This is the third part of the fifth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here. And the fourth chapter is collected here.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, helpfully distinguishes between two otherwise indistinguishable systems of thought operating in the human body. System 1 is fast. It uses memory associations to draw conclusions and make suggestions for action at an unconscious level. It is the source of our intuitions either at work or in our daily life. Ever finish someone else’s sentence? Realise that ‘something was off’ about your friend? That’s System 1 at work. Most of our thoughts and feelings are, whether we are willing to admit it or not, the product of this system. We have in our body, for good or ill, a powerful ability to jump to conclusions. System 2, on the other hand, is slow. It is what we use to control ourselves and to verify or disprove our beliefs. When you hold your breath or keep yourself from saying something inappropriate you are making use of System 2. If we are not vigilant or aware of our cognitive biases and habits, our System 2s simply give ‘reasons’ for why our System 1s are correct. I wrote about this in an earlier chapter with respect to moral codes. Ask a person why they hate someone or some subgroup of people and they will no doubt give you lots of ‘reasons’. Really though, they just hate by association.
As such, learning to be more rational in the manner that leads to wisdom does not mean learning to be a better problem solver or crossword finisher. It means learning how to be “more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers,” and generally more skeptic of our intuitions, despite their reliability in certain contexts. It means recognizing, for instance, that even our deepest thoughts are profoundly affected by our moods. People in good moods are more creative and intuitive but prone to casual and superficial conclusions; people in bad moods are the opposite—less creative but also less lazy; “good mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 form a cluster…sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together.” Being rational involves recognizing and taking into account these and other important variables when reviewing our beliefs and feelings. It means getting to know the powers and weaknesses of System 1 for the purpose of learning when to accept its intuitions.