I don’t mean the question in the moral sense. I am not asking if you trust yourself alone with your friend’s attractive spouse or trust yourself to only have two drinks when enjoying a night on the town.
I am asking if the decisions, judgments, and actions in your daily affairs are those of a reasonable and rationale being. Well?
As I have spent the last several weeks reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, I have begun to realize just how biased, irrational, and often lazy my brain really functions. It has been an interesting journey as it paralleled a time in my life that resonated with joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy. The premise of the book is to describe two of the core layers of human thought. Kahneman describes these layers as “system 1” and “system 2”. “System 1” is the autopilot, automatic system that takes no conscious effort. This is the system of thought used to answer a simple math problem, to drive a car down the road while daydreaming, and to handle the vast majority of the insignificant little tasks we engage in on a daily basis. “System 2” is what we would consider our conscious. You are employing this system when performing more strenuous tasks, such as engaging your date in conversation, solving a quadratic equation, or reading this blog post.
Perhaps a simple example will help to demystify the concept. You would use “system 1” to quickly and efficiently answer simple math problems such as:
What is 2 + 2?
Or simple word problems such as:
A bat and ball costs $1.10 and the bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
These problems are answered instantaneously by “system 1” and the answers are usually reliable. This saves us from wasting brain power on simple tasks, and allows us to save our higher brain function for other tasks. Such as:
What is 17 x 34?
If a number popped into your head within the first second or two after seeing the above problem, I applaud you. For the rest of us, we actually have to spend a bit of time figuring out this more complex problem. Many of us looked at this problem, considered it for a few moments, and then decided to move on. It was simply not worth the effort required to solve it. This example displays two facts about system 2; it is engaged to deal with more complicated procedures and it is excruciatingly lazy.
Now seems like a good time to ask how many people answered that the ball in the prior question costs 10 cents? If you are anything like 70% of MBA students at Yale University, you were tricked by a math question that you could have solved in first grade. The correct answer of course is that the ball must cost 5 cents if the bat is exactly $1 more than the ball. ($1.05 + $.05 = $1.10). If you had simply engaged that lazy “system 2” you wouldn’t be feeling so sheepish right now!
These concepts were perusing through my brain over the past few weeks as life continued to march onward. Keri Anne, my wife, was finishing her final prerequisite to get into Physician Assistant School this summer. She was consistently engaging her “system 2”, trying to absorb all the wonders of organic chemistry. I was left to wonder how we could engage that portion of our brain to more fully enjoy the wonders of this life. The more I thought about it, the more confident I became that most of us waste our precious system 2 concerning ourselves with the stresses of life. Can I honestly say that I spend more time reflecting on the triumphs and joys of my life than I do about the defeats and sorrows? While pondering how to reverse this trend, I heard word that a friend of mine had certainly not succeeded in this task. A kid that I used to hunt and play with from before I could remember decided to put a bullet through his own head.
It is times like these, when our mind is consumed with the emotions of life altering events, that we truly see both the power and the limitations of the brain. “System 2” is completely immersed in the emotional torrent that occurs in these scenarios, whether a joyous triumph or a devastating pain. “System 1” is left to steer the ship and is equal parts impressive and inefficient. If you recall a life altering event in life, you may have a hard time remembering what you did or what you said. If you are anything like me, your “system 1” seems to lack spatial cognition and you are repeatedly bumping into walls, furniture, and occasionally people. But incredibly, we stumble, stagger and, bounce through our daily routines with remarkable efficiency. Remarkable, considering we often don’t remember making any of these decisions in the first place, as we are truly on autopilot.
Time passes, and slowly our “system 2” seems to take back control of our actions. The joy of seeing Keri Anne pass organic chemistry and engage in her white coat ceremony for PA school seemed to help these dark memories fade into history.
What is left after this experience is a little unusual. I realize I can’t trust my decisions, judgments, and actions nearly as much as I previously thought. For what reasonable person would lock their keys in their car, lazily fail at a simple math problem, or play human Plinko through the halls at work. But I also learned how to hone my mind onto the most important aspects of life, and to always remember what truly matters on this earth. Family, faith, and friends. And aren’t you better off trusting these three instead?
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