In The Search For Truth, Why Is Everyone In Such A Big Hurry?
In Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking Fast And Slow, he describes a human brain governed by two systems. At the risk of over-simplifying professor Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning work, the first system governs our everyday functions, quickly assessing and sorting information and stimuli to help guide us through myriad tasks both small and large.
It is intuitive, fast-moving and always functioning. It remembers the route to work or not to touch a flame. It is impulsive, often sloppy and stubborn in the face of contrary evidence.
The second system operates at another level. It is in charge of self-control, monitoring complex concepts and slowing processes to allow for a deeper examination. It is the fail safe. Much of the time it allows the first system to handle the action. But when your car skids on ice and your inner brain screams, “Steer in the direction of the skid”, that is the second system overriding the first.
As a classic example of how the two systems work— and don’t work— he cites a riddle: A ball and a bat cost $1.10. The bat is a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Using its quick-response, System 1 says 10 cents. The right answer, which System 2 supplies after examination, is five cents.
Over 80 percent taking this test at universities got it wrong. One imagines a higher failure rate in the general population.
“People who say 10 cents appear to be ardent followers of of the law of least effort,” professor Kahneman notes, “Many people are overconfident, prone to put too much confidence in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.”
By contrast, Kahneman notes that System 2 produces physical reactions as it works: tensed muscles, dilated pupils, increased heart rate. For this strenuous reason, System 2 prefers to delegate most of its work to System 1. It, like System 1, is reluctant to work. Unless System 1 is messing up.
So does this apply to politics/ society in America and Canada at this moment? Let’s take a case in point. The infamous Hijab Hoax. An 11-year-old Muslim girl in Toronto claims she was attacked by a smiling Asian man with scissors who tried to cut off her hijab. He then escapes. Societal symbols of authority— police, mayor, premier, prime minister, media— immediately embrace her story.
They issue windy lectures on intolerance, racism, sexism etc. Their virtue signalling is satisfied.
System 2 is not so sure, however. It takes time to consider the discrepancies in the story. Within 48 hours, the girl admits to lying. The knee-jerk narrative embraced by the symbols of authority collapses. Some apologize, but most stick to talking points even as they admit to having jumped in too fast. In short, System 1 did what it does, a cursory examination of facts, a comparison to similar episodes in the past. It makes a fast decision that it stubbornly defends.
System 2 is then roused to action. It logically examines the same facts and finds out that they don’t make sense. The girl’s story is riddled with inconsistencies. And falls apart.
The ball costs ten cents. On closer inspection, the ball actually costs five cents. The hijab “attack”shows racism. Then it doesn’t.
The political auto de fé in the United States is the same. The Parkland shooting occurs. Within hours, a cursory assembly of the facts suggests a young man with a high-powered gun has killed 17 people. Surviving students are herded before cameras to say “guns bad”. Cable news channels embrace the superficial elements in classic System 1 intuitive fashion. Politicians demand changes in the law. The local sheriff blames the NRA.
But then System 2 has a chance to examine the facts. The FBI ignored warnings about the shooter and its own protocols. The Broward police were warned dozens of times about the shooter’s promise to shoot up the school. The school, too, doesn’t bring the shooter’s troubled state to attention of authorities who could stop him buying a gun. The local cops cower on the school lawn, allowing the shooter free reign in the halls.
Contrary to the early narrative, this is a tragedy that could have been stopped multiple times. The NRA had very little to do with the story. But no one apologizes for their hasty call.
The traditional political assignment of roles would be that the Left is System 1, the Right System 2. One the impulsive, emotional side in a hurry to get to its advertised narratives. The other, the plodding, empirical nag pointing out the flaws in the story. (Or, in plans for single-payer heath care or unlimited immigration. )
But the current dynamic of Donald Trump has scrambled the equation. Instead of being the contemplative, patient conservative GOP stereotype, Trump is a System 1 creature himself. His Twitter habit, his impulsive outbursts and his capricious reversals of policy are a man speed-reading the social dynamic. He’s a 10-cents-for-the-ball kind of guy.
On his own, Trump is more than enough to sow discord. But the 24-hour news channels also provide an accelerant for snap judgements. Holding them back long enough to make proper System 2 judgements seems a hopeless task these days. Instant analysis, not accuracy, is the goal. Fact comes out the loser.
Truth moves at its own speed, not the speed of cable news. Thinking Fast and Slow is like that. It’s not an easy book. It takes time and patience. But it is the time between sinning in haste and repenting at leisure.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)