Exploring the fast/slow thinking: implications for political analysis: Gerry Stoker, March 2016

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1 Exploring the fast/slow thinking: implications for political analysis: Gerry Stoker, March 2016 The distinction between fast and slow thinking is a common foundation for a wave of cognitive science about the way people acquire knowledge, use reason and intuition in order to make judgements 1. This broad body of work is strongly supported by laboratory and field experiments and it is justifiably regarded as the state-of-the-art understanding of active cognitive processing. This short note outlines the essence of the fast/slow distinction; it addresses a few caveats and clarifies the significance of the distinction before identifying a number of potential implications for political analysis. Fast/slow divide The distinction between fast and slow thinking is based on relative differences between forms of reasoning. The first, fast or System 1, thinking is intuitive. It tends to require little effort and is characterised by the use of short cuts and heuristics to inform judgements. The second slow, or System 2 thinking, tends, in contrast, to require considerable mental effort, concentration and more systematic sifting of evidence and argument. Intuitive fast thinking provides humans with a powerful tool but it is a tool that has its limitations and can carry costs. Intuitive thinking can use small amounts of information and with little effort support good decisions but equally it can lead to misjudgements reflecting its inherent biases and fallibilities. Fast, intuitive thinking is dominant and that even when humans move to a slower, reflective mode their judgements are often still influenced by intuitive thinking. Table 1 summarises the distinction. Table 1: Properties of fast and slow thinking System 1 (fast thinking) Intuitive More influenced by emotions and feelings Greater use of heuristics and cues Relatively undemanding of cognitive capacity Innately present but also acquired through socialisation and reinforced through experience and exposure System 2 (slow thinking) Analytic Less influenced by emotions and feelings More controlled and reflective More cognitively demanding Learnt through more formal tuition and cultural inputs and developed/sustained through critical reflection 1 The key work is Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin. 1

2 There are several things to bear in mind when looking at a stylised representation of this kind, in order not to misunderstand the argument it carries about the differences between System 1 and System 2 cognitive processing. First, the properties listed for the two systems capture family resemblances that enable the two types of thinking to be differentiated; but most of the features reflect relative rather than absolute or categorical distinctions. To argue that fast or slow thinking is present it is not necessary for all the properties to be in evidence. Moreover both fast and slow thinking are broad categories capturing several modes of thinking that could in a more developed analysis be separated. In particular fast thinking can refer to a number of variants of intuitive thought - the expert and the heuristic- as well as the automatic activities of perception and memory. Some of these forms of thinking especially the more automatic ones are literally fast (at speeds of less than 100 milliseconds). But others are less so and are more consciously formed and expressed, as in the case of many of the heuristics that help to drive the intuitive judgements, such as those to do with how people anchor their decision-making, measure risk or forecast the future. Caveats About But Significance of Fast/Slow Divide There are a number of caveats to consider. First the domains of fast and slow thinking vary across individuals; a topic that requires effortful slow thinking for some might be a focus for fast thinking by experts more familiar with the issues involved. Second there are tricky questions about the relationship between System 1 and 2 thinking. How does System 1 feed into System 2 and how is a move to System 2 thinking triggered? Within psychology some question the distinction between fast and slow thinking 2. Some argue that there is a single process going on others that there are more. Others query the boldness and seeming rigidity of the distinction between the two forms of reasoning and the failure to explore the weaknesses of System 2 reasoning. From a sociological starting point focusing on the dynamic comes from processes taking place in minds of individuals might lead to overlooking the collective processes that lead to shared understandings in order to create meaning. Some within political science may challenge that the distinction is not new. Does the argument just repackage the idea of bounded rationality familiar to many political scientists and deeply embedded in work on policymaking and decision-making about politics by citizens? But the point made by the concept of bounded rationality is that even in System 2, slow thinking mode, decision-making is not perfect: searches are limited and only a few available options are considered as time pressures kick in. But the argument here is that most initial decision-making by policymakers and citizens is intuitive 2 Evans, J., (2012). Questions and challenges for the new psychology of reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning 18(1):

3 and may never get even to the position of bounded rationality in slow thinking mode. In short the cognitive dynamics underlying political judgement may be more intuitive, emotion influenced and subject to biases than allowed for in much contemporary political analysis. Implications for political analysis An understanding of the impact of fast thinking in particular could lead to a reassessment of several debates within political science. Voter choice and the limits to political cues A standard argument has been that time-poor citizens in the information- and opinion-rich world of politics do not require an encyclopaedic knowledge of the political world but just sufficient information to enable them to pass judgements on the platforms and positions of parties and the trustworthiness and/or competence of those standing for political office. The cues and heuristics used by citizens and the resulting judgements are good enough; indeed they are their only realistic response to the complex nature of modern democratic politics. The need to be an informed citizen is less pressing as long as the right cues enable uniformed citizens to parallel the practices of others who are better informed. The fast/slow division reopens this debate by focusing not on whether access to information is selfgained or driven by cues but on the capacity of citizens to process the information they received. If in fast or intuitive thinking mode citizens do not weigh evidence too carefully, infer or even invent causes of events and the intentions of others and operate in a context of reduced vigilance for countervailing evidence and argument then questions about the quality of political citizenship in contemporary democracies cannot be sidestepped by arguing that political cues can hone citizen choice. Deliberation Undermined Deliberation theory might be labelled as an argument for slow thinking. The practice of slow thinking has an educational effect as citizens increase their knowledge and understanding of the prospective consequences of their political actions. Citizens need to be given the opportunity to think differently and as such deliberative theorists support measures to increase the prospects for slow thinking through the development of forms of democratic innovation. But if the grip of fast thinking is as extensive as some suggest, with it not only being a default mode of thinking but colouring and affecting slow thinking, then an issue for deliberation theory becomes: can citizens reasonably be expected first to escape from and then prevent themselves from regressing back into fast thinking? Given a concern with deliberative systems rather than deliberative forums the challenge would appear greater, as a forum to establish slow thinking moments appears an achievable aim but developing a political 3

4 system that can escape the domination of fast thinking would seem more difficult. The reforms to support slow thinking favoured by deliberative democrats may be difficult to deliver because of the embedded preference for intuitive mode thinking in human decision-making. Fast thinking and anti-politics In fast thinking mode focus group participants in our research 3 invariably identified substantial concerns about how politics works and in particular its (seemingly pervasive and inexorable) tendency to deception, corruption, feather nesting and so forth. If politics is conducted only through a series of fast thinking exchanges in contemporary democracies then it appears likely that citizens will be trapped in a cycle of negativity about politics that in turn supports a level of cynicism and disengagement from politics that leads to questions about its sustainability. For a citizen on the margins of politics, System 1 is screaming at them that when they engage with politics they should fear being duped; when dealing with something unknown and something that it would take considerable effort to get to know it is reasonable to jump from that fear to the assumption that one is likely to be tricked. Similarly, the fears of citizens about feather-bedding and expenses scandals may reflect a judgement driven by another classic System 1 type error, the tendency to extrapolate and generalise too readily from vivid (yet still anecdotal) examples. Too much System 1 judgement thrown at any institution or process may create a negative prism for the focus of attention. In fast thinking mode the very nature of politics - its conflicts, rhetoric and practices - tend to attract negative judgements. In addition the way that politics has increasingly been packaged over the last few decades opens up opportunities for fast thinking responses to it. Modern marketing techniques favoured by political elites lead invariably down the path of reinforcing the fast thinking mode. Developments in contemporary politics have facilitated System 1 fast thinking responses from citizens. Voters are not to be engaged in reflective debate but hooked by sound bites, dog whistle issues and above all through targeted marketing. The emergence of intense 24 hour media coverage of politics, and the parallel developments in social media, has developed a sense that politics is obsessively short-term, focused on spin and presentation and lacks the substance to demand engaged public attention. Fast thinking may smooth the path of politics in contemporary democracies but it may also be having a long-term corrosive effect on citizens attitudes to politics and their faith in the political system. 3 Gerry Stoker, Colin Hay and Matthew Barr (2015) Fast Thinking: Implications for Democratic Politics European Journal of Political Research doi: / This article on which the arguments presented here draws is available at: 4

5 Political elites trapped by fast thinking A set of factors-time constraints, complex array of issues confronted, 24hour media pressure, enclosed and limited bubble for thinking- would appear to create conditions for fast thinking among political elites. Fast thinking is an unavoidable and necessary part of human reasoning but it has its faults. It tends disproportionately to confirm existing explanations, neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt, it focuses on existing evidence rather than prompting the search for new information, it uses potentially misleading prototypes to make judgements, it prefers to answer an easier question rather than prompt a more challenging one, it overweighs low probability actions in coming to a judgement, it is more sensitive to change than stable states, it can exaggerate risk based on high intensity or high profile events and it frames decisions narrowly. Some of these faults can be carried over to slow thinking mode as it is fast thinking mode that sets the agenda. In that sense political elites may well not only be prone to fast thinking but also trapped by it. Institutional devices seen as a way of coping with the limits of bounded rationality may not be sufficient to overcome the effects of fast thinking. The checks and balances created by a plural, competitive policy environment may be undermined if the system is captured in a fast thinking loop. Evidence may be abused or misused rather than a driver of decision-making. Muddling through may still occur but the prospects of fast thinking being a dominant factor suggests that policy failures may also be common. Fast thinking is central to human decision-making and makes the complex choices and judgements for both elites and citizens manageable. But it does so in a way that political analysis needs to better appreciate and explored Kahneman (2011: 45, 85 and 86) comments: If System 1 is involved, the conclusion comes first and the arguments follow... The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create... System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and the quantity of information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions 4. For observers of politics that insight appears to be reflected in much of its practice and is sometimes a strength but also a potential weakness. 4 Kahneman, 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow,pp 45,

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