Culture & Society

  • Issue 100 / July - August 2014

    Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and Thinking Together

    Gokhan Aydin

    Decision-making is a cognitive process that constantly runs in the background of our minds, resulting in choices made in a limited time based on available information and the cognitive ability of the individual [1]. The performance of this process has been challenged by the hectic pace of modern living. The number of decisions we have to make increases exponentially, our minds are flooded with relevant, as well as irrelevant, information coming from various sources, and the time buffer between decisions we make shrinks and shrinks. The significant consequences of some of the decisions we make in this "chaotic medium" make it imperative for us to understand how human thinking works.

    Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's work on intuition reveals an important categorization of human thinking: one takes place effortlessly, immediately after the stimulus and without the command or approval of the self; the other one takes time and effort, and requires approval and guidance from deeper consciousness. The former is called System 1, or fast thinking, and the latter is called System 2, or slow thinking [2].

    System 1 handles basic tasks like walking, breathing, and calculations like determining the value of 2 x 2, while System 2 takes on more complicated, abstract decision making tasks, such as recognizing a face that hasn't been seen for a long time, making investment decisions, and calculations such as multiplying multiple digit numbers, e.g., 435 x 23. Many of our mistakes, Kahneman says, occur when exhaustion or other factors cause System 1 to do jobs better suited for System 2.

    System 1 thinking is highly prone to error and it usually results in mistakes, most of which can be avoided if System 2 thinking is employed. Each individual is responsible for determining if a situation calls for fast or slow thinking. Age, education, and economic and social status have effects on whether System 1 and System 2 are employed properly.

    When System 1 and System 2 thinking mechanisms are considered in the social context, it provides a whole new dimension in analyzing social issues, their solutions and public policies. Although System 1 and System 2 thinking are pertinent to individuals, society in general may be greatly affected by how people in decision and/or policy making positions employ those systems, since such decisions, good or bad, are consequential with regards to their likely impact on the betterment of society.

    Kahneman's study gives us a good understanding of the mechanisms employed in the human decision making process. Various factors that cause people to use System 1 when System 2 is a better fit have been studied; however, what motivates people using System 2 remains opaque, despite its crucial role in our personal life and in society at large.

    When Kahneman was asked what the simplest, most straightforward advice he would give to someone who wants to make sure they are not ceding certain, important System 2 decisions and calculations to System 1, his answer was, "Slow down, sleep on it, and ask your most brutal and least empathetic close friends ... who understand your feeling but are not overly impressed by them" [3].

    Such discoveries of human behavioral patterns remind us of a tradition that has been promoted throughout history in sacred texts and the works of scholars. This tradition is called consultation. The theological motivation for the institution of consultation is the result of one's acceptance of his/her limits and/or humbleness, and the hope that thanks to this acceptance of not knowing all the aspects of a subject, God, the All-Knowing, will show the right way and lead him/her to the path that is best.

    The Proverbs refer to persons who do things with counsel as prudent men: "Among the proud there are always contentions: but they that do all things with counsel, are ruled by wisdom" [4]. The significance of consultation is made obvious in the Qur'an by naming a chapter Consultation (Ash-Shura); the chapter emphasizes the role of consultation in personal and social life [5]. Another verse suggests utilizing consultation in public affairs [6].

    The prominent 20th century scholar Said Nursi makes a point on consultation in his unique way: "... each individual in a true, sincere union can also see with the eyes of other brothers and sisters, and hear with their ears. It is as if each of the ten persons in true solidarity and unity has the value and power of seeing with twenty eyes, thinking with ten intellects, hearing with twenty ears ..." [7].

    System 1 thinking has greater control over our judgments, especially in the presence of intense emotions such as excitement and anger. It is not uncommon that we regret the promises we make within the excitement of a moment or the things we say when we are angry. Abu Dharr reported something along these lines: Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said to us, "If one of you is angry when he is standing, let him sit down so that the anger will leave him; otherwise, let him lie down" [8]. Changes such as switching positions can buy just enough time for System 2 to kick in. The devil is in details, think before you speak, and think twice before you act - these are some of the idioms and proverbs that guide us on how to keep a healthy balance between fast and slow thinking.

    The risk of error in our decisions and judgments can be alleviated as we move from Thinking Fast to Thinking Slow - and even further to Thinking Together, i.e. consulting with relevant parties. In a sense, humbleness is the key attribute that prevents us from making "fast" decisions without due reflection and encourages us to consult with others, and hence, make better decisions on issues that challenge us.

    Gokhan Aydin is a graduate student at Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, RF/Microwave Lab. Syracuse University.


    [1] Herbert A. Simon, Models of Man: Social and Rational. New York: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

    [2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2013

    [3] Jesse Signal, Daniel Kahneman's Gripe with Behavioral Economics,

    [4] Proverbs 13:10.

    [5] The Holy Quran, Chapter 42, Verse 38, Translation by Ali Unal

    [6] The Holy Quran, Al Imran, 159, Translation by Ali Unal

    [7] The Twenty-First Gleam, The Gleams, by BSN, Tugra Books, New Jersey, 2008

    [8] Abu Dawud, 4782


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