Tag Archives: heuristics and biases

Reading Fast and Slow

I’m currently reading a book by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, called Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman has been something of a hero of mine for over twenty years, since I first came across his work during my psychlogy degree at Bristol University. The papers that he authored (along with Amos Tversky) on heuristics and biases provide a fascinating and ever-relevant insight into how humans make simple and predictable mistakes because of the way that their minds work; and, again because of the nature of human cognition, we generally don’t realise when we have made these errors of judgement; we will defend our incorrect way of seeing things because we are quite simply blind to our own biases.

Kahneman’s book is, as the title hints, about two types of thinking: fast, or “System 1″, happens automatically and effectively without any effort on our own part: if I ask you what the capital of France is, you don’t have to dig deep within your mind to pull out an answer (in fact, you will find that it requires more effort not to think of Paris). Slow, or “System 2″ thinking, requires conscious effort, to fetch pieces of knowledge and hold them in your mind while you perform operations upon them. For example, if I asked you to estimate the distance between the capitals of France and Germany then you would probably conjure up a mental map of Europe, locate those two cities on it, and hold all of this in your mind while you make a guess at the distance between them.

There is much evidence that we are “lazy” thinkers, with limited mental energy available to us, and if we can avoid using System 2 thinking then we will do so. As we get better at performing any task – for example riding a bike – the steps required to do so are packaged up in a way that makes them accessible to System 1 thinking, and we become able to perform that task “without thinking”, or at least without being conscious of thinking.

…and this got me thinking. On the back of the book is a quote from Richard Thaler: “Buy it fast. Read it slowly”. Well, that stuck in my mind, and I did make an effort to read the book slowly, to linger and let its revelations sink in. But, as with almost any book I read nowadays, from time-to-time I found myself reaching the end of a paragraph with scarcely any idea of what I had just read. So I had to go back and re-read it, forcing myself to slow down and pay attention. And this is when my learnings from the book imposed themselves on my experience of reading the book: I realised that I had slipped between System 2 reading (slow, methodical, effortful and attentive) and System 1 reading (speedily going through the motions of regognising each word, but without that same experience of the meaning sinking in). This happens to me so much recently that I often wonder what has happened to my reading ability: I’m sure reading never used to be this difficult or unproductive when I was younger. But Kahneman has made guess at what, perhaps, my problem is: that I have become too good at reading, it has become an automatic System 1 process, whereas reading and comprehending is something which always needs to be carried out by System 2. This is a somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion – that becoming better at reading makes us in some ways worse at reading – although since reading is a relatively recent invention and not something that we human organisms have evolved to do then there is little reason why this should not be so. And I do not have any easy solutions – I suppose that it would be possible to somehow introduce disruptions into one’s readings and so, by making it harder, force us back into using System 2. If anyone has any other suggestions on how to remain attentive while reading then I would welcome them.