The Weekend Read – Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I read this book after reading John Seymour’s review. John is an NLP trainer with his feet firmly on the ground who taught my wife during her NLP Practitioner Training, I have been fortunate to spend some time in his company and value his knowledge, experience and wisdom. Instead of reinventing the wheel I though I would share John’s review – it’s spot on.

You can buy the book through Amazon here.

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“I’m reading Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. The man is a Nobel Prize winner and the book has had accolades showered on it. More importantly, I heard him speak on the radio and was well impressed – this doesn’t happen often. It’s been on my list to get since it first came out, a couple of years ago. I bought it on a flying visit to Waterstones back in the summer. It has sat on the current book pile until last week, when I dipped in. It is very good, with much practical wisdom. I suspect some of his gems will show up in this year’s courses.

The central idea of this book is that our minds have evolved to have two different modes of functioning. This theory has been around a while in psychology, but Kahneman brings it alive by pulling together key bits of research that have practically useful applications.

The two modes of operation are:

System 1 – fast thinking – in plain English you can call this the intuitive mind
System 2 – slow thinking – in plain English, this is the rational mind

System 1, fast thinking, operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, or sense of voluntary control.

Typical System 1 activities might include:

  • Noticing that one object is more distant than another
  • Driving a car on an empty road
  • Noticing hostility in someone’s voice tones
  • Understanding a simple sentence
  • Having an immediate opinion about something you know little about

All these mental activities we perform quickly and automatically, with little or no conscious effort. There is a significant amount of unconscious activity going on which makes use of many learned associations (e.g. what is the capital of France?) and skills (you are reading this automatically).

In contrast, System 2, slow thinking, allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex calculations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of concentration, agency and choice. They are disrupted if attention is distracted.

Typical System 2 activities might include:

  • Focusing on the voice of one person in a noisy and crowded room
  • Walking much faster than your normal speed
  • Monitoring the appropriateness of your behaviour in a social setting
  • Counting the number of times the letter ‘a’ occurs in this paragraph
  • Checking the validity of a complex logical argument.

These mental activities take time to do, they need our conscious attention and they require mental effort. There is a significant amount of conscious activity going on.

That is the brief summary of these two different modes of thinking, the intuitive mind and the rational mind. I’ll stick to these names from now on – it makes for easier reading.

When we think of ourselves we identify with our rational mind, the conscious reasoning self, that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and do. Although we think our rational mind is where the action is, in many ways, the automatic intuitive mind is the hero of the piece and actually doing much more of the action.

It is the intuitive mind that effortlessly surfaces from the unconscious the impressions and feelings that are the grist to the mill of the conscious mind. The unconsciously competent operations of the intuitive mind generate surprisingly complex and appropriate patterns of ideas. However, only the slower conscious operations of the rational mind can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.

How do these two modes work together?

Both of them are active when you are awake. Your intuitive mind runs automatically and your rational mind is usually in low effort mode. Your intuitive mind feeds impressions, thoughts, intuitions, feelings, impulses and intentions to your rational mind. If it adopts these, then impressions, thoughts and intuitions turn into beliefs, while impulses and intentions turn into actions.

Most of the time, your rational mind goes along with your intuitive mind. When all is going smoothly, which is usually the case, you generally believe your impressions and act on your impulses. When your intuitive mind runs into difficulties, it calls on your rational mind to do some detailed specific thinking about the problem. For example if you hear a sudden unexpected noise, or try to divide your income by the number of hours you work, you will typically experience a surge of conscious attention and effort. This affects your body. Your muscles tend to tense, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your pupils visibly dilate. You could say that your rational mind and your body are activated and put on alert when your intuitive mind’s model of the world is violated.

In summary, most of what you think and do originates in your intuitive mind. However your rational mind takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word. Normally this is a highly efficient division of labour. Each of your mind modes has different strengths, weaknesses, and functions. However they do not always work well together.

See if you can spot when your two minds do not work so well from the following examples:

  • Do you tend to identify more with one of these mind modes more than the other? And does this make you inclined to not switch to the other mode when it is more appropriate? How do you know when it is time to switch modes?
  • Intuitions work well when you have good skill base in the field involved, but not when you don’t. I would trust my intuitions in NLP training, but not in golf (I don’t play golf). When can you rely on your intuitions, and when can’t you? Do you sometimes get this wrong?
  • The intuitive mind has little understanding of logic, statistics and complex systems. Do you rely on it when these are involved? For example, with finances and investments? Be careful…
  • The rational mind can be very slow. If fast decisions are called for, you may keep missing the opportunities.
  • The rational mind can stay stuck in its thinking processes and nothing happens – analysis paralysis.
  • The rational mind often monitors the impulses of the intuitive mind in social situations. Failure to do so can be embarrassing, or damage relationships, whilst over-monitoring can become undue people pleasing. How do you fare on this one?

As your rational mind becomes more aware of how your two minds work together over the days ahead, notice any adjustments you want to make and simply imagine them happening, and practice these adjustments. The more you do this, the more your intuitive mind will take note and this will tend to bring about the adjustments.

May your minds become more harmonious.”

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