Thinking Fast and Slow: 5. Cognitive Ease

Following our schedule in our reading calendar, it is time for chapter 5.

In this chapter Kahneman describes a very interesting phenomenon, cognitive ease, or the feeling that the situation is fine, nothing worries us and we think that the tasks at hand are easy to be solved.

We might be in such state just because the task is easy, but  there are other very different and incongruent reasons, like it is a repeated experience, we are in front of a clear display, we have received former priming that we didn’t realize, or we are just in a good mood.

This generates biases and errors in our judgment. For example, if we are familiar with a name just because it has been primed to us before, we might wrongly think  that we remember this person because it is famous, but actually is just a name that the investigador made up.

The more astonishing, fascinating and unexpected result in the chapter, for me, was how if students have to fight hard with how a problem is stated, they’ll more probably switch to System II and solve it correctly. For example, if a mathematical problem is written down in a small font size and poorly printed, experimental subjects will more probably solved it correctly than if it is presented in a very clear form and then the subjects use just their system 1 instead and make mistakes.

This clearly go against the idea of that clearer a problem is presented the better to understand it. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense, and there are plenty other experiments that shows similar results. Sounds like we have to revise some classical ideas about how to teach…

I have some precautions with some experiments that are described in passim, so it is difficult to establish their real relevance. For example the experiment in which investors prefer stocks with fluent names Emmi or Swiss-first versus Geberit or Ypsomed how was it developed exactly? If experimental subjects were just told to choose between a list of stocks which they didn’t know and no more extra info was provided, then of course, one has to invent some criterion, or use an unconscious one. But my question here is: if these were real investors -and not just experimental subjects- and have to use their real money to buy stocks, would them just pick the nice sounding names? Of course not. So the experiment doesn’t prove that people choose stocks depending on how the name sounds, but only that confronted with a problem that is far away from any real one, confronted to a pure lab problem, people just do some educated guesses in order to not look like a fool.

A similar problem arises with the experiment of the Turkish words in a newspaper. People considered “good” words those that they were familiar with them because they were published in a newspaper before and have seen them several times. The more they see them, the more familiar with them, and the more they tend to consider “good”. But, what does “good” mean here if the experimental subjects do not undestand  Turkish? Probably not much.

Still the general thesis of the chapter holds together well, and we all have experienced cognitive ease so we see that this makes sense, and this chapter also give us another disturbing fact: if a learning material is presented in a supereasy way, it might be less helpful than a more difficult to process one.


12 thoughts on “Thinking Fast and Slow: 5. Cognitive Ease

  1. >>This clearly go against the idea of that clearer a problem is presented the better to understand it.

    Well, Taleb said in Antifragility that he talked very soft in conferences on purpose in order to increase the effort listeners had to do and so increasing the attention level of the auditory.

        • It’s in his twitter feed. He defends homeopathy as placebo and as a measure against iatrogenesis. This article from a Taleb’s critic sumarizes it:

          • Well, I gave a quick look at some posts on the issue without entering to read the papers referenced there. My first impression is that I am with Taleb. I have been defending similar ideas since time ago: there are people that just need fo feel that are being treated and homoeopathy is way cheaper that MRN scans. And don’t forget that placebo effect works. So, if you find a method of delivering placebo, go ahead with it.

            That is what I thought. Now Nassim provides a powerful new argument: given the numbers in medical errors and nosocomial infection related deaths, any policy that will be able to reduce the number of people with minor diseases that go to doctors and hospitals is going to have a tremendous impact in terms of reduction of mortality and morbility. And probably providing homoeopathy in an ordered way in the public health system is one of such policies.

            I could change my mind in front of solid evidence, of course, and eat my words one by one. But what I have found out there in those links is a kind of arrogant scientific fundamentalism that really bores me. If it weren’t because I think that we are doomed without remedy, I would worry indeed about the future of humanity.

  2. About the names of the stock companies, there are two studies cited in the chapter. None of them is performed, if I understand it correctly, with experimental subjects.
    The first just follows the real values of shares after they begin to trade in the stock market and compare the performance of the easy names against difficult names.
    In the second, real investors are asked to predict future returns on investing in different companies and again ease and hard names are compared.

  3. About the Turkish words experiment, just to make it clear that we understand the same thing. What I understand is that the students are asked not if the words are “good Turkish words”, they are all supposed to be real Turkish words. They are asked which words they think that mean “something good” and which words mean “something bad”.
    The fact that students associated foreign words with “good meaning” just as an effect of their repetition, is something that I don’t consider to be obvious and says something relevant about the way our mind works.

  4. Yes we understand it the same way.
    Let me ellaborate my point a little bit more: the experiment asks someone to perform a task that doesn’t make any sense: you don’t know any Turkish so when asked to decide whether that specific Turkish word means something good or bad you are forced to guess. You are invited to do a wild guess. So you use familiarity.
    So the real result of the experiment is not as impressive as others in the chapter: if you have to guess you prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. Of course!

  5. One implication of this chapter that I loved (and that gets ielaborated later) is how cognifive ease is self-reinforcing. People like, agree or recognize with more ease ideas and concepts that they already know, like or agree with, so making these ideas easier to reach in the brain and so on… We are a bunch of self-satisfying morons.

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