Thursday, November 6, 2014

A machine for jumping to conclusions

In his 2013 book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman reflects on decades of psychological research to explain the fundamental heuristics and processes of decision-making.  This research earned him a Nobel Prize in economics.

Most of the chapters in his book explore cognitive biases.  A central theme of this book is that intuition is the fuel of cognitive bias.  System 1 thinking refers to our fast thinking, the decision making we use almost all of the time.  System 2 thinking is our more logical and cautious approach to decision making.  System 1 thinking is automatic and constant, whereas System 2 thinking is only active when we force it to be.

System 1 thinking is where intuition influences us the most, and numerous studies Kahneman cites show that intuition damage our ability to make correct answers and good decisions.  Our brains, particularly with System 1 thinking, make decisions using only the information we have (WYSIATI, what you see is all there is).  According to Kahneman, “System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.”  Our System 1 thinking also latches on to information only if it can create a coherent story out of it.  This fact is the reason why intuitive judgments are flawed a majority, if not all, of the time. 

For instance, a study from Stanford involved one group of participants listening to a one-sided description of a situation being arrested.  Another group of participants listened to arguments representing both sides of the case.  The information for both groups were the same – it was mainly pro-plaintiff, but it also allowed participants to infer a pro-defense story.  Rather than take the time to infer or deduce an alternate story, even as the participants knew the study was to bias their decision, the presentation of a one-sided argument affected jurors’ judgments profoundly.

Thinking: Fast and Slow should be a required read for any professional involved with decision-making support or, especially, those in power to make decisions.  The plethora of research Kahneman uses to support his conclusions make this book one of the best meta-analysis books on decision making ever written. 

Intuition allows people to take shortcuts (System 1 thinking).  Intuition has served us well in evolution.  If we hear wrestling in a nearby bush, we run – just as our distinct ancestors must have, or else we wouldn't be here today.  However, in a more civilized and interconnected world where the actions of one major country leader or business can have profound effects on the state of affairs in a location on the other side of the planet, we must use System 2 thinking more often.  Intuition is dangerous for decision makers and intelligence personnel.

Kahneman, D. (2013). A machine for jumping to conclusions. In Thinking: fast and slow (pp. 79–89).


  1. Kyle,

    Does Kahneman explore the potential of using System 1 thinking and System 2 thinking in tandem when a situation dictates a fast response, using intuition and structured techniques together in a systemic process?

    1. Using System 1 & 2 thinking and tandem, and both in a fast decisions, is an extremely difficult task. Using System 2 thinking takes time and cognitive effort. It would take training and practice to be able to make sound decisions in a such situation.

  2. Kyle,

    It appears to me that Kahneman splits intuitive (system 1) from logical (system 2). You also state we should use system 2 more often than not. What are your thoughts on using both in tandem, such as using system one and two when analyzing the same question?

    1. See my reply to Ricardo's question. I wouldn't say use them in tandem. I would say slow down and force yourself to use System 2. System 1 is our default way of thinking and System 2 does not operate unless you make it.

  3. In your post you state that one cannot use information they do not have in system 1 thinking. I want to know if the author discussed whether a person is aware they are missing information when in the process of system 1 thinking or not.

    1. Most of the time, they are not aware of the unaware nformation when making fast decisions.