Our 2 ways of thinking: Fast and Slow

From Jim Holt review  in The New York Times. Illustration by David Plunkert.

From Jim Holt review in The New York Times. Illustration by David Plunkert.

I just came back from holidays, and I want to share with you my last reading: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by David Kahneman.  He describes our mind as having 2 different ways of functioning: a fast one, based on our ‘intuition’ and a slower one, where we have to do the effort of reasoning.

  • The fast one is the intuitive way, used on everyday tasks, and is also called by the psychologists our ‘unconscious mind’.  It is based on the inputs of our senses (hearing, sight, smell..). They trigger a search in our memory and bring through associations a representation of our situation and an immediate response to it.
  • The slower functioning way is when we focus our attention on the inputs at hand, and we follow a line of reasoning based on our knowledge to come to a conclusion.  This method requires more energy, we must direct our attention to each piece of information, and as we evaluate things sequentially (one thing after the other) it is slower.

As our body is lazy by nature, this second ‘slow’ way of reasoning is only used if needed, that is if the situation requires our ‘special attention’.  It is a great thing that our faster and energy-saving functioning way is our ‘default’…except for the fact that David Kahneman points out very interesting experiences that show the pitfalls of our intuition!

One great example he presents is the ambiguity resolution that goes behind our knowledge: when a sentence or image could be interpreted in different ways, our ‘fast mind’ resolves the ambiguity with the most recent context, which is good in many situations.  The problem is that it doesn’t even let us know that there was another interpretation at all!  We are not aware that our mind took only one of the possible alternatives. And moreover, it takes the easiest available memory to give sense to the world as we sense it.  So recent events that are more vivid on our memory have a greater impact on our interpretation of the world.  This is called the ‘availability bias’.

 Not only our memories play us games, but our whole body is linked to our intuitive way of functioning.  He mentions an experiment they performed in the United States where they asked the participants to look at photos and words related with elderly, then they asked them to move to another room, and that was the aim of the experience: they measured the time it took them to walk from their actual location to the other one.  They realized that the participants that have been shown pictures related to elderly were slower than the others, like if our body was related to what we have been thinking.  This is called the ‘priming’ effect.


And what may seem more surprising, this body-mind link works also the other way around: people requested to hold a pencil on their mouth had their mood adapted to the grimace they have been forced into.  Here is the details of the experiment: some participants were requested to hold the pencil by the middle of it, so having on one side of the mouth the point and on the other the eraser, some others were requested to hold the pencil putting their lips around the eraser end.  Then the 2 groups have been presented with the same cartoon images, and the first group found it on average  more funnier that the second group.  The first group seemed on a happier mood as if they have been smiling.  The second group were less positive after they have been forced on frowning before looking at it.

The conclusion is that we have to be really careful with our  mind’s evaluation of a situation if we have left it to our unconscious or intuitive mind.  It is biased by design!  The more aware we are about those biases, the better we are to counter them.

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