Are we truly in two minds?
With the aid of Daniel Kahneman, Horizon, the chief science TV programme on the UK media, a team of psychologists and programme makers set out to tell members of the public how they really make their personal decisions, or they did 24 February 2014 on BBC2 at 9pm. The title was “How You Really Make Decisions”.
We are told in the programme that we all make thousands of decisions every day, big ones or small ones, but they all involve a clash between logic and intuition. This clash, or conflict, involves, or affects, every aspect of our lives, we are told by this team. It affects our decisions as to what we eat as well as what we believe, but they say it chiefly affects how we spend our money.
The team go on to say that it turns out that our intuition dominates the normal wakeful mind but they say that most people do not seem to realise that. The Horizon team say that intuition is like a stranger, or alien, that takes over our mind. They say that we identify with deliberation, or slow thinking, but that alien fast thinking, so fast, that we often do not even notice it, makes most of the decisions.
But who does not notice tacit thought? Who identifies with only slow deliberation? This might be the case with the team, though I doubt it, but it is not likely that many will agree or feel that fast thought is alien. The team seem to want to replace the old idea of the Unconscious mind that works against us as an alien with mere tacit thought as alien. At least tacit thought exists. But it is hardly alien in any way whatsoever.
As the team report a few times in the programme, people do not like deliberation, so why suppose they identify with that rather than their normal tacit selves. Why assume that, beyond the extra cost of slow careful thinking, there is any strangeness or alien element at all in fast thinking? Journalists or academics may feel more at home with language but does the average person? Whilst it seems silly to say that slow thinking is alien, it seems yet sillier to say that fast thinking is strange.
The team says that we all see rapid tacit thought as though it was the thought of a stranger, as if it was another alien mind. I would not say they get it exactly wrong there, as deliberation is hardly alien to normal thought. What the team says looks like sheer hyperbole but, if anything, most of us are more at home when we are not deliberating. We seem to naturally to think tacitly. With deliberation we are often not relaxed. If we are tense then we usually do not feel at home and we are sometimes tense when we deliberate. But all that is contrary to what the team says.
Kahneman himself does not often use the word intuition in the programme, though he does endorse it by use a few times. His main distinction is between what he calls fast thinking and slow thinking instead. By fast thinking he seems to refer to what I would call tacit thinking. As it happens, Thomas Hobbes calls intuition fast thinking in Leviathan (1651). Hobbes does not see it as one whit illogical, nor does Kahneman in the programme, but he may well do in his books, but, unlike Hobbes, Kahneman does think it is radically different but it is the members of the team that say it is like a stranger. Anyway, intuition can only result in an assumption and, as the law of logic is that we can assume whatever we like, there is not much scope for irrationality from mere intuition. But Kahneman seems to erroneously think there is.
The team say that we like to think we are rational, but that, also, is a delusion. Current common sense rather likes the idea that we are irrational at times, that maybe we are usually so. Most people seem to feel that love is irrational and they seem be feel at home with the idea that they are often irrational. People that I meet tell me that they can relax with that idea.
We think mainly with intuition, the team says, but they feel that clearly contrasts with logic. We are especially prone to error whenever we go near money. This seems to be their main thesis, that money distorts our thinking. The team say they get this thesis from Kahneman, a top psychologist for forty years; who gets his insights from puzzles.
Kahneman feels that New York cab drivers are rather thoughtless, as they seem to him to show no foresight. They take things on a daily basis and clock off when they earn what they consider to be a full day’s pay but Kahneman notes that when it is raining there is usually more need for cabs, so they go home early as they earn enough sooner on wet days, whilst in the fine days they need to work way longer to get the same day’s pay. Kahneman feels they could work all day whilst it is raining and he supposes that they could then even take the whole day off on the fine days. They might then enjoy the sun as well as working less hours overall. Instead, they only seem to think of a day at a time, so they often need to work all day on the fine days but only for a while on the wet days. Kahneman feels they ought to think in terms of the whole year instead of one day at a time. Many might agree with him , if he ever put that case to the cab drivers, but it is not as solid as Kahneman thinks, for it is possible that they may have personal preferences for their current habit in some cases, if not in most cases. Note too that this does not relate well to Kahneman’s main thesis of fast and slow thinking, unless he feels they are doing only fast thinking on all this, which seems most unlikely.
The Horizon team ask some New York people what the occupation is of a man who is meek, mild and tidy: is he likely to be a farmer or a librarian? Most answer that he is likely to be a librarian, but the team say that he is more likely to be a farmer, as there are about twenty times more famers in the USA than librarians. So they say that the New Yorkers tend to err.
They do not notice that this is ignorance of the numbers in the USA, plus the bias towards the town life they are used to, rather than it is to do with fast or slow thinking. Indeed, why is the USA as a whole even germane? The team did not state they meant the whole of USA rather than what might be the case in New York. Why should the people they asked take the whole of USA as a base?
But the team, and Kahneman too, are like this throughout the whole programme. They feel they are clearly finding faults when the faults might just as well be in themselves. There are not more farmers in New York, so the whole thing is not so solid as the team seem to think it is.
Anyway, more thinking or slower thinking would not have told the people questioned that there was more than twenty times in farming than work in libraries in the USA as a whole had they not known that to begin with. They need information for that rather than mere deliberation. But the team do not seem to notice that.
This lack of information, or ignorance, relates neither to logic nor to intuition. And intuition is not one whit alien to logic. But the team tells us that it shows a lack of slow thinking but rather the using intuition or fast thinking instead. It is the team that seem to err there, and in more ways than one.
Kahneman then appears to say that those errors made by the public are not arbitrary or random but that they reflect bias. They reflect fast thinking. They reflect cognitive bias. They recur again and again, say the team.
We are then told of an experiment that shows that many people do not see things that the team, and a jury in a certain tail of a policeman called Conley, feel that anyone was bound to do, namely to see a fight that might be happening if we run by. We are told of a policeman, Conley, who was chasing a criminal but he bypassed a group of other policemen who beating up a person. When asked later in court, Conley said he did not see this fight but the jury thought he was a liar who had lied to cover up for the policemen involved. Conley said he was, maybe, too keen to catch the man he was running after at the time to notice.
One of the Horizon team, Chris Chabris, thought the jury was maybe unfair to call Conley a liar. Chabris did an experiment and found that fifty per cent of runners involved, ordinary joggers, just failed to notice the mock fight that he set up on the side of the route he set for them to run along as they ran past. So Conley might well have been honest rather than the liar that the jury held him to be.
This hardly seems odd to me. Many people are not very observant when focused on doing something else, like chasing a criminal, and Chabris did well to go against the main idea that Conley must clearly be lying here. But, once again, the example does not relate to fast thinking; let alone show us that fast thinking is of a different kind to slower thinking, as Kahneman and the team hold as their main thesis.
Fast thinking is then called system one whilst slow thinking is called system two, but why? I suppose it is to suggest a big difference. But this programme looks loose, as did the book that Kahneman published last year, when I looked at it. I mean to complete the review I began on that later. It is not as bad as it might be, but it is still clearly a very poor book.
Kahneman looks like a weak thinker to me. But he plays to a popular gallery about human rationality, or rather human irrationality. We might see this gallery as the Romantic paradigm that replaced the Enlightenment after 1789. This paradigm shift was more to do with mere fashion than being owing to a case of true intellectual progress, as Thomas Kuhn might say. As Popper admitted in his 1970s Schilpp reply to Kuhn, there are fashion changes, even in science, but it is far from being a good thing. Popper thought that it could even be the death of science if ever what Kuhn calls normal science actually becomes what Kuhn calls it. It was this sort of paradigm shift of fashion change rather than intellectual progress that brought about any success. The supposed of Keynes in economics in the 1930s was similar.
We make many decisions that we do not even realise that we make, the team continue to say. System one, or fast thinking, takes most decisions such that we may only notice two out of every ten decisions that we make. Our slow thinking is logical and rational. It is the mind we think of as ourselves, we are told, but most thought is automatic, or almost automatic, it is fast whilst slow thinking requires some work and so it is reluctant; or rather it is we who are often too lazy to undertake that work; we cannot be bothered, so we settle instead for the prima facie thought that the mind finds at once, the team tell us.
Here the team seem to be in two minds themselves for they say we are at home in deliberation and yet it is hard work. And they say do we truly not even notice our many tacit decisions? But is that the case? It seems not to me. We seem to be fully aware of our many decisions.
I think belief is automatic but not that our habitual, or usual fast thought, is but Kahneman and the team seem to be right for once on saying that deliberate thinking often involves work and the economists might tell them that work, unless it is a greatly motivated labour of love, is highly likely to involve some disutility. We feel a need to economise on what Kahneman calls slow thought, or system two. It may well be a false economy sometimes, of course.
Nor do I think that most people like language as much as the college trained team or Kahneman does. The team say that we identify ourselves as deliberators, that we think of ourselves as language users. But most people will, I expect, see what they calls fast thought, or what I call tacit thought, to be more like themselves at ease, or to be more natural or care free rather than that they identify with relatively unpleasant deliberation, that many people often do like to dodge, as the team say, unless it is on something that they normally like. Yet the team also say that is where the heart is with most people. This common academic over-rating of language and deliberation calls to mind some academic sociology that might get Kahneman and the team to rethink, as it suggests that the less educated masses might be more at home with tacit thinking, or that even some quite well educated people might be too.
Basil Bernstein in the 1960s noticed that there were two types of language codes, that he called the elaborated code and the restricted code. The restricted code tended to forever underestimate how much needed to be made explicit if one wanted to be understood, especially with strangers. Bernstein denied that he was making anti-working class points but he was clearly on about the majority of the UK 1960s population who would then be called lower or working class, however much his fellow sociologists were muddled on that meme.
Some noticed that even those called middle class also were often tongue-tied or seemed to hope that they did not need to be more elaborate, or explicit, to be fully understood, like the proles, or the proletariat, for the well-educated too rather hoped that those they were talking to could rather successfully just guess their meaning. On this paradigm, most people tend to identify with tacit thought rather than with deliberate explicit thought as the Horizon team and Kahneman tends to assume.
The restricted code is, maybe, suitable for close friends, or insiders who share assumptions and understanding on the topic, but with strangers or in the academic essays in the colleges the more elaborated code that made things more explicit was clearly needed. This was nearer the normal habit of the middle class, but far from being universal even with them. This need to be more thorough is taxing for most people, maybe even for most of those called the middle class too. It sometimes involves quite a bit of disutility. We are more likely to feel at home in the restricted code or even when we are completely tacit or silent.
But though deliberation requires more effort, it is hardly completely distinct from normal thought, even if it is more of a cost to indulge in or often even something of a pain in the neck at times that we would sooner refrain from exercising than to indulge in.
The plain fact seems to be that Kahneman and the team are not good at either fast or slow thinking but they seem exceeding at home in clear hubris when they say we are at home in mainly unwelcome deliberate or slow thought, as they are when they imagine they are truly finding faults in the irrational general public. They seem to err when they say tacit thought is like a stranger or that we do not even notice most of the tacit decisions that we make.
We are told by the team that slow thinking is the star but that it invents unrelated reasons to justify whatever we do, leaving the real system one, or fast thought, or what I call tacit motives to be completely forgotten. So we all make up a false self by rationalisation, we are told. This is a fond dogma that most people today may well agree with the team on, but it hardly seems to be true as far as I can see. It is a dogma of the cheap wisdom often called vulgar “cynical” but has little to do with the Cynic philosophers of old.
So the team say that our real intuitive self is denied or overlooked! System two, or slow reasoning, invents false reasons for what the impulsive system decides. Kahneman says that decisions are made without our knowledge but later rationalised but this looks like mistaking what many might call “cynical” ideas with wisdom. The team tell us that we are not aware of our impulsive motives very often, if ever at all. But the reality seems rather to be that we do not bother to make up bogus motives but it is true that we may not always tell others why we do as we do. Sometimes we might even tell others false stores about our motives, if there is a reason to do so. There is no reason to tell ourselves lies or rationalisations about our own motives. With telling others it would be lying , of course. But the team want to say that we lie to ourselves. That is not likely but it is a fond dogma with the Romantic gallery that the Horizon team are playing to.
We are then shown by the team two cases of wine selling. A small number is shown to people on bits of paper then they are asked how much they think a bottle of wine is worth. They all reply with answers that fit a small price range near the mentioned small number in dollars. Then a larger number is suggested to other people by similar bits of paper and when they are asked what they thought a similar bottle of wine was worth they came up with a higher price range, again near to the suggested higher number. The idea was that the suggested number had more impact than had the bottle of wine itself. Would any number do? The team tended to suggest that it might.
The idea seems to be that the two groups of people asked were led on by the suggestions rather than guessing a natural price for the wine, but the team tend to overlook that there is no natural price for any wine that the people being tested had foolishly ignored. Both prices will have been too steep for those who do not think much of drinking wine, like me, but both price ranges might have been well worth it for actual wine lovers. Prices are not so much a measure of objective value but rather money is just a means of exchange at any particular time.
Whether a price is too high is a personal feeling depending on how much money one has and how much the good on sale, here the wine, relates to other things we might want to buy instead, but all that seems to be as lost on Kahneman and the team, as were the number of farmers in the USA were lost on the ignorant New Yorkers who thought a shy man was more likely to be a librarian than a farmer if ever they met him in New York. Like the New Yorkers, they take their first assumptions almost uncritically; fast thinking maybe. But the team feel greatly superior to the New Yorkers. Kahneman, in particular, ironically smiles at the camera like some gormless fool as he reflects how very foolish the taxi drivers are.
One of the team says we remain loyal to earlier decisions rather than bothering to think afresh about the current one, as it saves thought in deliberate system two. We are told that psychologists have now found a hundred and fifty cognitive biases that usually lead to human error. Indeed, they call them errors in themselves. The team say that people pay too much attention to what they want now rather than to what they might want later on but they ought to realise that current and future desires are equal. But are they really equal? The team seem to make false assumptions in thinking. They seem to have more to learn from economics than to teach the economists. In treating arithmetic as if it lacks any bias, as if it must apply to all things neutrally, seems to be the team’s own pet error. We might call it an arithmetic bias.
Anyway, any assumption at all will risk error, and will introduce bias by any content. The team do not seem to realise that fact. They tend to assume that some assumptions might be risk free, especially those with arithmetic. They might learn from economics where marginal theory holds that extra units usually deliver decreasing diminishing returns in utility with uniform units.
Kahneman tells us about the Halo Effect, where we favour our friends, but the psychologists long to say that we do this unconsciously when it is plain to most people do so quite consciously. But maybe the team mean we do not just favour our friends but think they tend to lack faults, or we do not quite see their faults. If so, then that would seem to be a common crass dogma of current common sense rather than any factual finding of psychology, but it is the sort of dogma against the human race that we might expect the psychologists to adopt like they adopt the dogma of the Unconscious mind. They want to make a science out of their college study departments but do they have anything to say of import to anyone from their psychological study or from so-called brain science? It would seem not. They seem to have made exactly no progress since the day of William James in the late nineteenth century, and it seems reasonable to think that will be still the case in 500 years’ time too. No science of psychology was ever needed. Common sense is enough for interpersonal relationships.
Kahneman seems to be hinting at the old dogma of the Unconscious mind with his notion of fast thinking, a false idol but one that psychologists and brain scientists remain very fond of. It seems psychology never was, nor ever will be, a progressive science as it cannot truly do better than mere common sense but rather it seems to be merely a Politically Correct [PC] ideology and in PC alone it transcends common sense. In its futile attempt to make a case against the human race it tends to, forever, remain quite barren.
The reports in books on brain science read today almost exactly as they read in the 1960s, only the older reader now finds them harder to credit. Their repeated song of much expected progress on top of having already made more progress than ever before in the last fifteen years, a claim made on the UK radio once again this week, looks as poor as the Green’s perennial cry of wolf. This is especially the case when one recalls that an identical claim for brain science was made, also by psychologists on the radio, as well as in books, in 1968.
We are told by the team that impulsive spending is a bias, as is not seeing things from the other person’s point of view, and indeed that we are so riddled with bias that it is a wonder whether we can ever make a rational decision at all! But any assumption will be biased ipso facto. Any content at all will be biased. So all this is a typical series of brutum fulmen from the psychologists. As any assumption will be biased, so to think at all is to risk error, but it is also the sole means to any truth.
What about trained experts? Do they also err left, right and centre? Yes, say the team. Donald R. Kretz, a man in charge of the experts who keep a look out for terrorists in USA, carries out an experiment on his team of experts on terrorist threats to the public. He seemed about as un-self-critical as Kahneman is and he seems about as proud of his own mediocre ideas as is Kahneman too. He was very concerned about conformation bias, but he does not seem to be aware of Karl Popper’s idea of the duty, that we all have, to try to refute our own pet ideas, that might be the remedy to that common academic hubris problem that he clearly has about as much as this Horizon team has but Kretz does try an Agatha Christie type plot with many red herrings in a type of experiment on a group of anti-terrorist experts but he has a group of twelve mixed with some lay members too.
Could he trap them with his red herrings? That this plot was just a story-like plot, and that it was also aimed to trap the twelve seemed almost to be lost on Kretz, despite him being the author of the plot. He seemed to think that his own trap was a test at how backward the experts were on real cases, that the experts falling into this trap was on par with them getting the wrong result in an actual real case of terrorism. As it happened they all did fall for his red herrings apart from one, who was not one of the experts. So eleven get it wrong but the one who got the right answer was not an expert. He did see the author’s plot as well as the author did.
Kretz fools the experts to go for the known terrorist group within the plot, the Network of Dread whereas, in his plot, it is the previously non-terrorists, the cyber-hacking group, the Masters of Chaos, who were held by the author to be an emerging new terrorist threat but the team missed this, owing to conformation bias. Kretz feels his plot-experiment is informative. This looks like clear hubris, like the ideas of Kahneman, that arithmetic is unbiased, such that the amount of money now and the same amount in the future must be of equal value.
But the Horizon team return to their pet idea that it is exactly with money where humans get most confused. Money changes the way humans react to the world, they say. We hate to lose out; we hate the risk of loss too. We prefer to be safe. There is a bias of loss aversion.
We are told that economics assume that humans are rational. But how could that assumption affect supply and demand analysis? Would it affect the downward slopping demand curve that Gary Becker assumes, if it were to be dropped for the supposed truth that the team have that humans are irrational? It seems not, but the playing to the gallery of popular anti-economics of the psychologists continues nevertheless. It won Kahneman the Noble Prize for Economics after all. We are told by the team that he helped to create a new branch of economics called Behavioural Economics.
We do not look at what arithmetic tells us for we usually hate to lose more than we love to gain, they tell us. Kahneman keeps to his dogma that arithmetic is somehow neutral, or unbiased, here. But if humans prefer not to lose rather than to gain, as he says, it is hardly germane that both are the same in mere arithmetic. But this is ignored, or not even realised. So Kahneman feels it is a clear error to overlook it or not to realise the equal arithmetic, as it will therefore be the same in utility too, but that might not be the case, as it is not in equal utility with the case of diminishing returns. But that possibility seems lost on Kahneman.
If the disutility from loses is truly greater than the utility from gains, if this is how we are and how we are bound to be, as the team says, then it would merely be silly to equate the two, owing to equal arithmetic, as Kahneman and the Horizon team dogmatically, or thoughtlessly, say. They seem to suffer from a bias that arithmetic must be neutral psychologically to the extent that they cannot even notice it when they tend to refute themselves. This Popper might call reinforced dogmatism.
We are told that it was excessive optimism that caused the 2008 financial crisis. One psychologist, Professor Heish Shefrin, says he feels sure that it was only the assumption of human rationality that led to that financial trouble. The effect that money has on how people think was at fault. Conformation bias played a great role in that crisis. If the thinking of the bankers was not distorted by money then the trouble in 2008 could have been avoided, he says, and the Horizon team agree. They feel that a better financial system might have been designed if only we had earlier realised that people are not rational. Here they tend to overlook that the idea that man is rational has been held as being a very naïve idea at least since the Romantic paradigm took over from the Enlightenment one after 1789. Most people feel they have known that we are often irrational long since. It looks mistaken to me but it is the top idea.
The team feel they can find out quite a bit from evolution. We are introduced to the study of monkeys, where we might find clues to the evolutionary origins of human error and conformation bias. We might see where we got it from. We are taken to the island off Puerto Rico, called Cayo Santiago, with an academic researcher, Laurie Santos. The monkeys on this island are shown to favour friendly traders even though it costs a bit more but the team think this is irrational rather than that the extra friendliness is worth it to the monkeys. Ironically, the team seem to be fast to rest on this idea that the monkeys should not be biased towards the friendly traders, but there is no clear reason why not. The team seem to be critical about their pet ideas.
Kahneman is nowhere near as bright as he thinks he is, indeed he seems to be rather dim, but he is not as dim as most on this particular Horizon team, for most of the psychologist experts consulted during the programme, as well as the one who wrote the main script, hardly seem to think at all. They are Romantic champions of irrationality as against the naïve paradigm of the Enlightenment that held that man was rational. Romantics usually hold, as a dogma, that the normal person cannot stand too much reality, or truth, as T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) did, but the plain fact seems to be the very opposite, that most people do not like stupid people, like the members of this particular Horizon team seem to be, as do so many others in the colleges seem to be too. The people that man the colleges tend to suggest that the pre-college examinations they passed to get into college were an inverse natural selection that selected out, or favoured, the thoughtless instead of the brighter people as is supposed by common sense.
Many people often boast openly that they “do not suffer fools gladly”. They are thereby a bit illiberal there, but that is way more like the normal person is, than that it is impersonal reality itself that normal people cannot put up with. Note that it is not the reality of many unknown people out there are fools that the average person finds it hard to tolerate but rather the particular minority of others who they frequently meet, or they know, who they certainly think are fools. The Horizon programme did repeatedly unwittingly suggest that the team were made up of fools.
Anyway, the truth seems to be that it is sheer hyperbole to say that we are in two minds with fast and slow thought. As Hobbes said in his 1651 book, intuition is normal thought speeded up rather than abnormal or distinctly different alien thought of some distinct sort. It is merely faster, that is all. But, as any Chess player knows, the more time we have to think, the less likely we are to err. That is why we play Chess by the clock. Almost anyone will play way better if allowed to take as much time as they need over making a move in Chess. But we do not thereby use a different sort of thought when we think things over slowly.