Life is all about doing. Our brains evolved to reflect this and our minds appear to have a special aptitude and liking for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, someone doing something meaningful. Thus Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two systems of the mind, which he calls System 1 and System 2 as if each is an agent engaged in performing those behaviors which it specializes in. His characterizations are very useful in explaining how we respond to situations in ways that a lot of the book indicates are not always completely logical.
System 1 functions automatically and quickly with little or no effort and cannot be turned off. System 2 divides attention to the mental activities that demand it and it requires effort to accomplish its tasks. The operations of System 2 are often associated with subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration. When we think of ourselves, we think of System 2. Yet much of the mental material that System 2 processes, it given to it automatically by System 1 without System 2 even noticing it. When something in our experience does not fit our expectations, System 2 is activated to figure out what is going on. When you need to monitor your own behavior, that is the work of System 2.
Because conserving energy while getting a task done is generally conducive to our survival, System 2 looks to take the easier way out when it can. Kahneman describes many examples of what he calls heuristics and which he defines as “a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions”. When System 1 is faced with a difficult question and a satisfactory answer is not found quickly, it finds a related question that is easier and will answer that question instead. However, we typically don’t notice that we are not answering the original question. For example, if the tough question is “How happy am I with my life right now?” System 1 will substitute the easier question, “What is my mood right now?” and answer that question instead, all the while thinking that it is responding to the original question. If this is the kind of eye-opening revelation of knowledge into how we all function, then you will thoroughly enjoy this book. Yes, the latter part of the book focuses on some tough economic concepts, but even this part is worth your reading. Kahneman, for example, offers the explanation for why he recommends avoiding paying for product warranties. Something about the aggregation of low probability events. You’ll have to read about it.