Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, a depressing but impressive book that is the culmination of his life’s work.
Kahnemann proposes that people think in two different modes – ‘fast’ and ‘slow’. Fast thinking is intuitive and easy thinking that we do in conversation with friends. It’s creative, comfortable and straightforward.
Slow thinking in contrast requires deep deliberation, concentration and a focus on evidence. It’s what we do when writing essays or carrying out a statistical analysis or deciding on the correct approach to a complex problem. Slow thinking is not about being slow-witted, it’s about taking your time to come to a greater understanding. But time is becoming harder and harder to come by.
Modern life is busy. News, current affairs and ‘factual’ content is constantly available, constantly clamouring for our attention at every waking moment (where are you now as you read this blog?) Daily news has become hourly and minute by minute updates, streaming and screaming to get our attention. And keeping us locked into fast thinking.
The problem with fast thinking is that if information seems familiar we often make judgements that are simplistic and wrong. If it’s too hard we often substitute a simpler question for one we don’t understand. We are often overly influenced by associated information – a particular colour or typeface, a likeable face, the context set in a previous paragraph. Thinking, Fast and Slow shows that all the tricks by which journalists, politicians and PR/Bloggers twist the truth are made possible by peculiarities of the human mind.
As a review of the book in the Progressive Populist notes:
“The mind will tend to make decisions based on the principle of what you see is all there is (WYSIATI), which means that people will assume that all the information at their disposal is all the information that is relevant to a decision. By their selection of criteria, writers create a world of facts that readers tend to take as WYSIATI, which is why propaganda techniques that involve selection and non-selection work. No one bothers to ask why only the rightwing anti-labor expert is being asked about the impact of the strike, or why none of the options being discussed involves adding taxes to the wealthy. We just accept the facts and experts the media selects for us.”
As if to ram this point home, the NZ Herald’s latest advertising catch-cry is ‘everything that really matters’.
It’s up to us as individuals and citizens to take responsibility for our own information but in the mad rush of modern life, having reliable, scrupulous and independent mainstream media would help.