Working, Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow‘, the acclaimed book by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, is a summary of his life’s work in psychology. His fundamental premise that our brain has two distinct systems raises questions over the value of our own judgements.

The book branches out from this simple premise to cover a huge array of fascinating topics. I’ll address just a few, and their impact on how I work.


System 1 vs System 2

System 1 is our fast, emotional, intuitive, and most frequently used thought process. It helps us develop first impressions, solve simple sums, and converse throughout our everyday life. It’s highly skilled, efficient, and is in charge of most of what we do.

System 2 is slow, rational, and more logical. It pools information to make long-term judgements, and uses deep thought to solve and communicate complex sums or arguments. It casts a casual eye over the constant work of System 1 but is fundamentally lazy, and will only step in when summoned.


Task Substitution

System 1 has a lot to do, but likes to appear to be in control. When asked a tricky question it won’t always summon System 2, but will simply substitute it for an easier question.

“Do you like the polictician’s policies?” becomes “Do you like the politician?”.

System 2 will not step in to correct, as System 1 seems to be dealing with the problem just fine.

Catching yourself from answering the wrong question is challenging, we’re too instinctive. Discouraging substitution in others is easier. But be aware that if you force the use of System 2, you may not get any answer at all.


What you see is all there is

System 1 only considers what it knows. It ignores the Known Unknowns, relevant factors it knows nothing about. Worse, it refuses to accept Unknown Unknowns, things we can’t know the importance of or predict.

Many industries have employees with extreme over-confidence, who believe their automatic reactions can accurately predict outcomes (when in fact they can’t). Kahneman highlights banking, but there are many others.

Allow your System 2 to step in and remember the limitations of your knowledge… but don’t let your known limitations impact your confidence.


Cognitive Load & Fatigue

Using System 2 is tiring. Be aware when you’re asking someone to summon it. Are they already tired? Are they pre-occupied or stressed. If so, they won’t use System 2. Phrase your question so System 1 can answer.

Be careful how much info you throw in, System 1 can only deal with so much. How hard is it for the reader to fish out the key point of your message?

Ask the question first, add (some) background after. Even a polite nicety – “Hope you’re well!” – adds a marginal amount to the cognitive load.


Working Fast and Slow

My natural state is to be a perfectionist. I believe there is a right answer to everything, and I will think long and hard to find it.

Therefore I rely heavily on System 2, and it’s tiring. I struggle to make snap decisions because I want to make the right ones whilst considering all info available.

I’m constantly battling to correct this. Learning when to work fast and when to work slow has been a huge challenge, but it does get easier over time.

And it is a real battle, just as it’s a battle for a faster paced, more emotional & instinctive person – with a more finely-tuned System 1 than I – to take a step back and engage with their System 2.

We as individuals need both systems. And we as groups need a mix of people led by each system. On our own, we’d be useless.