In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman gives us the somewhat unwieldy acronym WYSIATI – what you see is all there is. The acronym describes a phenomenon that stems from how our brains work. System 1, the name that Kahneman gives to the part of our brain which is automatic, quick, and associative, can only take in so much information. It makes quick inferences about the world around it, and establishes a simple picture of the world for System 2, the thoughtful calculating part of our brain, to work with.
What you see is all there is means that we are limited by the observations and information that System 1 can take in. It doesn’t matter how good System 2 is at processing and making deep insights about the world if System 1 is passing along poor information. Garbage in, garbage out, as the computer science majors like to say.
Daniel Kahneman explains what this means for our day to day lives in detail in his book. He writes, “As the WYSIATI rule implies, neither the quantity nor the quality of the evidence counts for much in subjective confidence. The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.”
System 2 doesn’t recognize that System 1 hands it incomplete and limited information. It chugs along believing that the information handed off by System 1 is everything that it needs to know. It doesn’t ask for more information, it just accepts that it has been handed a complete data set and begins to work. System 2 creates a solid narrative out of whatever information System 1 gives it, and only momentarily pauses if it notices an inconsistency in the story it is stitching together about the world. If it can make a coherent narrative, then it is happy and doesn’t find a need to look for additional information. What you see is all there is, there isn’t anything missing.
But we know that we only take in a limited slice of the world. We can’t sense the Earth’s magnetic pull, we can’t see in ultraviolet or infrared, and we have no way of knowing what is really happening in another person’s mind. When we read a long paper or finish a college course, we will remember some stuff, but not everything. Our mind is only able to hold so much information, and System 2 is limited to what can be observed and held. This should be a huge problem for our brain, we should recognize enormous blind spots, and be paralyzed with inaction due to a lack of information. But this isn’t what happens. We don’t even notice the blind spots, and instead we make a story from the information we collect, building a complete world that makes sense of the information, no matter how limited it is. What you see is all there is, we make the world work, but we do so with only a portion of what is really out there, and we don’t even notice we do so.