Thinking (about art and poetry), Fast and Slow

Weston Cutter
November 30, 2011
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Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is, for my money, one of maybe a dozen books released this year that someone could compellingly argue will be read in 50 years. I loved Harbach’s Fielding, and yes Didion’s Blue Nights and Zapruder’s Come On… and DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, and absolutely to a couple other things escaping the mind’s vice at present (the new Sullivan! Pulphead‘s this year’s best essay collection, maybe this century’s best essay collection, and all the evidence any of us could need to show clearly who all of us who love and miss Wallace so should be reading), but for real: Thinking, Fast and Slow will change how you see things.

            You’re aware of what’s called anchoring, no? Anchoring’s the observable phenomenon which dictates that just having a number in one’s head transforms how someone’ll calculate answers to questions regarding value. The experiment that shows this: asking folks to write the last two digits of their social security #s, and then asking them to list values for a variety of things, shows that those whose final two digits were lower write a markedly, statistically significant lower value for things than those of us with higher final digits in our ss#s. I’m not making this up. Things like this get weird and scary when you consider purchasing stuff: my spouse and I purchased a house in July; the price seemed reasonable; however, the price would likely have seemed reasonable if it’d been 10% different either direction—it just would’ve been a matter of what we’d been told the house was for sale for on first entering the place.

Here’s another scary example of how Thinking, Fast and Slow will change how you see things and how you live: the brain demands a significant amount of sugar. Real, natural sugar, not fake stuff. I can’t find the page number at present, but Kahneman details the (hugely frightening) trends of how judges assign punishment based on if they view cases before or after lunch. Whenever you get to that passage, pray your life’s curve doesn’t meet the line of the US judiciary.

So what’s the book actually about? It’s there in the title: Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has written a book in which he closely examines and considers the two cognitive systems wired in our brains. First, there’s System 1 (Kahneman apologizes  for naming the systems 1 + 2, but it’s actually fairly helpful to have it numeric), which is the more primal, reactionary system. System 1′s the process which comes to life when you make a snap decision regarding the malevolence of the person walking toward you on the sidewalk. System 1′s the one which is second-by-second involved in helping you create a narrative of the disparate info around you—was that noise behind you the sound of a twig snapped by a predator coming for you, or just the sound of an acorn falling? Is that smell something toxic, or just some strange passing smell? System 1′s what’s in play for automatic stuff: 2+2=? The answer automatically formed on your head; that’s system one.

At present, as I write this, my spouse is one floor above me, and the floor occasionally squeaks due to her movement. Because I know it’s her up there, each squeak does nothing to my System 1: it’s got an answer to squeaky floor, and that answer comes from, if I’m understanding Kahnemann right, System 2. System 2 provides analysis, measures variables: it’s the process involved for making larger, more complicated narrative. System 2 is all about attention: some of the examples Kahneman provides include “tell[ing] someone your phone number…fill[ing] out a tax form…[and] check[ing] the validity of a complex logical argument.” All the sense in the world, no? System 2′s what you’re using at present to understand and follow this review. One last thing, though: Kahneman over and over returns to the fact that System 2 is lazy as hell. Bear this in mind,

Simple enough, right? One system’s designed to better handle quick instinctive, reflexive decisions, one’s for matters which demand a certain quanta of attention. Of course, if these two systems worked well together, there’d be no spellbinding 400+ page thump of a book to elucidate aspects of each (nor this pretty great corresponding Michael Lewis story). What happens, as we all know, is that the systems don’t engage when they should—specifically, System 2′s so damn constantly lazy that we’re hosed because of its almost intransigent lethargy. Math problems are where this becomes most clear—there’s an example later in the book in which the reader’s to choose two of four options regarding probabilities to lose or gain money. Of course, the solution shakes out so that the best option, mathematically, is the one which features the guarantee to lose money, but, almost equally of course (if you’re like 97% of those who took the test for Kahneman), you’ll do almost anything to avoid that answer because it’s guaranteed to lose you money. In that instance, System 1 beat System 2, and you—mathematically—are likely to lose money because of your snap-judgement against losing money.

This book merits all sorts of praise and admiration; I’ve yet to see a review of it in which the reviewer doesn’t note that s/he will likely forever think differently because of the thing. All that’s valid, but it’s worth considering this System 1/System 2 split in terms of writing, in terms of creation.

The line on driving seems applicable to writing as well: by and large, we write by habit. Kahneman’s book’s endlessly fascinating, just as something to read, but I’d argue and guess that it could hold uniquely fruitful potential for writers and artists. By way of example: we all know (or are) writers who fall into certain patterns—of how we sit down to actually do the work, of how we associate and build the work as we’re doing it, of whatever. We of course fall into these patterns because they’ve at one point proven useful: suddenly, after finding using the word electricity in a few poems as a pivot-point noun, we’re using it over and over, poem after poem (fill in your word or idea of choice), and after awhile we’re in the same situation we were in when we first needed to discover and utilize electricity to begin with: we’re writing stale.

I’m becoming more and more aware that this is maybe my biggest obsession with regard to writing or art: freshness, and finding ways to combat the sort of casual lethargy or rot that sets in when a tic becomes so successful that it becomes a schtick. Examples abound across all sorts of genres: how many Martin Lawrence movies are there in which he dresses up as a large woman? How many times and ways can Kara Walker use silhouettes? How many “deviant” set-ups can Palahniuk burn through? It’s easy to do this, and, I’d imagine, we can all easily do it about ourselves, as well: I got married this past summer, and got a dog the summer before, and my poetry’s now rife with wife and dog.

Ultimately, Thinking, Fast and Slow is useful to anyone concerned with or interested in how we pay attention, how we perceive info, and how we make decisions. Given, however, how much writing and art happens in the murky area between fast and slow decisions, the book is outrageously interesting and useful.

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