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Thinking Slowly

·3 mins

In Daniel Kahneman’s pop psychology book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he describes the human brain as having 2 systems for thought: a fast system, which responds quickly to stimuli, and a slow system, which tends to produce more…thoughtful thoughts.

This book was all the rage amongst thought leaders circa 2011/12 after being published, but if you missed out on it, don’t worry, Wikipedia has a tl;dr which tells you all you need to know.

It’s actually a great book, I do recommend reading it if that’s up your alley. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I do want to talk about slow thinking, or “system 2” as Daniel calls it. The book is also an excellent intro to cognitive biases and how to overcome some of the worst, or at least recognize when you fall prey to them.

System 2 is the analytical/rational conscious system, as opposed to system 1 which is the emotional, unconscious system. And somewhere in between both of those is what people refer to as gut instinct, which tends to present as a feeling or emotion.

Your gut instinct, or intuition, is often incredibly good at providing signals. However, you need to be careful not to mix up your gut with system 1, which is probably the worst source of brain thoughts. Your gut instinct tends to shape your logical thoughts, and it’s something that automatically tunes itself over time through life experiences.

Society tends to over value system 1. Thought leaders tend to emphasize being “high energy”, but what they’re really describing are people who run on system 1 most of the time. Running on system 1 might make you appear as someone who has genius or insight because you manage to arrive at decision quickly, but in reality you’re execising the fewest brain cells possible to produce results, and maybe getting lucky enough that nobody notices.

As individuals, we should strive for operating on system 2. The easiest way to make sure we use system 2 over 1 is to slow the F down. This is especially true when making any kind of important decision, such as whether to accept a job offer or buy something expensive. Before making any kind of big purchase or signing any kind of contract, you should (at the very least) sleep on it, and give your brain some time to work it out. Even if you still make the wrong decision, at least you won’t regret not giving yourself some time to consider it.

That also presents another decent rule for life: if you’re being pressured into making a decision on the spot, then the answer should be no. This is a common sales tactic that appeals to system 1, your emotional and animal instincts. It works because system 1 is not very good at decision making, and the salesperson only needs to trigger panic mode in system 1 to get what they want (which is your money, usually).

I doubt that society is going to change how we value introverts and slow thinkers versus how we value extroverts and impulsive psychopaths, but individuals can always make the choice to rely on system 2 instead of 1.

Often the right decision is the hard decision. System 1 tends to go for easy decisions, and instant gratification, because it’s often responding automatically to whatever stimuli will produce a bit of dopomine.