Thinking, fast and slow, and slower…

Daniel Kahneman’s recent bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a brilliant summary of a lifetime’s work in the psychology of decision making. Together with his colleague, Amos Tversky, Kahneman revolutionized the way psychologists think about how people reason and make choices. Before these two young Turks burst on the scene in the early 1970s, psychologists had a rather rosy view of decision making that owed more to logic and mathematics than to empirical research. People were seen as utility-maximizers, rationally weighing up the pros and cons of the options available to them before opting for the one with the highest payoff. In a series of brilliant experiments, Kahnmen and Tversky exposed this picture as overly optimistic, and showed that human decision making is riddled with biases and cognitive short-cuts that work well enough most of the time, but can also lead to some pretty dumb mistakes.

The central thesis of Kahmenan’s book is that there are fundamentally two modes of thought, which he denotes System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, emotional, and subconscious; System 2 is slower, more effortful, more logical, and more deliberative. The biases and cognitive short-cuts are largely features of System 1, but we can overcome these by employing System 2. It just takes more effort and more time.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it leaves a crucial third kind of thinking out of the picture. This is the meditative, creative mode of thought that the psychologist Guy Claxton calls the “undermind” in his thought-provoking book, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. It is much slower than Kahneman’s System 2, and works away quietly in the background, below the level of conscious awareness, helping us to register events, recognize patterns, make connections and be creative. This is the kind of thought that can bubble away beneath the surface for weeks or even months, quietly turning over a problem and looking at it from different perspectives, before suddenly thrusting a solution into consciousness in that exciting Eureka! moment.

I think Claxton is onto something in claiming that the mind possesses three different processing speeds, not two.  Think of it as a kind of “cognitive sandwich” if you like. The top half of the bun is the lightning fast System 1 identified by Kahneman, the world of snap judgments and rapid heuristics.  The bottom half of the bun is the snail-paced undermind identified by Claxton, where thoughts cook slowly in the back oven. Both of these are unconscious processes, operating below the level of conscious awareness. The hamburger in the middle is conscious thought, Kahneman’s System 2.

Where does risk intelligence come in to all this? Risk intelligence tends to be domain-specific, and those with high risk intelligence build up models of a given domain slowly, often unconsciously, as they gradually accumulate experience in their specialist field.  These models may involve many different variables.  The expert horse handicappers I describe in chapter one of my book took at least seven different variables into account, including the speed at which a horse ran in its last race, the quality of the jockey, and the current condition of the racetrack.  People with high risk intelligence manage to keep track of all the relevant variables, and perform the complex mathematical task of weighing them up and combining them.  However, they usually do this unconsciously; they need not be mathematical wizards, since most of the computation goes on below the level of awareness.

There are some basic tricks for increasing risk intelligence across the board, and I discuss some of these in the book. Simply taking a general knowledge version of the RQ test can, for example, lead to rapid gains in risk intelligence because it encourages people to make more fine-grained distinctions between different degrees of belief.  Such rapid improvements in risk intelligence may well generalize to any field, so there may be a small domain-general component of risk intelligence.  But these rapid gains are the low-hanging fruit; once you have plucked them, further increases in risk intelligence may be harder to achieve, and will require immersing yourself in a particular field of study for perhaps many years. It is then that, to borrow Claxton’s metaphor, the “hare brain” must stand aside, and let the “tortoise mind” take over.