My recent Newsletters have returned me to the idea that there are two systems by which we make decisions. I went back to the original source and Daniel Kahneman’s book on Thinking, Fast and Slow. I was surprised how much more there was to the story. I had thought of Systems 1 and 2 as alternatives but this is not the case. System 1 thinking, or as I have called it “autopilot” thinking, is always on. It works without conscious effort and it has one job. Its purpose is to jump to conclusions.
System 1 thinking is continuously asking the same questions: Is anything new going on? Is there a threat? Are things going well? Should my attention be redirected? In evolutionary terms our autopilot is our protector. It checks the world around us and compares it with what is “normal”. It checks our associative memory to understand what is normal. It is making many decisions for us all the time. All this is going on subconsciously and without effort. It mobilizes System 2 seldom.
Our System 2 thinking is effortful. It allocates attention to activities that demand it. These can include complex calculations and decisions. They tend to be associated with us having agency and choice. Kahneman tells the story of his early researches. He monitored the size of the pupils of his respondents. He did this by having them place their chin on a machine often used by opticians. He could track the impact of mental effort. He found that the harder the task the more their eyes dilated. Asked to multiply 17 by 24 in their heads, he could spot the exact moment when someone gave up on the task. Their pupils went back to normal size. He surprised his participants by spotting something that they thought was a secret. The effort they were expending on System 2 activity was visible in real time.
In a break in the experiments he made an amazing discovery. One respondent kept her head on the machine but started chatting to the operator. Her pupils did not change in size. Routine conversations were taking place without engaging “conscious” thought. He came to realize that System 2 was lazy. It was conserving mental energy.
Triggering The Lazy Controller.
System 1 dominates our day to day lives. It lives in a world of cognitive ease. Ease is a sign that things are going well and there is no sign of a threat. There is no need to mobilize System 2. There has been a lot of research on what drives that sense of cognitive ease. If the experience is familiar, or memory contains a related experience, then autopilot feels at ease. Interestingly our mood can have a direct impact on the perception of ease. If we are relaxed and happy then “autopilot” is more likely to be at ease. If for any extraneous reason we are tense then our system 1 will be tense and hence mobilize System 2.
Something as simple as making a message more legible increases cognitive ease. Contrast in the typeface or a bold type will increase cognitive ease. "Autopilot” prefers simple expressions and text that is not too complex. Researchers at Princeton constructed a series of tests. For each the “intuitive” answer was wrong. For example:
It takes five machines five minutes to make 5 widgets, how long
Would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
100 minutes OR 5 minutes
Half of the students in the sample saw the test in a clear high contrast font. The rest saw them in a washed out grey. 90% of the students in the legible group got one question wrong and chose the intuitive but incorrect answer. This dropped to 35% with the less legible version. They did better not worse. The reduced legibility caused cognitive strain which mobilized System 2. System 2 is better at these kind of puzzles. (answer next week)
The Ageing Autopilot
In other Newsletters I have shown that with age decision making changes. We are more likely to use “autopilot”. We truncated any System 2 decision making using our collection of associative memories. We screen less alternatives and collect less information on each. I have suggested that this is due to two forces. We are more expert at decision making. We have scripts for many decisions and can make them without thought. We also have changed motivations. We are maximizing enjoyable experiences. We minimize any situations that could be emotionally taxing.
The Idea of “Cognitive Ease” can explain further. Our vast collection of scripts means that we are much less likely to surprise our autopilot. We are less likely to mobilize System 2. Older people are happier on average. They are less likely to worry and be depressed. If we are in a good mood we are more likely to be cognitively at ease.
The only factor mitigating against this logic is our declining senses. If we cannot see the menu do we engage System 2 to help? Once activated does it look at the decision to go to this particular restaurant? Alternatively our sub-conscious perceptual completion may just fill the gaps.
Autopilot does make mistakes. Its decision making capability is limited. It does have advantages. As Kahneman puts it:
“Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs associated with the occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves time and effort”