Take Two #125: The Emotional Response

By Kyra-lin Hom

Instincts get a bad rap. We have them for a reason, but we've managed to reason our way out of listening. In our era of science and logic, thinking with the gut or heart is often ridiculed as romantic, feminized intuition. I know I second guess myself all the time (for better and worse). I hem and haw because I don't want to make the wrong choice, but also because I don't want to appear irrational or overly emotional. I like the idea of being steadfastly utilitarian in my decision making. But am I really just overthinking things and dismissing a key component of the human decision making process? Suffering over my suffering, as my friends and I say?

Daniel Kahneman's new book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, might have the answer. In it, Kahneman discusses what he coins 'System 1' and 'System 2' thinking and decision making. System 1 is our gut reactions and those things we do automatically. In fact, System 1 thinking is so automatic that we can't not do it like reading giant billboard text or being distracted – even for the tiniest microsecond – by a sudden loud noise. This is our instincts and our emotional responses.

System 2“allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it.”In other words, System 2 handles active computation. It is our social control. We dip into System 2 whenever we do complex math, weigh the pros and cons, compare two products, solve a puzzle, decide not to curse out the boss, and so on.

Kahneman uses the examples of a photo of an angry woman and the math problem 17 x 24. When we see the photo of the woman, we automatically know that she's angry, and we very likely anticipate her next actions without conscious thought. When we first view the math problem, however, System 1 tells us the answer probably sits somewhere around 400 (i.e. 17 x 24 is close to 20 x 20). But it isn't until we engage System 2 that we can figure out the exact answer, which is 408.

This theory is similar to that addressed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. In his research, he found that often people fail to utilize the appropriate (continuing to use Kahneman's terminology) system of decision making. We use the wrong tool for the job, so to speak. For example, choosing which house to buy should involve System 2, right? Wrong. Assuming that you've already determined your housing budget and are choosing within that general range, your best chance of choosing the best house is System 1: what feels right to you. Big decisions are best made with your gut.

On the other hand, grocery store shopping decisions are best made using System 2. System 2 is what allows us to see beyond the marketing, beyond the graphics and bright colors. In these cases, the only way to decide what gives the best bang for our buck is to actively compare and analyze the products before us. (The best marketing ploys thus appeal to both systems.)

See, maybe our gut isn't rational, but it is reasonable. There is a reason why we react and feel the way we do. It's a quick instinctual processing of information at the hind brain level. No, this reaction isn't always the best or most appropriate response, but that doesn't mean we should callously cast it aside. If our gut says one thing but our analytical mind says another, understanding why that dissonance is occurring is by far more effective. Don't war with yourself, negotiate. And don't suffer over your suffering, understand it.

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