Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986.

David Harris, President of Insight & Measurement, LLC, says the hot topic among researchers and marketers is System 1 thinking, as written about in Kahneman and Tversky’s 2011 bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow. Harris and I agree that many who claim to understand System 1 thinking (Thinking Fast) get the general idea. But the deeper meanings most don’t get are how our very human errors of judgment, illogical thinking, lack of effort, and jumping to conclusions come about. There is also a confusion between being a fast thinker (usually considered to be a good thing) and Thinking Fast (often a bad thing.)

Please note this discussion is about System 1 thinking only as it applies to decisions we make about important issues, not those we make at the Original or Extra Crispy level.

Those who claim to “get it” are unlikely to be fully grounded in the details. This is because most of us are System 1 Thinkers, and so we react quickly, automatically, and emotionally. Facts and important details are bothersome things.

So What Is System 2 Thinking?

System 2 thinking takes a lot effort, is more deliberate, and requires intellectual discipline. These things make it slower, of course. System 1 thinking requires little or no effort and reaches conclusions as quickly as possible. Which way do you think appeals to most people?

A simple comparison of the two processes is the game of Twenty Questions. System 1 thinkers who blurt out random guesses (Marilyn Monroe! Lionel Messi! Snoop Dogg!) will occasionally win. This is a poor strategy, though, so they are usually very bad at the game. System 2 thinkers who ask winnowing and excluding questions (are you alive, are you in show business, etc.) will get the answer far more often, but only by patiently and methodically asking intelligent questions.

The Illusion Of Understanding.

System 1 thinking is the illusion of understanding, described as WYSIATI, or What You See Is All There Is. System 1 does not want to gather objective information and assess it analytically. It wants to act upon what we already know, which is typically constrained and often inaccurate. System 1 thinking jumps to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence. Some find it quite disturbing that the less information we have, the more certain we are that our view is the “right” one. This method produces negative biases, stereotyping, ethnocentrism, racism, and other bad things. System 1 excels at creating a story that fits our limited facts. This means it does not and cannot allow for information it does not have. Nor does it think it needs any.

Ignorance Is Bliss.

People who see only one-sided “evidence” are more confident in their judgments than people who see two or more sides to a story. WSJ readers will form one opinion on a topic, and NYT readers another. Their conclusions will reflect what is generally described as either a conservative or a liberal point of view. Only a few people bother to investigate multiple sources that take a variety of positions before making up their minds. This is System 2 thinking. It is the consistency of the information that matters for a System 1 story, not the completeness or providing a balanced outlook. The less we know, the easier it is for us to fit things into a simple narrative, and there are plenty of those going around.

What You See Is All There Is. Please don’t confuse this with the computer acronym WYSIWYG. For the Soul Train version of WYSIWYG, click here for the 1971 video by the Dynamics.

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