I had written this post a month and a half back. Two weeks ago The New York Times published a similar article here, and therefore I decided to update and publish this. Few weeks back many people were posting all over Facebook regarding a privacy statement – if you post a certain paragraph then Facebook doesn’t have permission to use your content. Postings like that come up periodically on Facebook, and this time even John Oliver made fun of it in this video. Similar postings in various other topics keep showing up in social media, topics with a single internet search would be disproven. And usually, it is the same people share and post such things. So what is the reason behind this?
In Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, mentioned in the Times’ article, the author comes up with two thinking systems in the brain. He names the fast thinking system, the part that depends on intuition and reactions, as System 1. This system doesn’t spend a lot of time in thinking or analyzing an issue. It lacks critical thinking and questioning skills. In contrast, system 2 is a skeptic. It spends time in studying an issue before reaching a conclusion. It questions everything. A simple example was how President Bush was described as someone who ‘goes with his guts’ (system 1), while President Obama has been described as someone who dithers over an issue (system 2).
From an evolutionary perspective, system 1 would be important in protecting us from predators. You hear a rustle in the leaves and you run as fast as you can. There might not be a tiger to eat you, but if there was a tiger then depending on system 2 would mean you would end up as the tiger’s dinner. But as we have moved on from the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer and live in a civilized and globalized world, system 1 creates a ton of problems for us. People who depend too much on system 1 believe almost anything they hear or read the first time, especially if it fits into a narrative which they have been exposed to since childhood. They lack skepticism and questioning skills. On the other hand, people who possess system 2 skills to an extreme level end up as conspiracy theorists. They are skeptics of nearly everything. Those who are more inclined towards system 1 might be lean more towards traditional and religious values where they do not question what already exists, while those who are inclined more towards system 2 might lean more towards left-wing spirituality that has do with ‘higher consciousness’, ‘energy’, ‘chakras’, naturopathy etc. These people are skeptics in the traditional sense, but not skeptics enough to challenge left-wing pseudoscience. Finally, there are people who believe everything from left-wing pseudoscience regarding aspects of spirituality to right-wing pseudoscience like religious dogma. These kind of people are rarer, but they are a fascinating study because they lack any and all skeptic nature and are prone to believe anything.
Finally, even if people have skeptic genes – people in whom system 2 works well – their system 2 might be able to detect error but might not be able to correct error. These people will know something is wrong because of their system 2, but they will double down on their belief by rationalizing it. Taking it to an extreme is called denialism – as written in this article from today’s New York Times. One common example is evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. A traditional religious person depending on system 1 would believe in creationism if his/her religion has a creationist story. A person who has a healthy system 2 would know the theory of evolution and how it is incompatible with religious dogma. But a person with a system 2 that detects error (creationism), but cannot correct the error will double down on the religious dogma and support intelligent design. Such a person is intelligent and educated enough to know that going against science is a losing cause, but such a person also has a deep affinity for something that is refuted by science, facts, or logic, and therefore that person will try to find any loopholes to try and bridge the gap between science and religious dogma. In this example, intelligent design sounds like science while also allowing aspects of religious doctrine to exist.
But we shouldn’t judge people for having a predominant system 1 or an extreme system 2. Whatever anyone believes, they do so because they are sure about it. And no one is immune from the effects of a system 1 or an extreme system 2. We all have our inner biases inculcated since childhood. Therefore, to be more logical and rational in our lives we must make a conscious decision to teach our children how to think, how to ask questions, and to teach them the difference between facts and beliefs. Because once we are set in our beliefs, it is extremely hard to let go of them. The emotional pull – neuroplasticity – is too hard to break. To control a predominant system 1, we must cultivate listening skills, learning patience, and having questioning skills and an intellectual mindset. We must refrain from rushing into conclusions. We should try to see topics in black and white.
Having healthy System 1 and 2 are important are important for many reasons. Most importantly, a predominant system 1 is part of our tribal mindset of us vs them. This leads to violence and conflicts. We don’t take the time to know the other side’s story, or if our teammate started the problem. We jump to conclusions. Having an extreme System 2 leads to dangerous pseudoscience, including quack cures/treatments/diets etc that can either bleed people of their money without providing any benefits, or refrain people from taking medicines because they mistrust Big Government or Big Pharma. It is important to find that balance between thinking fast and being an extreme skeptic. And it all starts with a conscious decision to slow down how quickly we reach a conclusion. It includes expanding our breadth of reading and knowledge so we are aware of many sides of many topics. It includes learning to question everything, including going against our gut instincts. Most importantly, it includes teaching these skills to our children from a very young age. The price of blind beliefs and denialism is too high for our society to tolerate any longer. Progress requires rational explanations and logical thoughts which can act as a firewall between extremes of human behaviors and emotions.