Defaults Matter

Defaults Matter

I will discuss defaults in depth when I begin writing about Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, but it is important to think about our responses to default choices in the context of Daniel Kahneman’s research in Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman argues that we can think of our brains as having two different operating systems. System 1 is the fast and automatic system. It scans the environment, takes in the salient information around us, filters out the unimportant information, and makes quick judgements without putting too much power into the thinking process. System 2 is where System 1 sends the more difficult problems that it can’t handle on its own. System 1 takes the information it can absorb, packages that information with a particular reference frame, and sends it to System 2 for slower, more energy intensive thought. And this is where the defaults matter.

 

System 1 will fall back on the default when System 2 doesn’t want to engage with a problem. Because System 2 is energy intensive we only use it when we need to (like when we are cooking a new recipe, trying to complete our taxes, or trying to win scrabble). For most decisions, we can just fall back on the default and be fine. Instead of making a tough decision, we can rely on simple standard choices without having to consider alternatives or justify why we made a particular choice. Kahneman shows how powerful the default can be by examining the rates at which people register to be organ donors in different states and countries. He writes, “The best single predictor of whether or not people will donate their organs is the designation of the default option that will be adopted without having to check a box.”

 

For most decisions and thoughts, System 1 scans the environment and makes a quick judgment as to whether or not we need to do anything. If it determines that there is a need for more comprehensive thought, then it engages System 2, but it only packages the information it could take in during its quick scan. So while our System 2 is powerful and can work through lots of information, it can only work on the information from System 1’s quick scan. That quick scan includes the default option, but doesn’t include the various other options that were not immediately available. This can create anchoring effects and limit the categories we consider for possible alternatives from the default. When someone yells an answer in Family Feud and everyone else comes up with similar answers in the same category, we are seeing people anchor to a default category for responses. When your company enrolls you in a 401K and automatically sets your contribution limit, any change that you make is likely to be a small deviation from that preset level, you are not very likely to change all the way to 0 or make a huge deviation from that default anchor. Indeed, if you have ever been stopped in freeway traffic and only after stopping realized that you could have taken numerous different routes to avoid the traffic jam, you have seen how limiting our lives can be when we stick to a simple default and fail to consider the various other possibilities available to us.

 

The reason that defaults matter so much is because we are lazy, because System 2 doesn’t do much work if it doesn’t have to, and because System 2 gets a limited set of information from System 1. Our perspectives, opinions, and the world of possibilities available to us is anchored around the default. When I write about Nudge I will get more in depth with thinking about the importance of various defaults in different areas of our lives.
Blind to our blindness

Blind to Our Blindness

I remember the first time I watched the Gorilla Attentiveness Study, as a freshman in college, and to this day it is one of my favorite studies and examples of the ways in which our brains can let us down. Writing about the study in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman states, “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” Kahneman uses the study to show that we can’t always trust what we see, or what we experience in the world more broadly. Our minds are limited in what they take in, especially when we are engaged with one task and our mind is filtering out the other noise and extra information in our environment.

 

Kahneman uses the study to support two major ideas that he presents in his book. The first is that our brains can only operate on the information they take in. Most of the time, our general perception of the world is guided by System 1, the term Kahneman uses to describe the automatic, fast, and intuitive functioning part of our brain. It is not literally a separate part and structure of the brain, but it does seem to be a system with specific functions that generally runs in the background as we go about our lives. That system filters out unimportant information in the world around us, like the feeling of our clothes on our skin, low level traffic noise outside our office, or a bee buzzing around at the edges of our peripheral outside a window. That data is ignored as unimportant, allowing us to instead engage System 2 on something more worthy of our attention.

 

System 2 is used by Kahneman to describe the attentive, energy demanding, logical part of our brain. The modules in the brain which allow us to write blog posts, to count basketball passes, and to thread string through a needle comprise what Kahneman describes as System 2. However, System 2 can only focus on a limited number of things at one time. That is why we can’t write blog posts on a subway and why we miss the gorilla. We have to ignore the noise in order to focus on the important things. What is worse, however, is that System 2 isĀ  often dependent on information from System 1, and System 1 is subject to biases and blind spots and has a bad habit of using inferences to complete the full picture based on a limited set of information. System 1’s biases directly feed into the intense focus and logical thinking of System 2, which in turn causes us to reach faulty conclusions. And because the inferences from System 1 are usually pretty good, and do an adequate job completing the picture, our faulty conclusions appear sound to us.

 

Kahneman writes that we are blind to the obvious, meaning that we often miss important, crucial, and sometimes clearly important information simply becauseĀ  we don’t look for it, don’t recognize it for what it is, or and fill in gaps with intuition. Quite often we are not even aware of the things we are blind to, we literally are blind in regard to our blind spots, making it harder to see how we could be wrong, where our cognitive biases and errors may be, and what could be done to make our thinking more accurate.

 

I try to remember this in my own life and to ask myself where I think I could be wrong. I try to be aware of instances where I am deliberately creating blind spots in my life, and I try at least marginally to push against such tendencies. It is important that we remember our biases and errors in thinking, and consider how our thinking is often built on blind spots and faulty conclusions. Doing so will help us be more generous when thinking of others, and will help us become better thinkers ourselves. It will help us pause when we reach a conclusion about an argument, think more broadly when we become upset, and shift away from System 1 biases to have more accurate and complete pictures of the world.
We Think of Ourselves as Rational

We Think of Ourselves as Rational

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman lays out two ideas for thinking about our thought processing. Kahneman calles the two ways of thinking about our thought processing System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, often subconscious, and usually pretty accurate in terms of making quick judgments, assumptions, and estimations of the world. System 2 is where our heavy duty thinking takes place. It is where we crunch through math problems, where our rational problem-solving part of the brain is in action, and its the system that uses a lot of energy to help us remember important information and understand the world.

 

Despite the fact that we normally operate on System 1, that is not the part of our brain that we think of as ourselves. Kahneman writes, “When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.” We believe ourselves to be rational agents, responding reasonably to the world around us. We see ourselves a free from bias, as logically coherent, and as considerate and understanding. Naturally, it is System 2 that we see ourselves as spending most of our time with, however, this is not exactly the case.

 

A lot of our actions are influenced by factors that seem to play more at the System 1 level than the System 2 level. If you are extra tired, if you are hungry, or if you feel insulted by someone close to you, then you probably won’t be thinking as rationally and reasonably as you would expect. You are likely going to operate on System 1, making sometimes faulty assumptions on incomplete data about the world around you. If you are hungry or tired enough, you will effectively be operating on auto-pilot, letting System 1 take over as you move about the cabin.

 

Even though we often operate on System 1, we feel as though we operate on System 2 because the part of us that thinks back to how we behaved, the part of us required for serious reflection, is part of System 2. It is critical, thoughtful, and takes its time generating logically coherent answers. System 1 is quick and automatic, so we don’t even notice when it is in control. When we think about who we are, why we did something, and what kind of person we aspire to be, it is System 2 that is flying the plane, and it is System 2 that we become aware of, fooling ourselves into believing that System 2 is all we are, that System 2 is what is really in our head. We think of ourselves as rational, but that is only because our irrational System 1 can’t pause to reflect back on itself. We only see the rational part of ourselves, and it is comforting to believe that is really who we are.