Thinking Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow is the title of a book by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman that won a best book award in 2012 from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Drawing on extensive research, Kahneman shows – to simplify a bit – that there are two distinct information processing systems that guide people’s behavior, one of them intellectual and slow, and the other one emotional and fast. These systems use different parts of the brain.

Kahneman names and describes many of the specific ways that people are prone to errors in thinking, such as the availability error, in which people’s recent experience, or some particular examples that quickly come to mind, unduly influence their thinking, leading them to make mistakes. It is worth repeating that there is solid research behind his claims.

As one example, as I write this post a total of two people have become infected with Ebola in the United States. Each had treated someone who contracted the disease abroad and subsequently came to the U.S. Both people who contracted the disease in the U.S. recovered.

Despite this teeny, tiny number of cases (as a comparison, thousands die in the U.S. every year from flu), a recent Gallup poll showed that Americans think that Ebola is one of the most urgent health problems facing the country! As Gallup’s editor-in-chief reported on a radio program, when people “scan their environment cognitively, the [major health problem] that came to mind, other than access and cost [for health care generally] was Ebola, because that had been in the news. So that’s what [the survey result] told me, is there’s simply been a lot of discussion of Ebola.” This is an example of the availability error at work.

What is more, Ebola is a frightening disease, and fear automatically activates people’s emotional information processing system. In many cases, as Kahneman and others have shown, emotion governs human thinking more than careful analysis.

Scientists are trained to be careful and analytical. Papers and reports they write are seldom emotional in tone; usually, they cannot be emotional, or the writings would not be published. Thus, there is a mismatch between how most scientists write and talk and the way the human brain is wired. Climate change has not been clearly apparent in most people’s lives and so their emotional information processing system has not been activated, certainly not in the way that Ebola has activated a fearful response.

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