Daniel Kahneman on two systems of thinking, effort, associative thinking and ego depletion (Thinking, Fast and Slow)

One of the most useful things in Thinking, Fast and Slow and the idea that serves as a framework for the 499 page behemoth, is the explanation of the characteristics, function and differences between two systems of thinking. System 1 is the involuntary, automatic, effortless system that responds immediately to situations (“fast thinking”). System 2 is the dormant system that is called on when system 1 runs into trouble and is more methodical, logical and energy sapping (“slow thinking”).

System 1 generally does a good job but is susceptible to biases and illusions. The problem is that the only way to prevent or avoid these illusions for certain is by amping up the vigilance and monitoring of system 2, which would be exhausting and impractical. What Kahneman proposes instead is that we familiarise ourselves with the situations in which we commonly fall prey to cognitive illusions and biases, as well as try harder (increased mobilisation of system 2) to avoid mistakes when the stakes are high. And so begins a long sobering list of significant, and sometimes dangerous, examples of such situations…

But that's post 2. Before I go into these, I want to jot down some other important notes on the two systems of thinking particularly in relation to attention and effort.

Cognitive effort and ease

Imagine that cognitive effort is a little dial in your brain. If cognitive effort is low, it means that there are no perceived threats or irregularities in your world and that system 2 is quite happy in ‘stand by’ mode while system 1 works away on the low-stakes, everyday decisions and computations. Research shows that cognitive ease is pleasurable and puts us in a good mood – apparently when we are presented with something that is easy to read/see/work out, we imperceptibly smile. A happy mood loosens the control of system 2 over performance; when in a good mood we are more likely to be creative and intuitive but less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.

In contrast, when the dial is turned up to high and system 2 is forced into action, our pupils dilate, we tense slightly, our blood pressure rises and our heart rate increases. We become more suspicious, vigilant and invest more effort in what we are doing but our mood, creativity and intuition suffer.

Kahneman focuses on how advertising companies and authoritarian institutions capitilise on these findings but they also are interesting with respect to creative processes.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done more than anyone else to study scenarios in which cognitive work is not always aversive and has named the state of effortless attending as flow. He has a book of the same name that has been on my to-read list for over 5 years but is still unread…

In the 1960s, psychologist Sarnoff Mednick proposed that creativity is associative memory that works exceptionally well and his research supports the idea that good mood heightens intuitive and associative powers.

A word on association and the effect of priming on it

If Mednick is correct that creativity is in fact associative memory that works exceptionally well, it feels important to get a proper understanding of how associative memory works.

In the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume reduced the principles of association to three: resemblance, contiguity (closeness) in time and place, and causality. Psychologists no longer believe that the mind consciously goes through a sequence of associations one at a time. Instead, an idea activates many ideas that in turn activate even more ideas like ripples in a pond. What is interesting about the current view is that only a small fraction of these associations are said to register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent and hidden from our conscious selves.

“The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true; you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.”

Kahneman talks at length about the priming effect - how exposure to a particular word can cause immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which related words can be evoked. I was familiar with the basic examples of the priming effect – i.e. people primed with ‘eat’ are more likely to complete SO_P as ‘soup’ rather than ‘soap’ however I was less aware of the many many examples of how we can be primed by events of which we are not even aware and the challenge of these to our image of ourselves as “autonomous authors of our judgments and choices.” Two of the most fascinating examples were that money-primed people are more selfish and have a greater preference for being alone and reminders of mortality increase the appeal of authoritarian ideas…

How then can we measure, hone and enhance our associative memory if we have no conscious access to it? This is not Kahneman’s focus and as far as I’m aware, he doesn’t seek to answer it. He finishes the chapter …

“You have now been introduced to the stranger in you, which may be in control of much of what you do, although you rarely have a glimpse of it. System 1 provides the impressions that often turn into your beliefs, and is the source of the impulses that often become your choices and your actions.”

In many ways this reminds me of Ed Catmull’s thoughts on the limits of perception (see blog post Ed Catmull on the Hidden). He suggests we should acknowledge how flawed and limited our experience of reality is and consider different viewpoints - or in this case, different constellations of associations - as additive rather than competitive so our 'own' ideas can be tempered by a discourse with others.

Ego depletion

Another idea I found fascinating and potentially informative to my every day and creative life is the idea of ego depletion.

It seems that effort whether cognitive, emotional or physical draws at least in part from the same pool of shared energy, and this pool is finite.  This means that if you have had a day that has required an unusual level of emotional, physical or cognitive effort towards the end of that day you are going to be depleted and less willing and able to assert self-control.

I have had tangible experience of this during a tiring rehearsal period – when it comes to production week, the smallest problems seem insurmountable because they have come after several weeks of above normal effort. And of course there's the predictable peak in chocolate consumption that week too.

Tim Ferriss talks about decision-making and decision fatigue in a similar way. He suggests we minimise everyday and superfluous decisions (i.e. what to have for breakfast, what to wear in the morning) in order to conserve our energy for the most important decisions. If you want to read more about Ferriss’s thoughts on this, see his article Biological costs to decision making or listen to his podcast (Ep 44: How to Avoid Decision Fatigue).

I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow in its entirety. This is only a summary of the first part and is an infinitesimal morsel of the wisdom it contains.