System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. 
– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (81)


I spent the greater part of my working hours this past week removing books from the library shelves and stamping them “withdrawn.” Feeling something of the executioner, I began to muse on the psychological effect it might have on me to stamp the word, “withdrawn” “withdrawn” “WITHDRAWN” over and over again.

One further limitation of System 1 is that it can not be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it (25)

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow names the differing ways of thinking, respectively, System 1 and System 2. The part we know and believe to be firmly in control is System 2, all activity that requires conscious thought lives in this system. The unfortunate news that Kahneman shares in his book is the overwhelming evidence that System 1 is in fact (smugly, no doubt) running the show. System 1 is so firmly in control of our reactions, impressions, and judgements, that it hardly need deign to acknowledge its domination.

The technical definition of heuristics is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka (98).

Admittedly heuristics is a good thing. We are not after all computers and lack the ability to algorithmically function in real time. Lord knows I’m all for split second, heuristics. Or so I thought. I don’t want to make an enemy of my own brain, but the fact that System 1’s default attitude is to believe, always to believe, concerns me.

declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true (212).

Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me. Standing in the back of the stacks with my red stamp – withdrawn, withdrawn, withdrawn, the frame of my life takes on a rather pathetic hue. What might I be feeling if the word was “discard?” I shudder to think. But never mind “discard,” the depressing point, according to Kahneman is that if the word had been “keep” or “valued” I probably would not have even noticed. It doesn’t fit into my story.

A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).

As the acidic paper of the books I remove from the shelves flake and fall, strewing my hair and the floor with brittle specks of lonely confetti, I force System 2 to step it up. How we frame events, the tension between our remembering selves and our experiencing selves  makes a real difference to the actual quality of our lives. Kahneman mentions movements and policies, at the end of the book, that aim to help us help ourselves when dealing with all of our innate (and not always negative) judgment disabilities. And that is some cause for celebration. For hope.

Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound (367).

An admission that we know nothing,  yet relentlessly protect our belief systems against reality, is a healthy thing to keep in mind – I’m talking to you System 1! Understanding how profound our mental biases and tendencies are leaves me feeling that much more like useless confetti helplessly blowing about- it’s no use! but, never fear- my optimism bias kicks in and I just KNOW that acceptance is the first step! All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could – oh dear, I must confess my cynicism bias can kick my optimism bias’s ass any day of the week…..In the meantime I take some solace in the ineluctable certainly that, it is not just me. My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it (402)

13 responses to “WITHDRAWN

  1. What happens to the books? Do they get sold/given away or they pulped?If the former,they maybe going to a better place.

    • I’m not sure, but I think they are thrown away, the reason why we stamp them is because, often enough, well-intentioned people bring them back, thinking they have saved a precious item!

  2. Oh this has got hold of me right where I am, in the midst of writing a piece on the merciless beast, Ennui…
    well writ sister!

  3. It’s a fascinating treatise.

    For the most part, I am a System 2 thinker. One of the methodical things I do in that mode is create tools for System 1 thinking because System 2 thinking has always shown me that there will come a time in which I must think fast on my feet. Being a chronic System 2 thinker; finding it difficult to shut down or pause that mode, I will be able to use the mental or even physical System 1 tools when I need them most to boost me into System 1 mode for my very survival if not the chance to fluorish.

    A reamrkable treatise indeed.

  4. I tend to think I spend an inordinate amount of time with System 2 as well, in fact I read most of this book over the course of last weekend while competing in a Squash tournament and I found it really helpful to manually turn System 2 off. No thinking allowed! was my mantra- a successful one! haha….but after completing the book I wonder if I am just kidding myself…System 1 affects far more than I have allowed.

  5. “A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).”

    Not true in so many way and scenarios. As an art piece the one cherry can be as an ironic, statement, disgusting, a way to make another point (by either the artist or the cockroach) and in some cultures, it’s a plus when one has to eat whatever is available such as cockroaches. This is also true of the one cockroach many cherry ratio. The black and white declaration that this “will completely wreck” the appeal is also false. Obviously the writer has never been starving or lived in a New York City apartment.

    “Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me.”

    But why are these things negative? So long as you recognize that that is our way of imperfectly sorting out our initial experiences and that one does not have to act on those processes and conditions, but rather step back and see how they color our emotions and observations, they can be employed as the initial pathways to creating art or a way to revisit our creations and edit them…Or understand and have patience for the human condition (or create a character with human flaws).

    “My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!”

    Ladies and gentlemen, what a human we have here in Ryan! She’s just marvelous. Utterly marvelous.

    • Your paean to the cockroach is admirable, but not quite convincing…perhaps the addition of chocolate would help matters.

      And it is depressing because that step back, that moment of clarity and understanding is of course contingent upon System 2 getting off its duff and recognizing the colorful and creative way in which System 1 has comprehended things. I am not as optimistic, apparently, as you. This does not however, prevent me from being happy to be a fellow human with you.

  6. I would like to add that – and this is just my opinion here – calling it “System 1” and “System 2” is like something a writer would think up in an attempt to be catchy and get on more talk shows. Such a dehumanizing way to discuss the essences of our ever evolving and ever perplexing synapse and neurotransmitters and mysteries and 20 volts of energy that we run on. “Systems 1&2” ; Blech! Sounds like electrical grids in a cyborg.

    • The author addresses that very point in the book. It is not, by his admission the best way to express his point, particularly as it sets up a duality that gets away from the reality of the brain as a unit…nevertheless, it seemed the least cumbersome of possibilities.

  7. “nevertheless, it seemed the least cumbersome of possibilities.”

    …and the least cumbersome way to get a book contract.
    It’s just a step above a self-help concept since as you correctly point out “it sets up a duality that gets away from the reality of the brain as a unit…” The brain IS a unit and so far the greatest scientific minds have no idea how it actually computes, creates and self teaches. The 100 billion dollar brain initiative is only just beginning to map the brain functions of the optic nerve of a mouse and this fellow is telling us he’s figured out how we perceive the world because of poorly worded trick questions asking whether or not the reader thinks “Linda” is a feminist bank teller …Aw, come on. Are we in such desperate need to have reality explained to us that we’ll accept and follow this kind of pigeonholing? I guess that’s okay if you don’t mind thinking like a pigeon.

    • You might want to have a word with your cynic-bias – haha, just saying…
      the point of the book is to explain that perception is different from reality, and the way in which our brains have evolved, particularly where heuristic are involved, does not always serve us well.
      We humans, or at least this one, are in desperate need of a lot of things, trying to understand how the brain actually processes the world coming at us, and yes, fully comprehending that that way things are worded, framed, contextualized have REAL effects- particularly when you understand that knowing that doesn’t even necessary help.
      So, my fellow pigeon, the answer is yes, if I know that my brain’s default position is to skip the critical thinking part of the evaluative process, if I know that a hungry and tired person will UNCONSCIOUSLY but PREDICTABLY lose the ability to consider my case- and that I will do the same thing, and so will you (even if it hurts your ego’s story to think so) if I know that our tendency to weigh the bad shit that happens in life over the good in a way that could cause a distortion or fixation – well, all I can say is that my interest in this book, irrespective of the author’s ambition to connect with a large reading population (not to mention my apparent inability to represent the full and carefully presented information found therein), is that some pigeon holing is within and – I want to fly.

  8. Reblogged this on Psychology & Statistics Tutor:Mentor and commented:
    Thinking about thinking as I continue to build some reading lists

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