This chapter has a tall task—to get you to think about your thinking. When we’re not engaging in what is known as metacognition, it’s easy to veer off the path of clear thought. You must become aware of your thought patterns and where you tend to stray. Watch yourself and try to evaluate what’s happening inside your brain.
This process begins with System 1 and 2 thinking, as conceived by Daniel Kahneman. System 1 thinking is quick, instinctual, and decisive—and also often incorrect. System 2 thinking is measured, calm, and analytical—and far slower and more difficult. Unfortunately, the brain operates on the principle of least resistance, so while System 1 thinking is first and foremost, we want to get into the habit of System 2 thinking on a consistent basis. The easier and more familiar a task becomes, the more instinctual and quick it can be, so the way to clearer thinking is consistent repetition and practice.
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In the first chapter of this book, we discussed how our psyches are pre-programmed to make the wrong judgments about what we see in a world that often isn’t what it seems to be. We also talked about how skepticism and critical thinking can help us vanquish those errors in discernment.
In this chapter, we’ll face many of the same issues, but this time, we’ll start by talking about how biological factors can lead us to the same errors in judgment. We are biologically programmed to lack self-awareness in many ways, and when we don’t know what is driving us, we will often be driven right off the cliff. A doctor probably shouldn’t operate unless they know the true causes of an illness; we should understand the baseline that our brains operate from in order to properly move forward.
The brain seems like a complex machine, and in many ways, it is. But you could view it as nothing more than an electrical network housed inside your skull. Information goes from neuron to neuron via electrical impulses that flicker across the synapses. Nothing more than trains and relay stations.
Just like the electric currents flowing from power outlets, the brain impulses that control our thoughts prefer to follow the path of least resistance. The brain maintains these easy passageways of thought for maximum effectiveness and speed. This means that the more you think about a certain thing, the more the brain isolates and reinforces the path that thought travels along—therefore making it easier to think about that thing again in the future.
That’s both good and bad news. It’s good in that refining those thought pathways makes certain mental tasks easier to accomplish. It’s helpful for creating good habits and reinforcing positivity. But it’s bad because if we latch on to negative or errant thoughts, they can become our default thought patterns, and this can be difficult to avoid. This is exactly where bad habits come from, and it’s why even though we logically know the spider won’t eat us, we can’t bear to face it. Our biological makeup overrules smart and clear thinking, and in effect robs us of our common sense and practical intelligence. Our brains become wired for flawed thinking, and this chapter uncovers how that happens and how to reverse it.
You can take measures to counteract the faulty thoughts that take hold in the brain, and gain clarity of thought. It takes some dedicated and deliberate monitoring of our mental processes and understanding how they work. We call this practice metacognition—very simply, thinking about our thinking and watching yourself dispassionately and objectively.
Two Systems of Thought
The brain is a wonder of biology. However, just like all our body parts, it gets exhausted when it’s overused. To prevent exhaustion, the brain regulates some of its processes so it can conserve the energy needed to power all its functions. This means it’s always seeking shortcuts, so we don’t have to think every last thing through, thereby conserving energy. In reality, the brain ends up cutting corners and ignoring important information in the interest of saving precious energy. In past eras, this was helpful because it allowed us to prioritize survival instincts above all else. But it’s much less useful to us now.
The brain’s search for shortcuts has led to two systems of thought—one focused on speed and conservation of energy, and the other on accuracy and analysis. This is something we must be vigilant about, especially when we are introduced to new information or concepts. The brain would rather save energy for survival situations, but little does it realize that it can actually cause them through flawed thinking.
This concept was popularized by professor Daniel Kahneman in his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Through a series of experiments, Kahneman developed a model that explains the separate processes the brain uses to absorb and react to various bits of information, imaginatively titled System 1 thinking and System 2 thinking.
System 1 is “fast” thinking. This mode is automatic and instinctive. It’s what we use when we happen upon a situation that we’re familiar with and don’t need to process that much, like recognizing a friend, riding a bicycle, or doing single-digit math calculations. Since it’s intuitive, System 1 thinking is also associated with emotional reactions, like crying or laughing when seeing an old photograph.
The main facet of System 1 thinking is effortlessness. It doesn’t require anything in the way of analysis or consideration, instead using a framework of associations that we’ve already experienced time and time again. System 1 is a series of mental shortcuts—called heuristics—that help us decode situations very quickly (more on those soon). And because there’s little time or effort used in System 1 thinking, it expends less energy and isn’t terribly exhausting. You’re not going to need a list of pros and cons to make decisions with System 1. Although System 1 is quicker, it’s aimed at doing the fast thing versus the right thing.
System 2, on the other hand, is “slow” thinking. This style is much more contemplative and analytical, and it’s generally used when we’re absorbing a new experience or learning. It’s employed for any situation that requires more mental labor and effort. System 2 controls decision-making in events that could result in high consequences, like choosing a college, buying a new car, or quitting your job.
You also use System 2 when you’re doing something that needs more focus or effort, like driving through a foggy night, striving to hear someone speak in a noisy room, trying to recall a conversation you had a few weeks ago, or learning a complex school subject that’s new to you. Skepticism and critical thinking, like the kind we discussed earlier in this book, fall under System 2.
Whereas System 1 thinking is fluid and instinctive, System 2 thinking is the opposite: it’s deliberate, conscious, and methodical. System 1 thinking is the proverbial skydiver, where System 2 thinking is the proverbial cautious lawyer. System 2 needs time and labor to process new information—and as a result, it uses more brain energy and can be tiring or draining. That flustered and fatigued feeling you might get while studying or reading a book isn’t because you can’t understand it or are bored; it’s an actual biological imperative. You’re using up your System 2 energy.
Both systems of thinking are important to us, as we use them for different situations. Most times, you don’t need to stop and think about whether to go at a green light or hug a close friend you haven’t seen in a while. They’re just things you automatically do, and there aren’t a lot of considerations or analyses you have to make before you do them. You draw from your past experiences and make an instant decision.
On the other hand, if you’re reading a calculus textbook, planning a family budget, or deciding whether to ask someone to marry you, you can’t just think casually or rely on your instincts to pull you through. There’s a time and place for both System 1 and 2 thinking.
Remember when we said the brain prefers the path of least resistance? This means it favors System 1 thinking whenever possible, and you must force yourself to take a step back and switch into System 2 thinking, which is what we’re after most of the time in clear thinking.
System 1 thinking is ultimately quite limiting, which is unfortunate because it’s where our minds go first and foremost. It makes us susceptible to accepting things and situations at first glance, not thinking skeptically, being more gullible, and overall faulty thinking. It makes us impulsive and rash without considering consequences or implications. It makes us think dumber.
For things you encounter on a regular basis or have deep familiarity with, it’s great—this is where System 1 thinking shines. If you have a plethora of experience with a situation, this system can indeed help you make a good decision. It’s also obviously useful when dangerous elements are present, as System 1 thinking springs you into action where analysis and careful consideration would leave you dead.
But in situations you’re a stranger to (most situations), the instincts of System 1 are almost worthless. System 1 uses familiarity and pre-existing associations to work. Your instincts are based on what you’ve already known, seen, or experienced; they won’t do you any good in a completely unfamiliar situation. You can’t go straight from driving a car to operating a sailboat—even though you know how to change direction with a steering wheel, those instincts won’t help you when you’re trying to change direction with sails.
System 1 also presents certain road bumps in learning. Remember, your brain’s preferred default mode is easy (some would say lazy). When presented with new material to learn, there’s always a chance your brain will take a look at the information and attempt to reduce and simplify all the nuance out of it. Perhaps Kahneman’s overall lesson is that we must fight our natural instinct to be lazy thinkers.
But System 2 ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be either. We can’t do it all the time because it would be impractical and too time-consuming. But more importantly, it’s plain exhausting, especially if you have to keep forcing yourself to do it. Maintaining your self-control, which is what metacognition is, is an exhausting effort—if you use up all your resources to force yourself to do something, chances are, you’ll be less able to do it next time.
This leads to a side effect called ego depletion. Expending the mental energy required in System 2 thinking can leave one so drained that it turns their brain into mush and prevents them from exercising it in the near future. If you’re pushing yourself to read a chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses—not the easiest work of fiction to consume, a System 2 book if there ever was one—you might not feel up to it next time unless you’ve formed a System 1-type connection with the material. It’ll just be too much. Hand over that cheap romance novel with Fabio’s chiseled jawline on the cover.
Ego depletion simply leads to mental fatigue, which doesn’t just cause System 1 thinking; it leads to incredibly poor decision-making out of stress, discomfort, and anxiety. After a bruising day at work, it’d be understandable if you decided not to make dinner from scratch—which would probably taste better and be healthier—and just warm up something in the microwave. (On a side note, additional studies on ego depletion have turned up inconclusive results, but we can still make a credible argument that consciously having to think about ten tasks in a day is more mentally strenuous than thinking about two tasks in a day.)
What can we do about this?
First and foremost, attempt to be aware that there are two levels of thinking, and realize that you are probably using System 1 more often than not. Consciously ask yourself if you are making the right choice or merely the quick one. Ask what is driving you—truth or speed. In other words, use metacognition and watch yourself dispassionately and objectively. Draw a contrast between the two types of thinking and become familiar with what each feels like to you. Awareness is the first step to any type of change, because it lets you know where you need to go.
Second, and this is much more difficult, is to transform your System 2 diligence and struggles into System 1 instincts through intentional repetition.
Think of chess masters. For extended periods of time, they have to employ System 2 thinking to understand all the complexities of the game. But after years of experience, they’ve catalogued thousands of scenarios, effective strategies, and defenses. With all that information now at immediate disposal, they can make most of their opening moves without thinking, as all combinations are mere patterns they have seen before, and they only have to switch to System 2 if they run into trouble in the game. Simply put, exposure and consistency shifts us from System 2 to System 1 thinking over time. It eventually becomes the path of least resistance for you.
When you can turn something that requires concentrated effort into something you do habitually, it can be dramatically transformative. The hardest part of any new thing—starting a diet, a new job, learning to drive—always comes at the beginning, when you’re using System 2. But after a while, and it’s usually not that long, you start to feel more natural in what you’re doing, and it becomes a positive habit that you don’t have to think too much about (System 1).
If you want chess to be less mentally taxing, it takes time to move all the strategy and combinations from System 2 to System 1.
It’s exactly the same way with critical thinking. You are mired in bad thinking habits in System 1. Therefore, begin to intentionally slow yourself down and walk through the steps of analytical and skeptical thinking. It will take time, but it will eventually become a habit, and a habit is really just another way of saying that something has moved from System 2 to System 1 thinking. And eventually it’ll be something you just automatically do.