid dangerous time-consuming analysis in the face of danger. It’s what enables us to imagine a full fledged lion even though we see only a small portion of its head. It tells us to be wary of strangers. It teaches us that effect follows cause, and that our three dimensional picture of the world is accurate enough to guide our actions.
It works in conjunction with the Deliberative System 2, but often overrides it. While this joint effort is what enabled us to get to the moon, it also misfires regularly enough to cause wars, economic crises, and pandemics that rage out of control.
( By the way, you may be wondering why I don’t use Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2”. I found that people who are new to this concept spend a lot of time trying to remember which system is which, so I added an adjective to clear that up. On the other hand, my goal is to get people interested in reading the original text, so I didn’t want to drop the nomenclature used by Kahneman either. The result is my somewhat clumsy compromise, which you may also see abbreviated as “AS1” and “DS2” once the original terms have been properly introduced in each post. )
We like to think that we’re beyond impulsive thinking and that our day is exclusively in the domain of the Deliberative System 2. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Kahneman points out, all of us not only regularly use each system, but we also succumb to the logical errors that crop us when AS1 overwhelms DS2.
Take a day for an average person. Below, the actions that can be characterized by dominance of AS1 are italicized and red. The actions that are dominated by DS2 are bolded and blue.
You take your dog for a morning walk. When you cross the street, you see a car in the distance. You cross the street.
You look at your smartwatch and see that you’ve gone 1,500 steps. You do a calculation in your head and realize you have to go 1,800 more steps to complete a mile.
You see someone you don’t know coming down the path. They’re wearing a hoodie and sunglasses. You go to the other side of the street.
At the grocery store, there are two different sizes of coffee. You try to figure out which one is priced better by computing the cost per ounce.
One of the coffee brands is more expensive per ounce but it’s labeled “organic.” You buy that one.
Driving to work, a bicyclist comes down the sidewalk to your right. You almost hit him as you go to make a right hand turn, even though you had checked traffic to your left.
On the radio, you hear a news item about a terrorist attack. You shake your head as you calculate that the odds of you getting hurt while driving are thousands of times higher than getting killed by a terrorist.
At work, you click on the icon to bring up a spreadsheet.
Your intern, Sam, asks you how to load a spreadsheet. You tell him, but with some impatience in your voice. How can he not figure out something that obvious?
You develop a way to combine data from five different spreadsheets and show the results in a chart.
Sam had a rough week last week, but this week he’s doing much better. You attribute this to a stern talk you had with him at the end of the week. You pride yourself on being a good manager.
The drive home is total stop and go. You find yourself abnormally exhausted when you get home.
On the way home, you pass by the decommissioned San Onofre nuclear power plant. You’re glad they’re no longer in business. You feel safer.
At home, you see a container of Roundup on the garage shelf. You throw it out, because you just heard a jury awarded millions of dollars to someone who claimed they got cancer from it.
You want to prepare a surprise meal for your partner. You calculate the cooking times for all the ingredients, so you’ll know what to prep in advance and when to start cooking each one.
You get the idea. Automatic vs. deliberative. Most of the above examples may seem obvious, but there are some that might surprise you. For example, the reactions to “organic” food, the weed killer, and the nuclear power plant. Aren’t these the results of careful deliberation? In most cases, no. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that anytime we “analyze” something, we’re employing Deliberative System 2. The problem is, as often as not, our “analysis” is nothing more than a combination of Automatic System 2 preconceptions and heuristics.
What exacerbates this problem is the sheer volume of information bombarding our brains every minute of the day. Even if one is an expert in a single field, that is no guarantee of good thinking in every other field. There are around 30,000 scientific journals, with close to 2 million articles. That means that an orthopedic surgeon will be almost overwhelmed keeping up with just her field, and perhaps she’ll even have to specialize in hips and knees. For neurology, she’ll have to “trust the experts,” just like everyone else. The fact that she had to go through ten years of training doesn’t guarantee anything as far as choosing which experts to listen to. Only a clear sense of AS1 and DS2 and how they interplay in each situation will do that.
That, I believe, is one of the biggest problems we face in modern society. Many of us mistakenly believe that expertise in one field implies mastery in all fields. Many others, having been thoroughly disappointed by experts, have become cynics who believe that reality is what they think. Both of these approaches are anathema to scientific skepticism: the questioning of all claims unless they can be empirically tested and reproduced.
Before we can fully embrace scientific skepticism, though, we have to be aware of the ways AS1 can disrupt DS2. To do this, we have to stop regarding this as a problem of “other people.” It is our problem. It is a purely human condition.
And it’s worth examining. There is no better example than the pandemic and the way it has been approached by people whose reaction is dominated by beliefs that have been corrupted by Automatic System 1 vs. those who plan responses based on Deliberative System 2. In countries where the response has been characterized by AS1, we see death counts that are hundreds of times greater than those where DS2 has ruled. The U.S., as of November 5, had 725 deaths per 1 million people, while Germany had 133 and Taiwan had 24.
In short, scientific skepticism saves lives. It makes evolutionary sense, even though it requires overcoming shortcuts formed by evolutionary fitness.
Daniel Kahneman analyzes the effect of AS1 in a variety of logical arenas. In the next post, I’ll cover one of the most interesting of them: risk analysis and judgement of probability.