Did You Know You Have Two Brains?

What would you say if I told you that you have two brains? Nonsense? What if I told you that you don’t have two brains but that your brain uses two systems to cope with the world? Seems more probable?

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman uses the terms initially proposed by Keith Stanovich and Richard West, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast and operates automatically with little conscious effort. System 2 needs focus and conscious mental effort. System 1 kicks in without us even realizing it. System 2 requires us to choose to use it.

It is often System 1 that gets us into action under the influence of instinct and emotions. And it is often System 2 that then bails us out when it helps us realize that what we do may not be advisable. Each has its place in our lives, and each has its limitations.

System 1 helps us detect a danger, like a direction of a sudden sound, whether the lion is close or far, or whether it is hostile, it helps us calculate one plus one, drive a car on an empty road, or understand simple sentences in our native language. No real conscious effort is required, and you can’t prevent yourself from understanding these things. Your understanding of them is just there.

System 2 is different. It requires attention and concentration. You may be making complex calculations, writing a letter, trying to compare which of the two computers to buy, or counting a number of stars. When you are interrupted by a sudden sound, your attention to the problem goes away temporarily as System 1 takes over to see whether there is any danger behind the sound.

System 1 is unreliable

Unfortunately, System 1 is often unreliable, and even when we use System 2 and logically prove System 1 is lying to us, there is still nothing we can do about it. Kahneman uses the example of the Müller-Lyer illusion when you are asked which of the two lines is longer. The two lines are of the same length, with one having a set of arrows facing outward and the other one having a set of arrows facing inside. Your System 1 tells you immediately that one line is longer than the other. When you measure them, you realize that they are the same length. So your System 2 knows it for sure. You know that they are the same length and when asked you will say so. And yet, you still see one of them longer than the other. There is nothing you can do about it.

That is how biases work. They are automatic, subconscious, and your System 2 doesn’t know you are making them, so there is no reason for you to take a tape measure and validate what System 1 tells you.

You could question every single thing about your perception of the world, but that would drive you crazy pretty fast. To maintain your sanity, you need to rely on System 1 to simplify the world around you. The price you pay is that it will every now and then mislead you. The best thing you can do is let the routine daily decision be handled by System 1, and when the stakes are high, turn over to System 2 for help and validation.

System 2 is a control mechanism

System 2’s principal function is to act as a control mechanism for thoughts and actions suggested by System 1. It allows some behavior and modifies or inhibits others. Kahneman uses a simple example to illustrate this. Consider this puzzle and don’t try to solve it logically but just say what comes first to mind using intuition. You have a bat and a ball, and it costs $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much is the cost of the ball? If you have never heard this puzzle before, the first number that comes to mind is 10 cents. It is obvious and appealing. And wrong. When you employ System 2 and use math to calculate it, you realize that if it were ten cents, the bat would have to cost $1.10, and therefore the total would be $1.20. The ball costs only 5 cents. Your first intuition, System 1, was wrong.

System 2 monitors suggestions of System 1, but it is inherently lazy. Sometimes, when the stakes are low, it just goes with the notion. If your life depended on the answer, you wouldn’t take any chances and carefully calculated the answer before you said it out loud.

However, not everyone will allow System 2 to flunk its job. Some people will be triggered by social clues. It is a puzzle. Therefore it won’t be as straightforward as it may appear to System 1. Once a number pops into mind, they will let System 2 quickly calculate whether it adds up and discovers it doesn’t. Kahneman points out that when this test ran at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton universities, more than 50% of students gave an intuitive and incorrect answer. At less select universities, this number raised to 80%. The wrong answer is so obvious and intuitive that people get overconfident and don’t bother to check whether the answer they provided is correct.

Leading questions and the problem with surveys

System 1 skews our view of the world when dealing with categories. It handles well averages but poorly sums. When participants of a study after the Exxon Valdez disastrous spill were asked about their willingness to contribute to saving birds impacted by the spill and were given a different number of birds that would be saved, 2,000, 20,000, or 200,000, they on average contributed $80, $78, and $88 respectively. The size of the bird group made little difference. It was the image of a single bird covered in oil that drove the size of the contribution. You need to rely on System 2 and employ reasoning to deal with categories.

Daniel Kahneman points to a survey of German students that showed how easy it is to impact the results of surveys and mental states. The students were asked two simple questions. How happy are you these days? How many dates did you have last month? The researchers then looked at the survey results and searched for correlations. There was none. Dating simply wasn’t on top of students’ minds when they thought about how happy they were.

However, when the researchers looked at the second group of students that got the two questions in the reverse order, they saw something different. There was a clear correlation between the number of dates and reported happiness. Asking students about their dating life first created an emotional reaction. It elicited either positive or negative memories of fun times or loneliness, and that was on everyone’s mind when the question about general happiness came up. This phenomenon is caused by lazy System 2 and by System 1 having a ready answer instead. System 1 generates impressions and feelings. These are then endorsed by System 2 and become beliefs and attitudes.

Putting it all together

System 1 allows us to live our lives with relative ease without a constant mental effort to decode what’s happening around us. However, it is also what leads to cognitive biases. Without a more conscious effort, System 1 can get us into trouble. We need System 2 to do a bit of reasoning now and then.

The problem with the System 2 system is that all its actions require effort, and its signature characteristic is laziness and unwillingness to invest more effort than necessary. It means that it relies pretty heavily on information from System 1. This information is often unreliable. System 2, however, doesn’t admit that it depends on System 1. The outcome is that we believe we make a logical, conscious choice. In reality, we are quietly guided by our subconscious minds full of biases.

What is your take on the topic? Have you experienced situations when your subconscious mind led you into trouble? When was the last time you caught yourself just in time and used reasoning to make a different decision than your intuition told you?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

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Categories: Life

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