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