Thinking, Fast and Slow. 4. The associative machine.

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

After some introductory chapters that were devoted mainly to get us introduced to the effortful workings of system 2, we begin now a journey to explore the secret world of system 1.

The chapter is very simple and powerful. It introduces us to the concept of mental associations and psychological priming through the presentation of a lot of studies that illustrate the different ways in what priming can work. It is relevant, however, to remind that priming is a disputed area full of suspicion of inaccurate research. From Wikipedia:

Although semantic, associative, and form priming are well established, some longer-term priming effects were not replicated in further studies, casting doubt on their effectiveness or even existence. Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman has called on priming researchers to check the robustness of their findings in an open letter to the community, claiming that priming has become a “poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research”. Other critics have asserted that priming studies suffer from major publication bias, experimenter effect and that criticism of the field is not dealt with constructively.

The chapter, when explaining association or priming, underlines the unconscious nature of much of what is going on. And has a very clear goal, to make us notice that most of our thoughts and choices are at least influenced by processes and mechanisms which are not only beyond our control but even our awareness.

In short, the kind of idea that you read, are shock at it, fascinated by it and then proceed immediately to forget because is so uncomfortable. I suspect that the whole book will be like this.

Thinking Fast and Slow Chapter 3: The Lazy Controller

Our system 2 tends to be a lazy guy. When prompted with an intuitive answer from system 1 to a problem, the default response from system 2 is to accept it.

In a series of relevant experiments, like stating how much a ball and a bat will cost if the bat cost 1 dollar more than the bat, and together they cost 1.10 dollars, we are shown how we tend to give the inuitive -and false- answer (the ball costs 10 cents) instead the right one (the ball costs 5 cents).
The main reason behind this situation is self control depletion. To pay attention implies some cognitive costs, and we need to exert our self control to keep ourselves focuses on a problem, instead of doing something else. But we seem to have only a certain amount of self control, and if it used in one task we won’t have any more energy to do the next task, as it is shown in several experiments, like the one in which the subjects have to resist the temptation to eat some delicious chocolate and then make a poorer performance solving a problem than the test group.
This seems to be literaly an energy problem as experiments have found a close correlation between lack of glucose and lack of self control.
One of these experiments turns out to be particularly gloomy. Judges that have to decide whether to give parole to a person in jail tend to give a lot more paroles after lunch, when their glucose levels were restored. It is not a beautiful picture for rationality to be shown how such an important thing as the freedom of a person depends on whether the judge has eaten lunch or not…

One can find in this chapter a very interesting discussion of what intelligence really entails, and Kahneman argues how besides our ability to make calculations and follow an argument, intelligence also implies the ability to bring to memory relevant data as well as the rationality to realize that an intuitive answer might be false and devote some cognitive effort to solve it properly.

To me the more relevant result of the chapter is this: when system 1 already considers that it has the right answer, it is very difficult to make the mandatory mental procedures to check whether this intuition is right or not. When we accept the conclusion as true, the argument turns out to be convicing even if it just a fallacy.

So far the content is convincing me. I have, however, one difficulty with the roses experiment:

All roses are flowers
Some flowers decay
ergo: some roses decay

This silogism is incorrect, and Kahneman presents the fact that most people will say it is true as an evidence of system 2 being lazy. I have to disagree in this case. In my opinion, the problem here is that our brains do not analyze logical problems using a formal system but a material one.
Let me revise briefly the famous experiment about formal conditionals. People were invited to solve the following problem:
There are three cards on a table: one depicts a circle, the second a square and the third a triangle. Next the following rule is presented:
If there is a circle in one side, then there will be a square in the other side
And subjects are invited to rise the minimum amount of cards necesary to check if the rule is true or not.
Everybody rises the card with the circle, which is correct, but most of them also rises the card with the square, which is not needed at all. Whether there is a circle or not the rule still holds. instead, very few people rises the triangle, which is mandatory. If there were a circle in the other side the rule would have been proved false.
However, if you do the experiment with meaingful objects and rules (like say, people keeping or not keeping a promise) almost everybody solves the problem.

So, my suspicion of how the roses experiment could be pointing to another direction. The reason we fail and see the silogism as correct is because we know that all flowers decay and roses decay as well, and we treat logic from a material point of view, and we see the argument as correct.

Thinking, Fast and Slow. 2. Attention and Effort.

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

After the first chapter, where we were introduced to the systems 1 and 2, the author goes on in his preliminary presentation of what will probably be the general concepts that will serve as the basis for explaining the origins of the biases of our thinking processes.

This chapter is centered around the idea that system 2 is fundamentally effortful. It illustrates it with the curious fact the our pupils dilate according to the mental effort of the task we at performing at the moment and shows several examples of effort consuming tasks that helps us to understand the point.

The mental resources available for the kind of mental activities of system 2 is limited. The mind has to choose when we are required to perform several tasks at the same time and this explains the “gorilla blindness” phenomenon. All this contrast with system 1 effortless, spontaneous way of processing information. The question is then, why do we have such an expensive system (2) if system one makes such a great job with much less cost?

The answer is that there are things that system 1 can’t do. The main functions of system 2 are associated with combining different kinds of informations and working with them together creating logical relationships among them. Another proposed function has to be with creating “task-sets” for system 1. It works as kind of control of system 1. Both activities seem highly coincident with what has been traditionally associated with the most defining human traits.

Thinking Fast and Slow. Chapter 1. The Characters of the Story

Following our Reading Calendar, here is a brief synopsis of Chapter 1.

In this chapter, Kahneman present us with the main theoretical model in which the whole theory of biases is built. The distinction between two main modes of reasoning: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is the fast system. The one that is automatic and always active. It is very fast, works in parallel and implies little or none conscious effort. It is the responsible of processes like viewing in perspective, recognize from where a sounds come from, automatic pattern recognition (like reading or recognizing an angry face) and  expert knowledge (like a chess master that looks at a chess board and automatically sees checkmate in two).

Most importantly, System 1 is involuntary and impossible to disconnect, to cancel it. As Kahneman clearly shows with the optical illusion example. When we look at the illusion we see that  the first line is shorter than the second one. When we measure the lines we will find out that they are exactly the same size, but we can’t help but seeing still the first line as shorter than the second.

System 2 is based on reasoning, deliberation, and it is serial, slow, and requires quite a lot of conscious effort, so it is  a lot easier to get distracted.  We use system 2 when solving a complex mathematical problem, writing this post, trying unfamiliar movements, like when first learning to drive a bicycle, or looking for something specific in a crowded environment.

System 2 needs System 1 to work properly. Without System 1 telling us about what is salient in our environment, it is difficult to get the info needed to solve a problem by deliberation. On the other side, System 1 -because it is fast and automatic, can work on its own.

So System 1 is continuously and effortlessly checking the terrain and sending suggestions to System 2 to work with. However System 2 always tries to get control of the situation when things get difficult, and usually has the last word.

It is important to bear in mind, though, that System 1 and System 2 are not really “systems” in the sense that there is actually cerebral or nervous infrastructure responsible of System 1 and System 2. It works mostly as a metaphor to describe two coherent ways in which our mind works,or, to put it into another form, two cognitive styles of solving problems.