Fast and slow thinking

Humans are risk averse and loss averse. Here is the experiment:

The researcher gives the subject £10. That’s theirs, to keep. Then s/he gives them another £5. Then s/he offers to toss a coin: if they agree to take the risk, they will get another £5 if it is Heads, but if Tails they will have to repay £5. Overwhelmingly, they refuse to gamble on the coin toss. They preserve the gain of £15 they have.

On the other group, the researcher gives the subject £20. Then s/he requires them to give back £5. Or, they can agree to gamble on a coin toss: if they call it right, they can keep that £5, but if they call it wrong they must give back another £5. Overwhelmingly, they gamble. We are risk averse and loss averse.

In both situations, the situation is the same: the subject can keep £15, or gamble £5 on an evens bet for another £5. Where this is framed as the chance to lose £5 to win £5, people refuse. Where it is framed as a loss of £5, which the subject can have the chance to regain if they gamble a further £5, they gamble.

We rely on instinct. Monkeys perform the same way, as found through sophisticated experiment design; so we always will, unless we make significant effort, as 30m years of primate evolution mould us that way.

This is fast thinking. We make hundreds of decisions, every minute: what to buy, what to wear, where to go, what to do; even eating a meal, we decide what mouthful to take next. In fast thinking, we rely on instinct, prejudice and previous decisions. We can choose to engage slow thinking, patiently and rationally working out the correct course of action, but that takes longer. What’s 2+2? You know that, you reply not without thinking, exactly, but without conscious thought; but asked what is 22×17, you need to think consciously.You can do fast thinking while walking; slow thinking is better done still. Serving in the Athenian army at Potidaea, Socrates stood without moving for a day and a night thinking out a problem, not seeming to notice his surroundings.

Not stepping on the cracks in the pavement might then be a way of occupying complex decision-making effort to avoid thinking of more important things- things too frightening to think of. It would be addictive behaviour, a sub-optimal coping strategy. (So might writing this be, actually: I blog a very great deal.)

Climate change deniers, emotionally incapable of facing the problem of CO2 emissions, are known to collect arguments, even specious ones, to bolster their denial. If slow thinking is too challenging or painful we will take great pains to avoid it.

Slowly, I rethink my understanding of the World. It may not be as threatening as it seems. It may be better for me to go out into the World again, rather than seek safety in my living room. And every move outwards I take is slow thinking, consciously working it out and deciding it is safe enough, as my past thought so often tells me to hide.

My main source: BBC Horizon.

Bruegel, children's games

5 thoughts on “Fast and slow thinking

      • Am so sorry Clare, it was on my BBC app and not my guardian app. My main sources of current affairs: although I do now and again buy certain newspapers to find out how others might be thinking!
        If that doesn’t take you direct the tile is Chilcot: Why we cover our ears to the facts and it is by Matthew Syed of the book Black Box Thinking. I was on my way to Manchester from Woodbrooke when I read it. We have been at the yearly Quaker Universalist Conference. This year it was on compassion and we had lectures re Paul Gilbert and his work but also a from the heart talk by Lama Yeshe Rinpoche from Sameling and Holy Isle Peace retreat, Arran. Thought you might be interested in the group.


        • Thank you. Fascinating. Faced with evidence against our position we reframe it, and get more convinced. we filter new information when it challenges our strongly-held beliefs or judgements. We use a series of post hoc manoeuvres to reframe anything inconvenient to our original position. We question the probity of the evidence, or the credentials of the people who discovered it, or their motives, or whatever. The more information that emerges to challenge our perspective, the more creatively we search for new justifications, and the more entrenched we become in our prior view. This tendency is called “cognitive dissonance”.

          I am Universalist in that I see the value of other spiritual ways, but I am Christian simply because I was brought up Christian. I understand the Christian way. I am glad the QUG exists.


          • I agree about being universalist and was unsure when I went to my first QUG conference why there was a group! But there is a lot of interfaith discussion and some very interesting talks. Some quite intellectual/academic others more experiential. I enjoyed there conference on peace. This year I feel I have something more to think about. I would certainly like to visit the Tibetan monastery in Scotland. I’ve always been a bit averse to mindfulness practices too but I found the Paul Gilbert work much more compassionate in focus. Almost heart warming! And much talk about the old brain similar to the cognitive dissonance approach. For me it is food for thought, possibilities to get involved in and perhaps a way in to be more compassionate, especially with those entrenched in another position from me!

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