At the university library’s cafe, I sat sipping on Earl Grey tea whilst being entertained by some casual gossip from the neighboring table. The dialogue was too enticing not to share, so here’s my best attempt at its recreation:
Female Student A: “Hey Stacy! How was your lecture today?”
Stacy: “It was fine, but could’ve been better. Jill’s System 1 got the best of her today. I understand being cognitively busy, especially while listening to our Statistics lecturer, but her superficial judgments of others after class just proves her lack of self-control.”
Female Student A: “Maybe she’s just tired because otherwise it seems like her System 2 is weak.”
I did my best not to gasp aloud. If only Jill could hear what they were saying! But what exactly were they saying? For Daniel Kahneman –Nobel economics laureate, father of behavioural economics, and Israeli-American psychologist– the above conversation would be the norm in his Utopia of intelligent gossip. His international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, intends to provide us non-specialist gossipers with a richer, more precise vocabulary. Intelligent gossip would bring a more sophisticated approach to human behaviour and thought as well as an ability to identify and understand errors of judgment. It would also simply make for more lively, educated conversations (like the one above, of course). Kahneman’s intellectual memoir encapsulates fifty years of collaborative research with the late Israeli psychologist, Amos Tversky. Of his time spent researching with Tversky, Kahneman wrote, “it is much easier to strive for perfection when you are never bored.” Together they not only established the foundation for a basic language on meta-thinking, but also instigated a cultural shift on human nature.
What’s an engaging narrative on the machinery of the mind without a protagonist…or two? Not Kahneman’s book, that’s what. Instead of writing an insipid, melatonin-like tome (which he could have easily done), Kahneman jazzed it up with a tortoise and hare-type situation to make the topic more understandable and interactive. He uses the fictitious characters, System 1 and System 2, to represent fast and slow thinking respectively. This, of course, is not to say the read isn’t at all tedious. It’s a slow, insightful read that is kept entertaining with these character-types and various explained experiments. So, here are the basic characteristics of each previously-mentioned system of our “dual process” brains:
System 1 is the hare. It is the fast, intuitive, effortless part of the thought process. It is what causes you to swerve when driving and to fill in “bread and –––” without a moment’s hesitation. System 1 is automatic and taps into associative memory, e.g. what’s the capital of France? This should be an unconsciously reasoned response– effortless and automatic.
System 2, as you may have guessed, is the tortoise. It is slow, deliberate, and calculating. Embodying our conscious reasoning, System 2 kicks into gear when we are faced with multiplication problems such as 78 x 24 (when no calculator is nearby, of course). System 2 overrides System 1’s initial immediate responses, but unfortunately System 2 tends to be lazy. Here’s an example taken from Thinking, Fast and Slow:
A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
The first number that came to your mind was an intuitive response of $0.10; however, at a second glance System 2 would recognise that answer as illogical. If the ball cost $0.10, then the total cost would be $1.20. So, with a bit of slow calculation, System 2 conclude the ball actually would cost $0.05.
As seen with Jill in the previous dialogue, her System 2 gave way to what is known as “cognitive busyness”. Which states that System 1 has more influence over behaviour when System 2 is busy. Jill’s careless, judgmental remarks after the System 2-intense lecture are easily explained. Self-control requires attention and effort, but after the said strenuous Statistics lecture, her self-control was depleted. This allows for selfish choices and superficial judgments. Her friends recognised Jill’s thought process, and will probably forgive her for a weak System 2 moment.
Kahneman and Tversky focused their research primarily on cognitive biases, fallacies and illusions; however, Kahneman steers clear of declaring humans as fundamentally irrational beings. Humans are assumed to be rational, having control over important parts of our thought processes. However, when we depart from reasoning, we tend to blame our distorted judgments on passions i.e. fear and love. Kahneman’s research has built a framework for how and why the mind reasons as it does by cataloging people’s systematic mistakes and nonlogical patterns. He explains why we tend to believe sentences more if they are typed in boldface, and why the best time to be pardoned by a judge is after his or her mealtime. His research helps in recognising and potentially overcoming common cognitive biases.
A predictable way errors of judgment occur is through the “planning fallacy”. This occurs when you exaggerate your own abilities and, failing to think realistically, underestimate how long it would take to complete a task. As a student, I have done and continue to fall victim to the “planning fallacy” throughout the academic year. I assume I can finish an essay in a week’s time; but in actuality, it takes two week to complete. We have all done this at some point, but why do we continue? One explanation for the fallacy is the “optimism bias” which means we don’t think of the negative. In an essay-writing situation, I don’t think of any setbacks that could delay the process. Sickness, bad weather, writer’s block is not taken into account when I optimistically state my essay will be completed in seven days’ time.
As for optimism, after Tversky’s death, Kahneman began to focus his research on “hedonic psychology”, or the science of happiness. Happiness is based on a relationship between our “experiencing self” and our “remembering self”. When someone asks you, “Are you happy?” your experiencing self (the mood you are in presently) would have a different response than your remembering self (the self that measures life satisfaction based on goal accomplishments). Kahneman thinks overall people have a tendency to neglect the experiencing self. For example, a man listened to an entire vinyl record, enjoying the sounds of a beautifully orchestrated symphony. Unfortunately, the hour spent listening to pleasant music was ruined by a loud scratch at its finale. Instead of remembering the music before the scratch, the man focused on the scratch and consequently did not enjoy his listening experience. However, it wasn’t the man’s experience that suffered, but his memory of the experience.
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it,” states happiness’ “focusing illusion”. For example, after high school you moved out of town for university. Months leading up to the move, you fantasized about the life change, exaggerating the effect this change will have on your happiness. Once you’ve moved and the newness wore off, it wasn’t want you once pictured. This is illusion is common of many young adults, myself included, as we experience life-changing events and begin to settle into a career path.
On a recent Trans-Atlantic flight I was fortunate enough to be sat next to a 60-something museum registrar. Between meals and necessary film viewing, we discussed many aspects of our lives, finding that the commonalities of the human experience filled our forty-year age gap. However, one specific aspect of my experience differed from his: my misery. I asked him, “So this miserable indecisiveness ends soon, right?” He laughed almost too long and answered, “You’re twenty-two. You’re supposed to be miserable.” Almost ending there, he remembered to add a reassuring, “And yes, it’ll get better.”
This anecdote leads me to the title of my article and quasi-bold claim that universities should take responsibility and dole out copies of Kahneman’s book to every incoming undergraduate. Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Melinda Beck titled “Delayed Development: 20-Somethings Blame the Brain” that bolsters my claim.
During the ages of 18 and 29, the prefrontal cortex –the brain’s region that is primarily responsible for planning, prioritising and controlling impulses– is still maturing, and is one of the last regions to do so. This helps explain why life during this time is normally unstable. We, us 20-somethings, have yet to reach full cerebral development, but this does not slow down the societal pressures to make crucial life decisions i.e. university admissions, career decisions, romantic relationship commitments. It comes as no surprise then that rates of depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues are higher during this particular age range than any other, that is, except for 80-somethings.
Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health stated, “It’s a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time for self-discovery.” Because of the current unemployment rate and general economic situation, many 20-somethings are taking this as an opportunity to slow down and not hurriedly tick off boxes next to their life’s to-do list. This, in turn, allows for the prefrontal cortex to catch up, leading to overall better life decisions.
By our late twenties, “there’s a better communication between parts of the brain that process emotions and social information –like what people think of you– and the parts that are important for planning ahead and balancing risk and reward.”
But during the time of “emerging adulthood”, while we are suffering from depressed and anxiety-ridden states, an explanation for why we think the way we do would be beneficial. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow cannot change the way we think, but it would change how we think about our thoughts.
This was made evident on Penguin Book’s Youtube Channel. There is a Question & Answer session with Daniel Kahneman and twenty students from Highbury Grove School and Central Foundation Boys School. Unsurprisingly, the teen students’ questions were mainly focused on happiness and the experiencing and remembering selves. System 1 and 2 were briefly mentioned by Kahneman and economic topics like Prospect Theory were avoided altogether. This only means the Q&A session’s time was well spent. The questions asked clarifies the need to understand this “misery”.
With Kahneman’s explanation of happiness’ selves and biases, students can identify their thoughts amongst more precise vocabulary and understand their journey from adolescence to adulthood. This meta-thinking understanding would be a benefit not only to the students, but to the universities themselves. Passing out Thinking, Fast and Slow is giving your students the tools to intelligently discuss and understand their developing minds whilst grasping the fundamental ideas of ‘hedonic psychology’. But most importantly, petty classroom gossip could potentially have educating qualities. I think that aspect alone could persuade universities to further educate their students’ meta-thoughts via Daniel Kahneman’s delightfully insightful memoir:Thinking, Fast and Slow.