Monday, June 10, 2013

Thinking about thinking


By Bill Kraus

The book is Thinking, Fast and Slow. Those are the only options other than not thinking at all. It was written by a man named Daniel Kahneman who is a Nobel prize winning economist.

It is scholarly. It is informative. It is a bit of a slog, but worth it.

The book describes the two kinds of thinking. The shortcut example how we think when asked, “What is 2 times 2?” and “What is 23 times 17?”

To the first one we respond to quickly and easily. The second not so fast.

These are the ways we respond to all questions. The elaborations on this go on for several hundred pages and make several cogent points.

Thinking fast is more like reacting rather than thinking and is gullible and biased. The second is harder and brings in both doubting and critical thinking. Thinking slow is sometimes busy and always harder. We prefer thinking fast.

He points out that in either case our mind is strongly biased towards causal explanations and does not deal well with mere luck. Thinking fast shows our willingness to jump to conclusions and exposes the fact that the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous.

Much of the book is devoted to statistically dismantling ideas like the “hot hand” in sports by showing that the regression to the mean (a technical term which explains why nobody bats 1.000 or why the guy who shoots a 65 on one day will come back to earth the next day) is, like the law of unintended consequences. Usually inevitable.

What the book really does is explain what is wrong with today’s politics and politicians and the partisans who cheer them on.

We have become a nation of fast thinkers. We are persuaded by campaigns which feature 30-second TV commercials. Too many of us are lightly informed and susceptible to seductive, quick, easy answers.

We believe in ideologies and slogans and don’t go to the effort of seeing if there might be another side to the contentions and propositions that underly them.

We expect this of ideologues, true believers, and conspiracy theorists. They are not in the business of examining, testing and proving. They are in the business of proselytizing to their point of view about anything and everything.

When he was chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, Ody Fish responded to screeds from this group with a card that read, “Dear Sir or Madame: You may be right.”

One can only hope it gave them second thoughts, which fast thinking doesn’t.

The most striking manifestation of thinking fast on political issues and ideas (and if anything is worth being classified as a political issue or idea it automatically is complicated enough to require thinking slow about) is the guilt by association effect, or its opposite the halo effect.

In these cases there is no need to even look at what is being said or proposed. All one has to know is who is proposing it.

“Consider the source” has gone from a warning to slow down to the fastest route to thinking fast or perhaps not having to think at all.

I recommend the book.

What I really recommend is thinking slow.

Follow Bill Kraus on:

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