Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

This Is Your Brain on Kahneman

Written by: on October 20, 2021

Comprehending Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow is like trying to capture the entire Grand Canyon in a single photo – there is so much detail and stimuli coming in that it is nearly impossible to see a single detail. So, I cognitively zoom up a few thousand feet to gain a greater perspective on what Kahneman presents. From that vantage point I see more clearly Kahneman’s postulation that humans have two systems of thought, one fast (system 1) and one slow (system 2). I understand this at first by relating it to Freud’s concepts of the Id and Ego or the hidden instinctual-self and the outward-facing responsible-self. Though there are some parallels here, I do not think this comparison ultimately holds water. However, system 1 reacts instinctually and can accomplish a lot since it assumes many truths through previously confirmed associations, which Kahneman calls heuristics. This is similar to Freud’s concept of the Id in that the assumptions of system 1 thinking are unconscious guides to decision making, which expedite the thinking/decision making process. Heuristics can be benign when performing common functions such as reading or making dinner, but can be harmful when assumptions lead to sustained corruption or systemic injustice. System 2 is meant to call into question the assumptions of system 1, much like the ego is meant to filter the most unacceptable urges of the Id, but this requires a lot of time and energy. Though system 2 is wiser and more objective it requires more energy, and often abdicates decisiveness to system 1. Ultimately, system 1 operates on heuristics and system 2 exists to evaluate those heuristics with an aim toward objectivity.

System 1 and system 2 thinking form a pair of opposites, from which a more perfect union must be established. Humans can live in neither system exclusively, so a third way must be found. Kahneman writes, “Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions. The best we can do is compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high” (28). To help in this endeavor Kahneman offers a list of heuristics for readers to identify within their thinking and the thought processes of various systems. If Thinking Fast and Slow is represented by the vastness of the Grand Canyon, then the countless heuristics he offers are the rock gradient, sediment and etched formations too numerous to count. I found myself worn down by what I can only describe as concept-exhaustion (which resulted for me in what Kahneman calls ego depletion as I impulsively slammed a couple bowls of Cheetos ®). Fortunately, we don’t have to examine each tree in order to see the forrest. The various heuristics Kahneman details all point to one “grand canyon” in human judgement; It is flawed and bends toward its bias perspective. An aim toward objectivity must be implemented in order to compensate for this flaw.

Objectivity cannot be mastered, only practiced through awareness of bias. I am curious what Kahneman’s perspective is on the role of community or the objective “other” in providing system 2 thinking for leaders. In other words, how can system 2 thinking be contracted out or carried by the collective? It can be incredibly difficult and exhausting for a leader to steer against the inertia of system 1 thinking, but for an objective other who has less at stake, or more specialized knowledge, this may be more easily done. Perhaps Kahneman writes about this, so I would love if anyone found language around this in Thinking Fast and Slow.

Finally, I find Kahneman’s work to be exhaustive on the topic of heuristics, though somehow overly simplistic of the two systems paradigm. Reading this book feels like rounding a curve that never straightens out, and yet, facing my heuristical tendency expands my peripheral vision as a leader. What do I not see either because it is out of sight or it’s advantageous to ignore? Who am I missing? What populations would benefit from my work if I grew in awareness of my own bias? What solutions have I yet to explore because of the neat narrative my system 1 thinking cultivated? Finally, how can I rely on my community and outside voices to challenge and cultivate my leadership?

About the Author

Michael Simmons

- Tennessee --> Oregon - Father to David and Bina, Partner to Liz - Portland Seminary Admissions Counselor - Spiritual Director - Companioning Center Leadership Team - Deep Water Board Member - Ordained Elder, FMC - Aspiring Jungian Theologian

5 responses to “This Is Your Brain on Kahneman”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    I was a little disheartened to learn that true objectivity can not be mastered, only practiced with the awareness of our own bias. I would like to reach that point of being that enlightened but our own human nature keeps us from reaching that point. Kahneman teaches that the we can learn of our own biases and tendencies in thinking, and when we do we grow. It is similar to walking with Christ and the sanctification process. We will never reach perfection in this life, but we can always strive towards it. Onward and upward.

    • Indeed. I think the perfection is found in practice. Practicing keeps us close to our humanity (from hummus meaning earth or ground and same root as humble). Remaining “practitioners” seems to be the destination of system 2 thinking.

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Hey there Michael. I like the Grand Canyon comparison. I too found this book like taking in a firehose! I agree with Troy. It is a little disheartening… well, a lot really! However, I think back to Gen. 6 which says, their (our) heart is bent on evil at all times (v. 5). Come Lord Jesus, come, and set us free!

  3. Elmarie Parker says:

    Thank you, Michael, for your thoughtful engagement of Kahneman’s book. I agree…the metaphor of the grand canyon for the book as a whole and then the details of sedimentary rock, etc, for the heuristics works well for conveying the structure and content of this book.

    I really appreciated your question/reflection on the role of community as the objective other in system 2 thinking. I respond to this more fully under my post engaging your question there. I also wonder how community can help us along the way with the reality that “objectivity cannot be mastered, only practiced through awareness of bias.” I have experienced this to be the case on my own journey. As Troy commented above, so much of this relates to the sanctification journey on which we are invited to travel as followers of Jesus. I’m grateful that the community of the Trinity accompanies us on the way. And I continue to persist in the belief that human community is also needed to authentically travel this road. This is a part of my NPO that I’m looking forward to further developing.

  4. Elmarie Parker says:

    Also….I did receive your email…it has just been a heck of a week. I’ll follow-up in the next day or so :).

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