Can Cognitive Illusions Be Overcome?

I recently finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s delightful book Thinking, Fast And Slow [which is a book I can assure you I will read more than once].  If for some strange reason you’re unfamiliar with Kahneman’s work, he won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for pioneering research done with his long-time colleague (and dear friend) Amos Tversky, who is now deceased.  Their work focused on human decision making and dismantled the idea that the human species thinks like homo economicus. [1]

Ok, so here’s a very elementary overview of what the book is about.  According to Kahneman, the brain has this duality to it when it comes to thinking.  System 1 works quickly and intuitively, in other words, it’s the “fast” in Thinking Fast And Slow.  For instance, if I were to throw a baseball into the air and ask you to catch it, you would hopefully be able to do so without having to make any complex calculations.  Most of us intuitively and instinctively know how to catch a ball, although some people are better equipped to do this than others.

While System 1 generally works efficiently, it occasionally leads us astray.  For example, answer the following question as quickly as you can: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?  Quick: say the answer out-loud.

That was easy, right?  Now think about the correct answer to this question: the bat costs $1.05 and the ball costs $0.05 ($1.05 + $0.05 = $1.10).  So, what happened?  Your intuition (System 1) led you astray, but once you thought about this question for a minute you likely switched over to what Kahneman calls System 2 and were correctly able to answer the question.  System 2 is analytical and rational, but unfortunately also lazy.  I could conjure up many speculative evolutionary stories as to why we have these two systems, but I’ll refrain from doing so in this post.

What I really want to point out is that we all (yes, that includes yours truly) suffer from myriad biases. [2]  Accordingly, I’ve heard many rationally and philosophically minded people lament the fact that their brain can’t be trusted. Wait a second — think about the previous sentence for a moment.  The brain, the only thing we can think with, can’t be trusted to think properly, yet some part of our brain can also realize this.  Kahneman is definitely on to something — no computer I know of can do this!

So here’s an important question I’ve been thinking about ever since I read this book: can the cognitive illusions that plague us be overcome?  If you’re empirically minded, then you might be afraid to hear the answer to this question: it’s not looking good.  I don’t fret over this though.  Despite its flaws, our System 1 works wonderfully most of the time (as in the catching ball example) and has gotten us to this point in the evolutionary game.  That’s not too shabby, right?  Anyway, when tasked with answering this question, I really like how Kahneman put it in the book: “The best we can do is compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.  The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”

As for me, I’m trying to shed my illusions about the world and humanity to the best of my ability, but I’m not willing to do so at the cost of my humanity.


[1] Homo Economicus defined.

[2] If you want to see a fairly comprehensive list of biases then check out this Wikipedia entry.