Thinking and Apocalypse: Heuristic (Shorthand) Thinking vs. Critical Thinking. Should We Be Optimistic About Our Future?

Given the paucity of sustained critical thinking in our culture, science writer K. C. Cole reflects on our prospects for collective survival in a recent (and I think important) review at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

No one in their right mind would deliberately create the means of their own extinction, but that’s what we seem to be doing. The only conclusion is that we’re not in our right minds — which appears to be true. The two books considered in this review may not have an obvious relationship. Fred Guterl’s The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, tells a compelling if disturbing narrative of what went wrong, with great stories, clear explanations and just enough optimism to think we might make it after all. But his book, by design I think, doesn’t deal with the biggest danger of all: the very nature of human thought. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow deals with the very nature of thought, and it just may be the most important book I’ve read in many years. Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, offers potential solutions that actually might work. In tandem, the books provide a useful map of where the dragons lie (almost everywhere, alas) and also potential paths to safety.

In reviewing these two books, Cole’s thesis is that habits of thought determine humanity’s course through history, and that course repeatedly forks at emotional (shorthand; subjective) thinking vs. critical (slow; objective) thinking:

Kahneman’s [...] insights about how we think probably offer the only real way out of the mess we’ve created. [...] Kahneman offers real solutions, including new ways for us to talk to each other, which are so desperately needed in a time when rant and deception seem to be the major coin of public discourse.

And what are Khaneman’s solutions? They are based, first of all, on our becoming collectively aware of what he calls System 1 thinking (heuristic, shorthand thinking) and System 2 thinking (critical thinking):

Described by Steven Pinker as one of the most influential psychologists in history, [Kahneman] is also a founder, along with his late collaborator Amos Tversky, of behavioral economics. In his book, Kahneman covers decades of research, much of it his own, in a charming, kindly and mostly accessible manner. In one sense, there’s nothing new here: psychologists, economists and neuroscientists have long known that we don’t behave like the rational actors we believe ourselves to be. Most of the time, our conscious mind doesn’t have a clue as to why we do things — though it’s very good at making up stories after the fact that explain (and excuse) almost any behavior.

What’s new is the growing scientific understanding of the oft-tortured relationship between the older parts of our brains and the complex societies created by the newer parts. Scientists used to think that it was emotion that clouded rational thinking. Now we know that emotion is essential to thinking. Our errors are based not on irrationality but on the very “design of the machinery of cognition,” he writes.

Essentially, we have two different thought systems that work very differently, and Kahneman refers to them throughout the book as characters he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a marvel honed by millions of years of evolution that runs on automatic (and can’t be turned off). It’s a virtuoso at jumping to (usually correct) conclusions on the basis of very little information. A master at coming up with shortcuts (heuristics) that usually work, we couldn’t get through a minute of our day without it. As Kahneman points out, most of what we know about System 1 would have “seemed like science fiction” 30 or 40 years ago. Unfortunately, System 1 can’t be reflective. It can’t know what it doesn’t know, but it always knows that it’s right. And because it works so much faster and more smoothly than System 2, it almost always overrules our more rational selves.

As compared with System 1, System 2 is a bit of a clunker:

System 2 is generally clueless about System 1’s flaws. It’s too slow and inefficient to handle immediate matters; it consumes huge amounts of energy, takes effort and time, and requires a great deal of self-control. Since “laziness is built deep into our nature,” we mostly glide along on System 1. System 2 is supposed to be the overseer, the skeptic, the doubter, but it’s often busy and tired and defers to System 1, which is gullible and biased. In fact, System 2 is often an apologist for System 1. “Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs,” Kahneman explains.

In other words, critical thinking requires that we slow down (hence the title of Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow) and bring our attention into sustained and open-minded focus on a matter. But slowing down, focusing, and being open-minded are difficult. Yet here’s an example of what happens when we avoid the difficulty:

[I]f we believe something is true, we also believe just about any argument that could support it, no matter how fragile. This makes us supremely overconfident. In fact, people who hear only one side of an argument are even more confident than those who hear two. Hearing just one side makes it easier to create a sensible story on little information, because there are fewer pieces to the puzzle. Experts can be the worst, because people with the most knowledge often develop both unrealistic illusions about their own skills and the predictability of our world.

This is a startling passage in Cole’s review. I especially latch my own attention to: (1) the power of narrative–the way we create “a sensible story on little information”; and (2) how we overestimate our own powers of intelligence and prediction.

I also think of the ancient Greeks here. They knew both of these very human tendencies as myth-making and hubris. Having integrated into their worldview the idea that we live in the fog of situations, they maintained a famously tragic perspective on human existence. (If I were adding something to read to the two books recommended by Cole, I’d suggest the ancient Greek tragedies.)

Here are some more of Khaneman’s insights (as summarized by Cole):

System 1 is almost always in charge, often up to mischief, and entirely beneath our “rational” radar. Repeat any lie often enough, and people will believe it. Words such as “war” and “crime,” because they represent immediate threats, attract more attention — and do it faster — than words like “peace” and “love.” Mention words relating to old people to young students, and they start walking more slowly (the Florida effect). Think about money and you become more selfish and reluctant to get involved with others.

Many of these glitches in rationality have serious consequences. For example: when we let loud, authoritative voices, even when they’re wrong, dominate discussions. Or when we make heroes of people who may have simply been lucky and are in fact stupid — what Kahneman calls the “halo effect.” Or “outcome bias,” when we blame people for good decisions that turned out badly due to unforeseen circumstances.

As a practical matter, what can we do about any of this? Here’s Cole on specific suggestions from Khaneman:

Kahneman demonstrates ways to blunt System 1’s antics by adopting a new vocabulary, and using it in everyday conversations — say, over the “water cooler,” as he puts it. Some examples: “All she is going by is the halo effect from a good presentation.” Or: “Let’s not fall for outcome bias. This was a stupid decision even though it worked out well.” Or: “This was a pure System 1 response. She reacted to the threat before she recognized it.” “Slow down and let your System 2 take control.”

And from Cole herself, here are some other ways one might tap the brakes on System 1 habits of thinking:

[C]ut multitasking to a bare minimum. Spend more time staring into space. Walk, bike, or hike without headphones, so you can hear yourself think. Disallow news crawls during presidential debates. Cut way back on homework so students have time to actually reflect, and create assignments that demand every ounce of creativity. Ban timed tests. Ban high frequency stock trades. Reward failure. Dance. Hug. Put down the cell phone and look the bank teller, the grocery clerk, your dinner companion, in the eye.

In other words, people need to rediscover attention, solitude, and silence; be trained in critical thinking; adopt a shared critical vocabulary surrounding it; and practice it (so that it becomes habitual). But the broad cultural impediments to cultivating these things seem daunting–from laziness, to fundamentalist home schooling, to thirty-second political ads, to postmodern suspicion of overarching discourses. Cole and Khaneman thus seem to be proposing a path for humanity that even Sisyphus might balk at, akin to driving, not just a rock, but a whole river uphill.

But if our habits of thinking determine our destiny, what else can we do but try to move, against grave and persistent opposition, ever more in the direction of critical thinking?

I wonder what Nietzsche would have made of Cole’s review. I’m thinking specifically of a passage in The Gay Science in which Nietzsche writes that the conflict between instinct and empirical reasoning represents:

[...] two lives, two powers, both in the same human being. A thinker is now that being in whom the impulse to truth and those life-preserving errors clash [...] Compared to the significance of this fight, everything else is a matter of indifference [...]

In the same book, Nietzsche calls this tension between our anciently evolved instincts and our recently evolved powers for acquiring knowledge, nature’s great experiment:

To what extent can truth endure incorporation [with instinctual drives]? That is the question; that is the experiment.

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche also writes this:

[M]an was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced–that change which occurred when he found himself enclosed within the walls of society and peace. [...] In this new world [men] no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect, these unfortunate creatures; they were reduced to their ‘consciousness,’ their weakest and most fallible organ!

Curiously, though Nietzsche is generally contemptuous of the empirical enterprise as such, his Übermensch (superman) possesses the very temperamental qualities that also make for a good critical thinker. The Übermensch, though willing to passionately enter the realm of contentious debate and conflict, is nevertheless self-controlled, responsible, and capable of synthesizing disorderly drives to a chosen direction. In Twilight of the Idols, he writes:

[W]hat is freedom? That one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself. That one maintains the distance which separates us. That one becomes more indifferent to difficulties, hardships, privation, even to life itself. [...]

Freedom, in other words, is not the freedom to simply go with the flow of your (often contradictory) instinctual drives. This would make you a slave to them. Instead, it is to conduct the flow to something you will. Two of the things you might will are to enter solitude more often and to think more critically. They are things a creative person might imagine moving toward in his or her will to power.

If history’s course, then, is actually in our hands, should this make us optimistic? Near the end of Cole’s review, she quotes Kahneman as writing the following:

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be.

But to go on living, it would seem, we need optimism. So maybe strictly objective critical thinking is not all we need after all. Maybe we also require some delusions in our lives to increase our chances that we’ll at least make efforts against unlikely odds. In this sense, natural selection certainly would have favored at least some delusive dispositions in our evolution. And this brings us back to Nietzsche’s great experiment: can knowledge “endure incorporation” with our instinctual drives?

Can it? Recall that Oedipus plucked out his eyes.


All Nietzsche quotes come from Richard Schacht’s study of Nietzsche titled Nietzsche (Routledge 1983, 1992).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Thinking and Apocalypse: Heuristic (Shorthand) Thinking vs. Critical Thinking. Should We Be Optimistic About Our Future?

  1. Alan says:

    Thank you for a most excellent system 2 review.

  2. Some balk at the idea of duality and yet man experiences this on a daily basis within himself!

  3. Barnum Bailey says:

    Informative post: It reminded me of David Suzuki’s take on the economy vs. environment debate.
    Economic growth is unquestionably good. There is no alternative to an eternal economic growth model and a model of economic growth that rarely asks people to pay the true cost of anything. Never stop and ask what such an approach means for the ecosystem that sustains our lives, what we’re gaining from the growth and whether it offsets what we may be losing and whether there might be alternative economic models. The model we have has given us prosperity so we must never question it.

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