Thinking Fast and Slow

      Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011)*

“Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobble stones. Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.”

--Simon and Garfunkel
“59th Street Bridge”

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a very important book about how we decide. But you probably wouldn’t read very far unless you’re an academic in the field. It’s like the transcript of an amiable rambling monologue delivered over multiple coffee breaks in the faculty lounge.

Pity, because we who decide and we who counsel decision makers really need to understand what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is saying. I read the entire book (struggling sometimes) because my work is helping families make decisions about money, inheritance or business. Below I have tried to reframe some of Kahneman’s major ideas, adding some of my own counterpoint in italics.

Part I: Meet FAST and SLOW, ready or not.

1. Our brain architecture contains two thinking systems: FAST and SLOW.

Our brains have evolved very little since our remote ancestors lived in caves. Some brain mechanisms that helped them survive don’t seem to fit our modern circumstances e.g. the urge to eat all we can when food is plentiful. It’s important to understand how these lingering brain mechanisms function and how we can best cope with them. Kahneman explains how brain system FAST and brain system SLOW-- once life or death for cave-dwellers-- continue to influence our decision-making.

2. FAST operates automatically and quickly with little or no effort. FAST is the secret author of many of our judgments and choices. Too fast to think things through, too fast to weigh alternatives or consequences.

3. FAST is impulsive, intuitive and pre-programmed with our biases and unconscious rules of thumb that may be wholly erroneous.

4. SLOW is more deliberate, rational and analytical. If we are consciously weighing our actions, SLOW is at work.

5. SLOW requires effort, but SLOW is lazy. Lazy SLOW is prone to defer to FAST.

6. SLOW is the custodian both of our thoughtfulness and our self-control. Unfortunately, FAST can fire off without SLOW’s awareness.

7. SLOW contains our subjective experience, tells us how the world is.

8. Sometimes SLOW can reprogram FAST's automatic functions and reorient FAST's attention. Too often, however, lazy SLOW just looks the other way.

9. FAST takes over in emergencies and assigns all priorities to self-protection. FAST instantly interprets events around us: as familiar or surprising, as easy or strained, as safe or dangerous, mostly without our conscious awareness. FAST is a cave-dweller’s elemental survival mechanism trying to cope in a primitive environment.

10. FAST can't multitask. Nor can SLOW (nor you or I multitask consistently and successfully).

11. SLOW needs time to sort things out. SLOW strolls. A fast- paced world assumes that fast is smart while slow is not smart. A New Yorker may lose patience with a drawling Southerner who is letting SLOW do its work. The Southerner may mistrust a raging FAST.

12. Yet most of what we think and do – New Yorkers and Southerners -- originates in FAST.

13. If FAST runs into difficulty -- lacks and answer or the situation violates FAST’s model of the world -- it consults SLOW. If approved by SLOW, FAST's impressions and intuitions may become reprogrammed beliefs. One hopes that education, parenting, institutions, indeed civilization itself, all support SLOW’s ongoing reprogramming efforts.

14. Though SLOW also monitors our behavior, SLOW is much too plodding and too inefficient to make routine decisions.

15. In some situations FAST can be programmed by SLOW to mobilize attention when a particular pattern is detected, leading FAST to execute skilled responses and generate skilled intuitions.

16. Over time and long experience, SLOW’s expert knowledge can inform FAST’s automatic responses – like a chess master who, while walking by a dozen matches in the park, automatically suggests strong moves to each player. Absent such hard won expertise, FAST may be woefully uninformed and unwittingly inept.

Above, I suggested that fast isn’t necessarily smart. The chess master has developed a smart FAST regarding chess moves, thanks to years of SLOW’s cultivating chess expertise. The chess master has not necessarily developed an expert FAST in other areas of living.

17. SLOW is susceptible to "priming" by words or events outside our level of awareness. Priming isn't destiny; priming simply influences the story SLOW tells us about the world. Repetitious product messages and political slogans are designed to influence SLOW’s initial susceptibility to their content. If SLOW is too lazy or distracted to weigh their merit, primed messages may creep into SLOW’s world view.

18. FAST incorporates SLOW’s model of the world.

19. FAST may refer an uncomfortable impression to SLOW for interpretation but with suggestions. Lazy SLOW too often adopts FAST’s suggestions without making the effort to engage its analytic mode.

20. FAST can respond to situations of which SLOW is unaware. Q: What was FAST thinking?! A: He wasn’t.

21. FAST is affected by our moods. If we feel good and have a sense of well-being FAST may cruise along independently. But if we are sad, vigilant, or suspicious FAST may defer to SLOW.

22. When stumped by a hard question FAST is prone to substitute an easier question, then proceed as though the answer to the easy question also answers the hard question. Frequent example: stumped by “What do I think about that?” FAST may substitute the easier question, “How I feel about that?”, then proceed to answer the original question with feeling instead of thinking.

23. FAST jumps to conclusions that are often incorrect.

     a. FAST generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations.

     b. FAST doesn't keep track of alternatives or even know that alternatives exist. FAST craves black or white; eschews all shades of gray. FAST demands certainty, is ambiguity averse.

     c. FAST can't cope with conscious doubt. FAST can't keep two incompatible interpretations in mind at the same time. FAST can't test a hypothesis.

     d. FAST is forever trying to convert correlation into causation. “When I was Speaker of the House gasoline was $2.50 per gallon.” When I was a teenager gasoline was sometimes 19 cents per gallon. But my adolescence had nothing to do with the price.

     e. FAST tends to like or dislike everything about a person -- the "halo effect". FAST can’t pass up a pedestal.

     f. FAST thrives on first impressions, especially when information is scarce. FAST is clueless about the reliability of paltry information. Unfortunately, the scarcer the information the more reliance FAST places upon it.

     g. Though prone to endorse them, SLOW can reset FAST’s expectations on the fly. Sometimes when FAST goes off half-cocked, SLOW gently releases the hammer.

     h. FAST’s jumping to conclusions is hazardous in unfamiliar situations, especially when the stakes are high, where intuitive errors are probable. Jumping errors might be prevented by SLOW’s intervention.

     i. FAST is gullible, uncritical, predisposed to view the situation in the best possible light: skepticism and doubt are SLOW’s domain. FAST’s game is the glad game. SLOW is the brakeman.

     j. FAST exaggerates the likelihood of extreme or improbable events. FAST intuits success and plunges on, undeterred by probabilities.

     k. FAST is inept when faced with “merely statistical” facts. FAST’s intuitive statistical guesses are usually far off the mark.

     l. FAST views the world as simpler than it is. FAST is a pattern seeker, a believer in a coherent world in which irregularities occur not by accident but as a result of mechanical causality or because of someone’s intention. If hurt by another’s behavior, FAST is certain that the hurt was intentionally inflicted and blames the other for it.

     m. FAST rejects the belief that much of what we see in life is random or pure luck. Luck and randomness don’t fit FAST’s pattern of a coherent world. Someone is responsible; someone is to blame. Someone should be rewarded or punished.

     n. When endorsed by SLOW, these observations become FAST’s beliefs, attitudes, and intentions that operate automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control.

Does FAST sound like someone else you know, someone who is impulsive, intuitive, biased beyond belief? Sorry, but FAST is you and me. Fortunately, our keeper-mentor SLOW isn’t altogether lazy. SLOW is also you and me.

Feelin’ groovy?

More next time about the roles FAST and SLOW play in business and economics.

Gerald Le Van
Chair – Family Wealth Mediation
Upchurch Watson White and Max

March 2012

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