10 December 2012

A Bird and a Computer in the Brain (Two Systems of Thinking)

The popular belief is that people are fully rational, that they do all kind of cost-benefit analyses and somehow always reach the optimal conclusion. As you might have learned by now, this assumption is deeply flawed. People can make rational judgments, but more often they don’t.

In the field of decision making psychology there is a widely accepted view on how people think and make judgments. This view is not unchallenged, but overall it is widely accepted. It is called the “dual-system” judgment. As its name says, it assumes the existence of two major ways of thinking.
The general terminology for these ways of thinking is quite simple: “System 1” and “System 2”. To better illustrate how these systems of thinking function I’ll call them “The bird brain” for System 1 and “The computer brain” for System 2.

Let me describe each system (brain) and then I’ll present some considerations on how they interact.

The “Bird Brain” or “System 1” has the following characteristics:

The “bird brain” is very fast and intuitive. It bases its judgments on associations acquired through experience. These associations are based on similarity with previously encountered situations or prototypes. For example if the “bird brain” sees a man dressed up in an expensive suit with an expensive watch and a fancy car, it will infer that this person is rich or a corporate professional. The rationale is that this person looks like a rich person / corporate professional.

The “Bird brain” perceives the environment in a quasi-statistical manner. In other words, it does not use statistical descriptions, but rather it uses inaccurate subjective inferences on the environment. For example the “bird brain” will infer that there are more murders than suicides because of the prevalence in memory of the instances of murders (news and movies) and the lack of instances in memory of suicides. In fact there are more suicides than murders.

The processing of information done by the “Bird brain” is based on heuristics or in other words rules of thumb. For example the “bird brain” will want a discount and not a good price. For the fast associative system, a discount is equivalent with a good price, but it is not necessarily so. A discounted price can be higher than the regular price.

The “bird brain” is relatively undemanding of cognitive capacity in the sense that it is effortless. Intuitive and associative judgments performed by system 1 are done without significant use of mental and subsequently bodily resources. The brain is the biggest user of metabolic energy resources and most of these resources are not consumed by the “bird brain”.

The “bird brain” is activated automatically in the sense that it is always functioning. It is the default way of processing information / making judgments. At the same time, the “bird brain” can be over ridden by the “computer brain”.  

The “Computer brain” or “System 2” has the following characteristics:

The “computer brain” is slow and analytical. It bases its judgments on rules acquired through culture or formal learning and tries to identify structures in the environment. A very good example of “system 2” reasoning is engineering planning and design. When an engineer designs something he is making analytical reasoning using rules learned through formal education, based on established structures identified in the environment such as knowledge on characteristics of materials.

The “computer brain” is controlled and consists of explicit thought processes. In addition, “computer brain” processes are conscious. Unlike the “bird brain” unconscious processing, when someone is doing judgments in the “computer brain” mode, that someone is aware that he or she is thinking critically.

The “computer brain” is demanding on cognitive capacity and metabolic resources. Reasoning using the “system 2” draws on cognitive and energy resources. In other words, using the “computer brain” leads to fatigue and may end up in exhausting limited energy resources.

The general belief is that we operate on the “Computer brain”, but the reality is that most of human decisions and subsequent behavior are dominated by the “Bird brain”. The truth is that the “Bird brain” is overall very effective in the sense that it leads to decisions that are not necessarily optimal, but good enough. Moreover, the “bird brain” is very good at fulfilling evolutionary goals of survival, finding good mates, investing in children and so on.

What is intriguing is that the world in which we live now is significantly different from the world in which humans have evolved for millions of years. Now we have to make choices about financial products, buy computers and make long term plans. In these less than familiar (from an evolutionary perspective) contexts, the “bird brain” fails to provide optimal solutions.

It is obvious that the two systems of thinking do not act independently, rather they interact. It is possible in certain situations and states that the “bird brain” is the only one functioning, but more often than not, the two systems interact. Next I’ll present some of the most common situations of interaction between the “bird brain” and the “computer brain”.

As mentioned earlier, the default way of mental processes is the “bird brain” mode. At the same time, the “computer brain” can be “switched on” and it may overrule the “bird brain”. For example, the “bird brain” might say “buy the most expensive product assuming that it is also the best”. When the “computer brain” is switched on it might say “wait, look at the attributes of the product and pick the one that has the combination of attribute levels that best suits your need”. Subsequently, the person making the purchase will go through the mental effort of doing this analysis.

Another situation apart from the aforementioned one is when the “bird brain” thinking leads to a conclusion (or behavior) and the “computer brain” is switched on and gives a different conclusion. It is possible that these two different conclusions to be in conflict with each other. In the previous example the “computer bran” took control, but it is highly possible that the interaction between the two systems to simply result in conflict and no action to be taken. Similarly a person might implement the result of the “bird brain” while knowing that the “computer brain” gives a different opinion.

A third way of interaction between the “bird brain” and the “computer brain” is when a person tries (wants) to make a sound judgment. This implies the use of the “computer brain”. At the same time, the “computer brain” will work using inputs from the “bird brain”. A very good example for this is “arbitrary coherence” and I will explain it a bit later.

A fourth way of interaction between the “bird brain” and the “computer brain” is when a person makes a decision or exhibits a behavior based on the “bird brain” thinking mode. After the decision is made or the behavior exhibited, that person will try to make sense of his or her actions and will use the “computer brain” to justify the actions or decisions. For example if someone makes a purchase based on “bird brain” mode thinking such as buying a very expensive coffee making machine, when faced with the consumed fact, he or she will use the “computer brain” to come up with (solid) reasons for the purchase such as “it is of high quality and will last for a long time”.

To sum up, the “dual system” judgment view states that people make judgments in two modes – system 1 (bird brain) and system 2 (computer brain). The judgments made by System 1 (bird brain mode) are fast, associative, uncritical, heuristic based and effortless. The judgments made by System 2 (computer brain mode) are slow, computational, critical, rule-based and effortful. System 1 (bird brain) is quite good at ensuring the accomplishment of evolutionary goals such as survival and perpetuation of the specie. At the same time the “bird brain” is quite bad at making complex judgments that we face in the modern world.

The two systems (bird and computer brain modes) interact. This interaction can result in: (1) the computer brain overruling the “bird brain”; (2) it can result in mere cognitive conflict; (3) it can result in using the “computer brain” mode, but functioning on (flawed) “bird brain” inputs; (4) it can result in the “computer brain” creating reasonable explanations for actions performed under “bird brain” mode.    

The default way of reasoning is the “bird brain” mode.

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