Long, long ago, before the internet or television or electricity or even running water, the most complicated computer the world has ever known was already operating. It’s an incredibly old and incredibly common machine. It’s the human brain. It’s been growing and learning and creating efficiencies for thousands of years-millions if you count those that came before us sapiens. It’s responsible for more of what the world looks like today than anything that has arrived since the time of man.
It’s an easily fooled machine though. For as complex as it is, the shortcuts it takes to make us wondrous sentient beings what we are leave it susceptible to bias and blunder. Because over time, we’ve developed two systems that pull and push on each other at all times. And the fight isn’t always won by the right one.
The first one, system-1, was born somewhere in our lizard brains before we even made it out of the swamp. It’s automatic and uncontrolled. It’s our gut reaction to things. It see’s fire and runs. It assumes much. But understands little. System-2 is slower, deeper and more intentional. It feels turbulence on a plane but overrides our fear and reminds us that planes almost never crash and are built to shake. System-2 is deliberate. It’s where our best thinking on complex issues is done.
Some people are more system-1 than others.
Our brain plays games with us to manage these two systems. Behavioral economists like Richard Thaler call them heuristics. Thaler and co-author Cass Sunstein highlight three types in their 2008 book Nudge .
The anchoring heuristic is a fun one. We use things we know to be our first estimation of other things. If we don’t know the population of Kansas City, we think it’s much higher if we live in New York than than if we live in Daleville. A New Yorker’s population anchor is higher than a Dalevillian.
Then there’s availability heuristic. We assess the likelihood of something happening more frequently if an instant of it happening is available to our recent memories. Kidnapping, for instance, almost never happens. But every time it does, we hear about it. So we are less likely to let our kids play unsupervised at a park than we are to let them swim unsupervised in our own pool. Even though the latter is statistically, far more dangerous.
The representative heuristic makes us think that A must be B because A looks like B. We’re likely to think a large man in his early twenties in an expensive car is a pro football player. In fact, it’s more likely that he’s a lawyer. There are many more lawyers than pro football players. And therefore many more large lawyers in their early twenties than pro football players. But system-1, doesn’t know that. And it doesn’t care.
Things like advertisements and sales pitches try to appeal mostly system-1. You could argue that the best ones are all system-1, because system-2 advertisements take too much time. And maybe too much of a good product. So it’s just a short leap to say elections are greatly impacted by system-1. And the effective electioneers are most effective when they use these heuristics to tap into system-1 while appearing to be talking to system-2. When they target those people whose system-1 is largely in control, they are very effective.
Muslims are terrorists. And shouldn’t be allowed in the country. I can protect you—representative heuristic.
You’re all in danger. Only I can save you from crime and attacks from outsiders—availability heuristic.
America was once great. And you should expect it stay that way. And I can make it great again—anchoring heuristic.
For all of President Trump’s 40 or so years in the public eye, he’s been a system-1 guy. He’s about the brand. Find an idea, pitch that idea, provide some money, not yours if you can help it, and have someone else do the work. Slap the name on it that conveys the feel. Wander away and figure out how to do it again. It’s not stupid. But it’s not system-2 either. It’s all system-1.
Trump Plaza. Trump Marina. Trump Tower. Trump Steak. Trump University. It’s all about the brand. Branding is all system-1 after all. When I say Apple, you feel modern and elegant. When I say Haagendaas, you think of a foreign delicacy. Never mind that it’s made in Brooklyn. System-1 doesn’t care about the facts. Only the feel, facts be damned.
Running the government of the United States of America is a system-2 thing though. It’s early, but man does it feel like it’s being run by a system-1 guy. It’s been a bad week for the administration. But not for the reasons I would have thought. Not because he’s dishonest and motivated by selfish or unscrupulous ends, though that may be the case. It’s been a bad week because Team Trump has been inordinately stupid. I don’t use that word often. It’s a lazy criticism. But I don’t have a better word than stupid for using system-1 for system-2 things this much.
Michael Flynn was fired for cause during the Obama administration. Bringing him on was appealing to conservative system-1 and how good it feels to flip Obama the bird. But you need someone whose not stupid or crazy enough to talk to Russian officials and lie to your boss about it running the National Security Council. The original travel ban felt good to many scared conservatives. But it wasn’t legal. So much so that the White House isn’t going to push it again. They’re making a new one all together because the first one was a bad idea. Repealing Obamacare…system-1. Done. Fixing health care? System-2…crickets.
Hard problems are system-2 things. We’d all feel a lot better if we saw any proof at all that the Trump White House could work at all outside system-1.
9 thoughts on “System One”
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Harward is clearly too competent to have taken a position reliant on total impartiality and clarity on facts before taking action, while simultaneously being required to pay obeisance to the whim of the unstable man-child who is our current president. Problem is, who WILL take that spot?
I really want you to be wrong, but I’m afraid you’re not. I keep hoping legislators will stand up to him, but with confirmations like Devos that isn’t looking likely either.
System-1 in action as tRump tells a black female reporter to “set up a meeting” for him to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus.
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Best read of anything I’ve seen out there. I will be re-posting this. Thank you for this commentary.
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If you tell people something long enough they will start to believe it. I think the reverse will begin happening very soon with this administration. Great read!
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Thank you for this validation of my fears. After yesterday’s press conference, I see that trump is worse than my fears. And that is saying a lot. I thought it would be bad, but this is a disaster. I am scared. I was of the thought, let this bad movie play. Trump will be awful and will become so unpopular that he will be a one term president and we will be out. I was afraid that Pence could be successful in the eyes of conservatives and therefore earn two terms. Now, I kind of hope for trumps removal, because I don’t know if we can survive 4 years of him. Keep writing. You should be front page NYTimes.
Now you are scaring me!
Hey, I read a really good book this week about 6 cognitive illusions: attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause and potential. It was called The Invisible Gorilla, you might like it. I practiced internalizing the illusions while watching that demented press conference. It was like literally seeing reality bend, like a fun house mirror. I feel a fundamental disconnect, like after an earthquake, the ground is not supposed to move. It is hard to know how to react.
Thanks for another great column.