Saturday, July 28, 2012
Thinking Fast and Slow
Quite a few books have appeared recently examining the relative merits of rational and “gut” thinking, notably Mathew Gladwell’s Blink and Daniel Kahneman’s now-popular Thinking Fast and Slow.
I’m not sure that many people are aware (though the authors mentioned above probably are) that the distinctions explored in the pages of these books, with copious research results to back them up, stand in a long line of such analysis stretching back to ancient times.
Since Plato’s day philosophers have distinguished between intuitive and analytic thought, casting it in various guises, weighing the merits of each and the relationships between the two. Aristotle distinguished between several types of thinking, including know-how, practical calculation, and speculative theory; and the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume suggested that reason by itself is inert, merely serving as an aid in guiding the passions toward their objectives.
Daniel Kahneman’s recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, seeks to upend the position, long held by economists, that when people make decisions they seek to “maximize utility.” He suggests that the path people commonly take to the decisions they make is a lot more irrational than that.
It might be worth pointing out here that such a scheme presumes that utility is the only thing worth seeking in life—any other objective must therefore be considered “irrational.” This assumption is hardly tenable. It would be a mistake, for example, to describe it as “irrational” when a woman lights a cigar with a twenty dollar bill. We have no way of measuring the value of the pleasure she experiences by that act. She might have done it before and concluded that given her financial situation, the benefit was well worth the expense. In any case, there is nothing intrinsically “irrational” about it.
Among the things other than utility that drive our actions we ought to include beauty, pleasure, honor, shame, duty, curiosity, love, charity, adrenaline, and fear. These are a few of the passions Hume was talking about. It seems to me that utility would be found somewhere near the bottom of any such list. But that’s just me.
Meanwhile, few, even in the halls of academia, have ever believed in the “maximize utility” theory, I suspect. Economists have held to the doctrine, not because they thought it was true, but because to do otherwise would have deprived them of quantifiable objectives and rendered their mathematical models worthless. And that would have threatened their livelihoods—and also their self-esteem.
I haven’t read Kahneman’s book—it’s far too long, and even brief reviews, without meaning to, expose errors in thinking that an unkind critic might describe as juvenile. Chief among these is the tendency to equate “useful” with “rational” and “rational” with good, all other objectives and modes of thought being construed as forms of “error” and “mistake.”
We might shed some light on this issue, I think, by setting rationality in opposition to three different alternative “modes” of thought—the irrational, the instinctive, and the intuitive.
Everyone knows what irrational behavior is. If you start doing cartwheels in church or taking off your pants at the baseball game, the men in the white suits will soon be on the way.
We do lots of things instinctively, without really thinking about them. Habits might also fall into this category. Our autonomic nervous system ought also to be included. For example, we don’t have to ponder the choice, Hamlet-like—“to breathe, or not to breathe”—before every breath we take. Yet no one would argue that breathing is “irrational.”
Intuition is the most interesting of the three alternatives to rationality mentioned above. An intuition is a flash of insight, on the order of “Boy, it’s a beautiful morning,” or “If I simply removed that drain pipe over the screen door, the problem would be solved.” Intuitions can be practical, but the most interesting and valuable ones are often aesthetic. Intuitions, like instincts, come out of nowhere, but unlike instincts, which tend to be sub-conscious and repetitive, like reflexes, intuitions bring new concepts, combinations, and judgments to consciousness and to life.
It would be possible for a student of music to study Bach’s Art of Fugue for months, for example, drawing out every relationship and nuance, without ever really “hearing” the music. We understand musical relationships only in the act of hearing and appreciating them. The act is intuitive.
The fanciful metaphors we meet up with in poetry, and even the weighty judgments of historians, are rooted in intuition.
Kahneman does follow in the footsteps of tradition in positing two quite different ways we approach experience. He calls them, rather unimaginatively, System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is fast and intuitive. It uses association and metaphor to draw a quick sketch of a given event or situation. System 2 is the process by which we analyze our intuitions to arrive at a rational plan of action. System 2 is plodding, analytical, and deliberate.
But according to Kahneman, System 2 tends toward laziness. It tires easily, and often ends by acquiescing to the brisk but unreliable vision of System 1 without scrutinizing it much. (I might also add, though I don’t know if Kahnemen does, that System 2 often draws its “reasons” from social convention, rather than from its own insights and intuitions.)
“Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is,” Kahneman writes, “the automatic System 1 is the hero of this book.”
Well, does it really take 500 pages to say, “Trust your intuition”? The real message might, perhaps, be more along these lines: Try to be clear about what the intuitions and desires are that underlie your actions, and also scrutinize the chains of reasoning that guide the means you adopt to satisfy those desires.
As an aside, let me add that to a large degree, our intuitions and insights are both pleasurable and valuable in themselves. "Rational thought" is not required to draw nourishment from them.
Kahneman enters into an unusually egregious line of reasoning himself when he introduces the “Linda” experiment. Participants were introduced to an imaginary woman named Linda, who is very bright and deeply concerned with social justice issues. The participants were then asked which was more probable: (1) Linda is a bank teller. Or (2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. Most participants chose the second alternative, though it happens to be a subset of the first, and would therefore ipso facto be less probable.
Kahneman considers this a case of lazy System 2 thinking, in which the listener follows the logic of a coherent narrative rather than sticking to the logic of the facts. That isn’t true. Listeners who chose option 2 actually did more work that necessary to answer the question, presuming that because they’d been informed of the woman’s background, that information would be relevant to the question; they also reasoned that because both options involved bank tellers, the distinction being made was between bank tellers who weren’t feminists and those who were.
In effect, the participants were being tricked by their interlocutors through the inclusion of irrelevant information. This has nothing to do with system thinking, and everything to do with widely-held assumptions about honesty, truthfulness, and trust. Academic logicians may chuckle with glee at the results produced by such faux-problems, but I suspect a judge in a court of law would look at the matter in a different and more complex light.
On the other hand, there is truth to Kahneman’s suggestion that we’re often misled by false assumptions, often fed to us by advertisers…and economists. One of the worst in recent times has been the notion that paying interest is good—because you can deduct it from your taxes!
Among the cognitive “biases” Kahneman examines is a deeply rooted optimism that drives many people to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the cost of things. He reports that Americans who remodel their kitchens end up spending more than twice as much, on average, as they originally intended.
Once again, I believe we may have wandered into the realm of honesty, truthfulness, and trust, this time with regard to contractors. Yet I hardly think optimism can be considered a bias in any case. Rather, it’s a tendency to forge ahead, prepared to face whatever consequences may ensue without necessarily assuming the worst from the get go. It might even be argued that “optimism” is a shallow concept devised by ostensibly clever people who are cowardly by nature and have never really learned how to live.
Kahneman has some interesting things to say about happiness—once again, ala Hume, a quality or feeling toward which we often bend all the reasoning powers at our disposal. Recent studies have revealed that the way we remember events is more important than how we experience them, and that the intensity of happy times counts for more, in retrospect, than its duration.
I have experienced a good deal of happiness of late, not reading Kahneman’s book. When I consider lifetimes of scientific endeavor spent trying to “discover” reasons and proofs in the lab for things that are intuitively obvious to most thinking adults, I often think of Moliere.
Don’t ask me why. I’d just make up some reason.