THINKING, FAST AND SLOW
Interesting read on how people's unconscious perception can easily be manipulated through names, attractiveness, location, and repetitiveness
3 Oct 2020
Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day.
The executive’s decision would today be described as an example of the affect heuristic, where judgments and decisions are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning.
This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.
When the question is difficult and a skilled solution is not available, intuition still has a shot: an answer may come to mind quickly—but it is not an answer to the original question. The question that the executive faced (should I invest in Ford stock?) was difficult, but the answer to an easier and related question (do I like Ford cars?) came readily to his mind and determined his choice. This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.
Fast thinking includes both variants of intuitive thought—the expert and the heuristic—as well as the entirely automatic mental activities of perception and memory, the operations that enable you to know there is a lamp on your desk or retrieve the name of the capital of Russia.
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.
Some examples of the automatic activities that are attributed to System 1: Detect that one object is more distant than another. Orient to the source of a sudden sound. Complete the phrase “bread and …” Make a “disgust face” when shown a horrible picture. Detect hostility in a voice. Answer to 2 + 2 = ? Read words on large billboards. Drive a car on an empty road. Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master). Understand simple sentences. Recognize that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles an occupational stereotype.
System 1 has learned associations between ideas (the capital of France?); it has also learned skills such as reading and understanding nuances of social situations. Some skills, such as finding strong chess moves, are acquired only by specialized experts. Others are widely shared. Detecting the similarity of a personality sketch to an occupational stereotype requires broad knowledge of the language and the culture, which most of us possess. The knowledge is stored in memory and accessed without intention and without effort.
The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Here are some examples: Brace for the starter gun in a race. Focus attention on the clowns in the circus. Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room. Look for a woman with white hair. Search memory to identify a surprising sound. Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you. Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation. Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text. Tell someone your phone number. Park in a narrow space (for most people except garage attendants). Compare two washing machines for overall value. Fill out a tax form. Check the validity of a complex logical argument.
Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention.
System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine—usually.
System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior—the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night.
System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. As we shall see, it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it—unless your attention is totally focused elsewhere.
We are all familiar with the experience of trying not to stare at the oddly dressed couple at the neighboring table in a restaurant.
In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.
People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.
All involve conflict and the need to suppress a natural tendency. They include: avoiding the thought of white bears inhibiting the emotional response to a stirring film making a series of choices that involve conflict trying to impress others responding kindly to a partner’s bad behavior interacting with a person of a different race (for prejudiced individuals) The list of indications of depletion is also highly diverse: deviating from one’s diet overspending on impulsive purchases reacting aggressively to provocation persisting less time in a handgrip task performing poorly in cognitive tasks and logical decision making.
In another experiment, people whose face was shaped into a frown (by squeezing their eyebrows together) reported an enhanced emotional response to upsetting pictures—starving children, people arguing, maimed accident victims.
The effects of the primes are robust but not necessarily large. Among a hundred voters, only a few whose initial preferences were uncertain will vote differently about a school issue if their precinct is located in a school rather than in a church—but a few percent could tip an election.
Priming phenomena arise in System 1, and you have no conscious access to them.
System 1 provides the impressions that often turn into your beliefs, and is the source of the impulses that often become your choices and your actions. It offers a tacit interpretation of what happens to you and around you, linking the present with the recent past and with expectations about the near future. It contains the model of the world that instantly evaluates events as normal or surprising. It is the source of your rapid and often precise intuitive judgments. And it does most of this without your conscious awareness of its activities.
Conversely, you experience cognitive strain when you read instructions in a poor font, or in faint colors, or worded in complicated language, or when you are in a bad mood, and even when you frown.
When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar. You are also likely to be relatively casual and superficial in your thinking. When you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you also are less intuitive and less creative than usual.
A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact. But it was psychologists who discovered that you do not have to repeat the entire statement of a fact or idea to make it appear true. People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” were more likely to accept as true the statement that “the body temperature of a chicken is 144°” (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true. If you cannot remember the source of a statement, and have no way to relate it to other things you know, you have no option but to go with the sense of cognitive ease.
More advice: if your message is to be printed, use high-quality paper to maximize the contrast between characters and their background. If you use color, you are more likely to be believed if your text is printed in bright blue or red than in middling shades of green, yellow, or pale blue.
The aphorisms were judged more insightful when they rhymed than when they did not.
As we saw earlier, people who are made to “smile” or “frown” by sticking a pencil in their mouth or holding a ball between their furrowed brows are prone to experience the emotions that frowning and smiling normally express.
As expected, easily pronounced words evoke a favorable attitude. Companies with pronounceable names do better than others for the first week after the stock is issued, though the effect disappears over time. Stocks with pronounceable trading symbols (like KAR or LUNMOO) outperform those with tongue-twisting tickers like PXG or RDO—and they appear to retain a small advantage over some time. A study conducted in Switzerland found that investors believe that stocks with fluent names like Emmi, Swissfirst, and Comet will earn higher returns than those with clunky labels like Geberit and Ypsomed.
System 1 can respond to impressions of events of which System 2 is unaware. Indeed, the mere exposure effect is actually stronger for stimuli that the individual never consciously sees.
Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information. These are the circumstances in which intuitive errors are probable, which may be prevented by a deliberate intervention of System 2.
Framing effects: Different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions. The statement that “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” is more reassuring than the equivalent statement that “mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.” Similarly, cold cuts described as “90% fat-free” are more attractive than when they are described as “10%
Todorov has found that people judge competence by combining the two dimensions of strength and trustworthiness. The faces that exude competence combine a strong chin with a slight confident-appearing smile. There is no evidence that these facial features actually predict how well politicians will perform in office. But studies of the brain’s response to winning and losing candidates show that we are biologically predisposed to reject candidates who lack the attributes we value—in this research, losers evoked stronger indications of (negative) emotional response.
You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it. Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.
The availability heuristic, like other heuristics of judgment, substitutes one question for another: you wish to estimate the size of a category or the frequency of an event, but you report an impression of the ease with which instances come to mind. Substitution of questions inevitably produces systematic errors.
A salient event that attracts your attention will be easily retrieved from memory. Divorces among Hollywood celebrities and sex scandals among politicians attract much attention, and instances will come easily to mind. You are therefore likely to exaggerate the frequency of both Hollywood divorces and political sex scandals.
A dramatic event temporarily increases the availability of its category. A plane crash that attracts media coverage will temporarily alter your feelings about the safety of flying. Accidents are on your mind, for a while, after you see a car burning at the side of the road, and the world is for a while a more dangerous place. Personal experiences, pictures, and vivid examples are more available than incidents that happened to others, or mere words, or statistics. A judicial error that affects you will undermine your faith in the justice system more than a similar incident you read about in a newspaper.
System 2 can reset the expectations of System 1 on the fly, so that an event that would normally be surprising is now almost normal. Suppose you are told that the three-year-old boy who lives next door frequently wears a top hat in his stroller. You will be far less surprised when you actually see him with his top hat than you would have been without the warning.
Merely reminding people of a time when they had power increases their apparent trust in their own intuition.
“Because of the coincidence of two planes crashing last month, she now prefers to take the train. That’s silly. The risk hasn’t really changed; it is an availability bias.” “He underestimates the risks of indoor pollution because there are few media stories on them. That’s an availability effect. He should look at the statistics.” “She has been watching too many spy movies recently, so she’s seeing conspiracies everywhere.” “The CEO has had several successes in a row, so failure doesn’t come easily to her mind. The availability bias is making her overconfident.”
After each significant earthquake, Californians are for a while diligent in purchasing insurance and adopting measures of protection and mitigation. They tie down their boiler to reduce quake damage, seal their basement doors against floods, and maintain emergency supplies in good order.
Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely. Tornadoes were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, although the latter cause 20 times more deaths. Death by lightning was judged less likely than death from botulism even though it is 52 times more frequent. Death by disease is 18 times as likely as accidental death, but the two were judged about equally likely. Death by accidents was judged to be more than 300 times more likely than death by diabetes, but the true ratio is 1:4.
The coverage is itself biased toward novelty and poignancy. The media do not just shape what the public is interested in, but also are shaped by it. Editors cannot ignore the public’s demands that certain topics and viewpoints receive extensive coverage. Unusual events (such as botulism) attract disproportionate attention and are consequently perceived as less unusual than they really are.
Estimates of causes of death are warped by media coverage. The coverage is itself biased toward novelty and poignancy. The media do not just shape what the public is interested in, but also are shaped by it. Editors cannot ignore the public’s demands that certain topics and viewpoints receive extensive coverage. Unusual events (such as botulism) attract disproportionate attention and are consequently perceived as less unusual than they really are. The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.
“Risk” does not exist “out there,” independent of our minds and culture, waiting to be measured. Human beings have invented the concept of “risk” to help them understand and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of life. Although these dangers are real, there is no such thing as “real risk” or “objective risk.”
In today’s world, terrorists are the most significant practitioners of the art of inducing availability cascades. With a few horrible exceptions such as 9/11, the number of casualties from terror attacks is very small relative to other causes of death. Even in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never came close to the number of traffic deaths. The difference is in the availability of the two risks, the ease and the frequency with which they come to mind. Gruesome images, endlessly repeated in the media, cause everyone to be on edge. As I know from experience, it is difficult to reason oneself into a state of complete calm. Terrorism speaks directly to System 1.
System 1 generates an impression of similarity without intending to do so. The representativeness heuristic is involved when someone says “She will win the election; you can see she is a winner” or “He won’t go far as an academic; too many tattoos.” We rely on representativeness when we judge the potential leadership of a candidate for office by the shape of his chin or the forcefulness of his speeches.
On most occasions, people who act friendly are in fact friendly. A professional athlete who is very tall and thin is much more likely to play basketball than football. People with a PhD are more likely to subscribe to The New York Times than people who ended their education after high school. Young men are more likely than elderly women to drive aggressively.