Thinking, Fast and Slow

This review of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes makes the point that conscious thought is hard work:

Konnikova argues that, not unlike willpower and habit loops, attention is analogous to a muscle that can get strained, but can also be bolstered with training and purposeful repeat use.

Daniel Kahneman makes the same point above in Thinking, Fast and Slow (he actually talks about the same experiment scene in the habit loops link):

For most of us, most of the time, the maintenance of a coherent train of thought and the occasional engagement in effortful thinking also require self-control. Although I have not yet conducted a systematic survey, I suspect that frequent switching of tasks and speeded-up mental work are not intrinsically pleasurable, and that people avoid them when possible. This is how the law of least effort comes to be a law. Even in the absence of time pressure, maintaining a coherent train of thought requires discipline. An observer of the number of times I look at e-mail or investigate the refrigerator during an hour of writing could reasonably infer an urge to escape and conclude that keeping at it requires more self-control than I can readily muster.

Thinking, Fast and Slow dives a lot deeper into how the mind works. It starts off describing two systems, the automatic System 1 and the attentive System 2, which make up the mind. One of the main points Kahneman makes is that while we think of ourselves as System 2, System 1 does a lot of the work, and does a lot of it well.

System 2 articulates judgements and makes choices, but it often endorses or rationalizes ideas and feelings that were generated by System 1. You may not know that you are optimistic about a project because something about its leader reminds you of your beloved sister, or that you dislike a person who looks vaguely like your dentist. If asked for an expalation, however, you will search your memory for presentable reasons and will certainly find some. Moreover, you will believe the story you make up. But System 2 is not merely an apologist for System 1; it also prevents many foolish thoughts and inappropriate impulses from overt expression. […] However, System 2 is not a paragon of rationality. Its abilities are limited and so is the knowledge to which it has access. We do not always think straight when we reason, and the errors are not always due to intrusive and incorrect intuitions. Often we make mistakes because we (our System 2) do not know any better. […]

System 1 indeed is the origin of much that we do wrong, but it also the origin of most of what we do right – which is most of what we do. Our thoughts and actions are routinely guided by System 1 and generally are on the mark. One of the marvels is the rich and detailed model of our world that is maintained in associative memory: it distinguishes surprising from normal events in a fraction of a second, immediately generates an idea of what was expected instead of a surprise, and automatically searches for some causal interpretation of surprises and of events as they take place.

Two other metaphor pairs are used in the book. Econs and Humans are used to illustrate the many ways people do not act perfectly rationally.

“The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change.”

To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable. […]

Unlike Econs, the Humans that psychologists know have a System 1. Their view of the world is limited by the information that is available at a given moment (What You See is All There Is), and therefore they cannot be as consistent and logical as Econs. They are sometimes generous and often willing to contribute to the group to which they are attached. And they often have little idea of what they will like next year or even tomorrow.

The last is the conflict that can arise between our remembering self and our experiencing self.

The possibility of conflicts between the remembering self and the interests of the experiencing self turned out to be a harder problem than I initially thought. In an early experiment, the cold-hand study, the combination of duration neglect and the peak-end rule led to choices that were manifestly absurd. Why would people willingly expose themselves to unnecessary pain? Our subjects left the choice to their remembering self- preferring to repeat the trial that left the better memory, although it involved more pain. […]

The rules that govern the evalutation of the past are poor guides for decision making, because time does matter. The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource, but the remembering self ignores that reality.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is really comprehensive, and at times it can be a slow read. If you are interesting in your own mind, it is more than worth it.


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