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Cognitive illusions

Daniel Kahneman dedicated his career to understanding how we make decisions.

The theme of his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is that many of our judgments and decisions are less the result of careful thought as the product of unconscious bias and intuitive feeling.

We all suffer "cognitive illusions," the rational equivalent of optical illusions. Thinking-fast-and-slow-9780374275631-daniel-kahneman-books-clip

Kahneman unearthed so many insights on the source and consequences of those illusions that he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. 

 He believes that people's brains have two separate systems for organizing knowledge.

System One is blazingly fast and probably evolved so our prehistoric ancestors could survive in a world of hungry predators. It allowed them to react to shadows in the bush quickly enough to stay one step ahead of venemous snakes and saber-tooth tigers.

We call those quick judgments based on limited and fragmentary information "intuition." They allow us to act without waiting for our conscious awareness to catch up.

System One works because it has immediate access to a vast store of memories and impressions, especially those tied to emotions like fear, pain, and hatred. It's often wrong, but in the jungle it's safer to be wrong and quick than right and slow.

System Two is the slow process of forming judgments based on conscious tought and the critical examination of evidence. Kahneman believes System Two was probably a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation, arising from the need for prehistoric tribes to make plans and coordinate activities.

In theory, System Two allows us to evaluate System One's conclusions, correcting and revising them.  Unfortunately, it uses more calories and is more time-consuming. It's hard work. So we're less likely to use it. And even when we do, it's not immune to illusions.

A long litany of cognitive illusions afflict it, from “availability bias” (judgment based on memories that just happen to be quickly available or have strong emotional content) to "zero risk bias" (a preference to reduce a small risk to zero rather than attempting a smaller reduction in a bigger risk).

The problem is that System Two seldom operates independently of System One, which is faster and has greater emotional content. And as Kahneman ruefully points out, simply knowing of the existence of cognitive illusions doesn't free us from their effects.  

For example, if you got this far, you've now read 391 words on the subject. What is pictured in the following photo?


That's right -- two eggs. But some people can be tricked into thinking the photo pictures something else as Systems One and Two battle furiously within their brains.

Keep that in mind the next time you're dealing with other people, especially if you're arguing over a contentious issue.

Neither of you is really listening and evaluating the available data. You're probably operating off a whole host of cognitive illusions.  



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