Thoughts On Thingking Fast And Slow (Part II)

It was about ten years ago that I fell in love with a book called The Tipping Point

It was about ten years ago that I fell in love with a book called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference. Malcolm Gladwell provided us with a lot of really useful terms in that book, aside from its title, and he backed them up with some eloquent explanations written much better than I can here.

They were “sticky” in the sense that I still remember the attributes of Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. These relate to “The Law of the Few”. Malcolm Gladwell states this as “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Written in 2000, I am certain that the impact of social media has changed the original framework a bit but it is still very useful. For example, “Online Influencers” or “Key Opinion Leaders” are now a fundamental part of any campaign. Halfway through Thinking Fast and Slow I am faced with the growing realization that I may not have really understood what the word influence meant.

Psychoneuroimmunology, the study of how our thoughts impact our nervous system and indirectly our health, was the most fascinating psychology class I studied in university because it was so actionable. One can force one’s self to stop and take a breath, for example, and that kind of coping mechanism, if adopted, can add good years your life. Gladwell’s work spoke directly to the point of interest for me, as does Daniel Kahneman’s, which is something people refer to as the “locus of control” and its reaction to its environment. Technically the locus of control is a theory of personality psychology but I will use it here as a construct that is thrown around in learning and development circles – the part of your brain that thinks it is in control. According to Kahneman, the lens we view the locus of control through is severely distorted.

If System 1 is the net value of all our subconscious thoughts and System 2 is the part of our brain we use to solve problems like 11 X 24 than it seems logical that System 2 could be considered the locus of control. However, if this is the case than the locus of control would be more aptly named something like the “lazy locus of control”. I’m getting to the point now of this particular blog post: the character called System 2 is inherently lazy. This is gross oversimplification of course if you are analyzing the book on a whole, even half way through, but this seems like an incredibly relevant point for anyone in the communications industry. The communications industry is all about story, and story is all about characters. Take this a step further and the best stories have three-dimensional characters that are taking the path of least resistance when interesting things happen to them. They do what comes naturally, which is usually the easiest possible thing for them to do given the circumstances, and are presented with an even greater challenge. As this story “arc” plays out these gaps between the easiest possible actions and the dramatic and surprising (to the character) reactions are the hallmark of a good story or screenplay. At least according to the master of story, Robert McKee.

As Kahneman reminds us we have a finite amount of working attention, the job of System 2. It is an unspoken fact he illustrates with conversation in a car on the highway pausing as the driver overtakes a transport truck. The person sitting in the passenger seat knows that the driver is temporarily deaf to the conversation as they are focused on the task at hand, as opposed to regular highway driving which becomes automatic and the realm of System 1. The insight here is what happens when we are given the opportunity to engage System 2 or rely on the more reflexive intuition of System 1. According to Kahneman, System 2 will quite often defer or delegate to System 1 and System 1 favors a good story over logic sometimes.

In the example that best illustrates this relationship, the Linda experiment involved a description of a woman and probability. After reading a brief profile test groups were asked to determine the likelihood that Linda was a bank teller or a feminist bank teller. Without reading the profile the logical System 2 does the math and quite rightly decides that any probability that is less inclusive and more exclusive must be less probable. There must be fewer bank tellers that are feminists than the overall number of female bank tellers. Despite this, the controversy surrounding this notorious experiment was in large part due to the resounding response of the group – Linda was a feminist bank tellers. The story the test subjects read before deciding the probability had appealed to System 2’s inherent laziness and it had delegated its analytical duties to System 1. And System 1 values a coherent story over statistics story.

The story is as follows:

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, out-spoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

The options given where as follows:

Linda is a teacher in elementary school.

Linda works in a bookstore and takes yoga classes.

Linda is active in the feminist movement.

Linda is a psychiatric social worker.

Linda is a member of the League of Women Voters.

Linda is a bank teller.

Linda is an insurance salesperson.

Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. (Overwhelming majorities selected this as the most probable, despite the obvious faulty logic you see having not read the profile first.)

Kahneman’s brilliant deduction, and the most relevant part of this book so far to those in the communication business, is that when faced with a more coherent story, System 2, the logical part of the brain, defers to System 1. The effect is described in terms of a Venn diagram that produces an illusion. It is genuinely frightening to think of how much of our decisions are influenced in this manner.

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