Manipulating System 1

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman looks at the mental shortcuts we take and the ways in which these shortcuts mislead us. In doing so, he describes two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is quick, intuitive and emotional while System 2 is slower, more deliberative and more logical. Both systems have their place, but System one tends to dominate and is relatively easy to manipulate.

AC Grayling argues that this has happened, both in the Brexit referendum and the Trump election.

What Kahneman and other researchers have empirically confirmed in their work is that the majority of people are ‘System One’ or ‘quick’ thinkers in that they make decisions on impulse, feeling, emotion, and first impressions, rather than ‘System Two’ or ‘slow’ thinkers who seek information, analyse it, and weigh arguments in order to come to decisions. System One thinkers can be captured by slogans, statements dramatised to the point of falsehood, and even downright lies, because they will not check the validity of what is said, but instead will mistrust System Two thinkers whose lengthier arguments and appeals to data are often regarded as efforts to bamboozle and mislead.

Grayling goes on to say:

A senior BBC news editor told me that there was fierce debate among his colleagues about how they were reporting the Brexit referendum campaigns. They were conscious that that the Leave campaign, in particular, was putting out highly doubtful if not downright dishonest statements either very late or very early in the day in order to have them reported in morning news programmes, knowing that fact checking and the need to modify or retract misleading statements would only come later in the day, by which time the statements would have done their work with System One audiences.

And the media often compounds this problem by seeking a balance that (unintentionally) results in false equivalence.

I’m not sure what the solution to all of this is – or even if there is one – but surely it starts with more teaching and use of critical thinking and a better use of journalistic resources so that untrue and misleading claims can be quickly and effectively debunked.

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