What You See Is All There Is

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April 29, 2016

By Joel Kreisberg, DC, ACC

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Ever wonder why some people are so good at selling? Or why politicians have such an easy time seeing the truth of their own argument?  Turns out that it’s in the way our minds work – it’s much easier for us to think a certain way, so we do.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offers a strong, compelling and well researched description of just how our minds default to an easy way of thinking.  For coaches and healers, this “meta-cognitive” theory is a must for better helping clients and patients.

As the title suggests, Kahneman presents a model of two types of thinking, System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypical and largely unconscious.  System 2 is slow, logical, calculating, conscious and basically requires effort.  If you want to call up System 2, try solving this problem quickly – 23 x 74, without paper or calculator.  Notice how much mental effort it takes.  Kahneman fills a whole book with the subtleties as well as concrete distinctions between the two systems.  If you are like me, or you work with people, or you’re a parent, or an activist you’ll certainly find the value for learning about System 1 and System 2.

In the unlikely event of this book being made into a film, System 2 would be the supporting character who believes herself to be the hero. The defining feature of System 2, in this story, is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary.  As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure at the center of the story, System 1.”

– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Turns out System 2 is lazy, meaning that unless we stop and really think, we’ll rely on our instinctive System 1.  What this translates into is that rather than listening to the full story, assessing the details and thinking about what is really going on, we’ll simply make an easy association and accept this as truth.  Kahneman calls this substitution and it goes like this:  I meet Sally at a party, we have a great time chatting, she’s warm, easygoing, and I feel as though we could be friends.  The next day, I’m at a meeting at my synagogue and we are looking to raise money (or to run a committee) and someone suggests Sally. I agree that she would be a fine donor or a fine committee leader. Why? Here is where the substitution comes in: because I liked her in my conversation.  In reality, I have no idea if she is generous, good at getting people to give, or knows how to run a committee.  I simply substitute what I know for what I might have to find out with a bit more work.  This comes into play quite frequently with politicians – they rely on their gut feelings rather than on the evidence.

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Basically, we are really good at jumping to conclusions.  This shows up when we have to judge moral situations.  Studies show that if only one side of an issue is presented, we are more likely to believe that is the real story (advertising works on this principle). Kahneman presents research that suggests that it’s not the quantity or quality of the evidence that supports the story, but rather, it’s the quality or coherence of the argument.  Is there evidence missing? We won’t even notice.  Our associative system settles for coherent patterns and basically suppresses doubt and ambiguity.

System 1 is gullible and biased toward belief; System 2 is in charge of doubting.  Too bad System 2 is lazy and gets busy or tired.  This also shows up as the Halo effect – once I have a positive experience with something or someone, I’m more likely to assume that is the norm, disregarding negative experiences or making excuses for irregularities.  Unless we actively choose to engage System 2, System 1 will default.

Daniel Kahneman’s 500-page book on cognitive science offers a perspective that seems to be irreducible to any other psychological or sociological theory of the mind.   It’s easy to read and full of accessible examples and perspectives that show up in our own thinking as well as in the thinking of those with whom we interact. If “what you see is all there is,” I would recommend seeing Thinking, Fast and Slow. You’ll learn just how much there really is to see.

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