Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Thinking Moral

<>Presentation to the Ephesus Group, Wellington; 19 May, 2013.


Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;


I want to start a conversation which I hope will not end tonight. Instead I hope that many of you will go home and read the books on which the conversation is founded and continue it from there.


I am not an expert on the subject of either book. Both, in psychology, are outside the disciplines over which I have some mastery, but both shed light on some issues with which my disciplines struggle. Indeed I shall deviate a little from the main conversation to tell you why the first book troubles economists. The troubling of the second book on the politics of social and economic development should be evident enough.


The first book is called Thinking Fast and Slow. It is by the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for some of the work the book covers. The second book is by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.


Haidt acknowledges that his approach is related to Kahneman’s, so there I start. Its key notion – there in the title of the book – is that we think in two quite different ways. Kahneman calls them System 1 and System 2, but I shall call them Think-fast and Think-slow.


They are characterised as follows:

Think-fast (System 1) is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious;

Think-slow (System 2) is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.


You may see the how the two operate differently by considering simple addition. If I ask you what two plus two is, four immediately comes to mind; it’s from your Think-fast system. On the other hand, if I ask you what is 127 plus 494, there is no instant response. In my case I can feel myself pushing the question into another part of my brain and labouriously calculating the correct answer. You have used your Think-slow system.


Of course you may have miscalculated despite using Think-slow, but what can be shown is that Think-fast makes mistakes more frequently. You know the advice that ‘before speaking make sure your brain is in gear’? In Kahneman’s analysis this means that instead of relying on Think-fast when you speak, first consult Think-slow.


You may wonder why bother with Think-fast given so it is prone to error It has two advantages. First you may need to think quickly – if something is about to fall on you, a Think-slow calculated assessment is less useful than reacting by getting out of the way.


But second, Kahneman shows Think-slow uses more energy. You know how you can get terribly tired from thinking – that is Think-slow at work. Without Think-fast it would be much more tiring. Kahneman says we are essentially energy conserving – lazy – and prefer to use Think-fast.


Introspecting, I have found Kahneman’s theory helpful, but I am not a trained psychologist so pursuing this here would be of little value. I shall shortly explain how Haidt uses the theory to discuss moral behaviour. Before doing so, a short deviation to review a problem that economists have and show a little more of how the two systems work.


Over the years economics has become increasingly dependent upon the assumption of rationality – that is, the belief that people make optimal decisions in their own best interests. It is there in the economics as a science and it also exists in economics as guide to policy. What Kahneman and others – including economists – have shown is that the assumption of rationality is not fully justified. For scientific purposes, abandoning the assumption does not matter – economics limps along with much weaker assumptions based on behavioural regularities. However there is a more substantial challenge to policy economics.


People show ‘time inconsistency’. A practical example is you go into the bar for a couple of drinks. The following morning you cant remember how many you had, but your head wishes you had not. What intrigues an economist is that while with hindsight you regret the outcome, you appeared to have been making a rational decision at each stage: when you decided to go in, at each purchase and the following morning. Together however, the set of decisions is not rational; you regret what happened afterwards.


The inconsistency can be explained by assuming individuals operate with two rules when evaluating decisions through time. One involves giving greater weight to current events and ignoring the future; it is sometimes called ‘presentism’; the other takes future consequences into consideration. Both are ‘rational’ and time-consistent but together they are time-inconsistent.


I conjecture that the centre for instant gratification is ‘Think-fast’, while Think-slow gives greater weight to the future. We have all experienced blurting out something, and then immediately regretting it. That is Think-fast followed by Think-slow.


What if people are time inconsistent in ways which matter to economic policy? Suppose with hindsight they almost always wish they had joined a pension scheme years before. Big brother makes it compulsory, but the liberal society is reluctant to do this. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, a book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler observes that Think-fast tends to choose the default option for a choice (irrespective of what it is ). They suggest setting the default at the Think-slow choice. A practical example is that Kiwisaver’s default option is enrol, but you can choose to take the more circuitous opting out.


Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory is not concerned about ethics – the philosophical foundations of morality. He is concerned about what individuals’ morality is, where it comes from and how they function with it.


Take a simple moral question. Should you steal? For most of us the answer comes back from Think-fast as quick as two plus two. Of course there may be situations in which you evaluate the question more carefully. The person is starving; the only way the hunger can be assuaged is through stealing some food. Should it be stolen? I can feel the question being pushed back into my Think-slow which, incidentally, says ‘I need more detail’. (You will recognise a situationalist ethical framework here.)


Haidt’s approach is social intuitionism, the theory that moral judgments are mostly the products of quick, intuitive evaluations of scenarios with certain content. He says that people are ‘intuitive lawyers’ whose reasoning usually seeks to vindicate the intuition rather than openly assess the case from an impartial point of view. Think-fast makes the decision; think-slow, if asked, finds a justification for it.


Of course reasoning can affect one’s moral intuitions, often stepwise and slowly. It is my Think-slow which is struggling with the issue of euthanasia. But, Haidt says that more often your Think-slow is used to provide a justification for the intuitive moral responses of Think-fast. Told that your Think-fast has led you into something stupid, you flip the reply to your Think-slow to justify the folly (although some use Think-fast to dig the hole deeper).


The imbalance between the two modes of thinking is so large that Haidt describes them as the elephant and the rider. Think-fast, the elephant, represents automatic intuitive responses. Think-slow, the rider, represents the conscious controlled processes. The rider has some control over the rampaging elephant, but not a lot.


Haidt goes on to argue there are six universal dimensions, or ‘foundations’, that underlie the moral judgements individuals make, although their balance may vary in different societies.


They are characterised by pairs of opposites as follows:

Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.

Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, giving them ‘just deserts’. (He also refers to this dimension as Proportionality.)

Liberty/oppression, which characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.

Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He also refers to this as Ingroup.)

Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He connects this dimension to Respect.)

Sacred/profane (Haidt also refers to this dimension as Purity. I’ve changed his label from Sanctity/degradation .)


If Moral Foundations Theory is as universal as Haidt claims, there will be nobody in the room who does not recognise the dimensions, although they may argue over their precise meanings.


He next makes a thought-provoking generalisation based on surveys of people’s attitudes to the moral foundations. He says that people on the political right give a roughly equal weight to all six, but those on the left give a greater weight to caring, fairness and liberty. There is a sense, that conservatives are holistic while liberals (to use the American terms) are the extremists.


Liberals with religious concerns may not be aware they give a low priority to the sacred. One answer is perhaps they dont, but I suspect a more subtle explanation.


Haidt’s source for this generalisation is an on-line survey. I dont respond to them, because they are designed to engage only the Think-fast bit of a brain. Either the questions are trivial, relying on the instant opinionated response or, where they are badly designed, one keeps saying ‘wait a minute; it is more complicated than that.’ So Haidt’s generalisation is about the elephant of Think-fast; he is not assessing the rider of Think-slow.


What Haidt seems to have found is that liberals give priority in their Think-fast to a subset of the six dimensions; conservatives have the lot. I am not so surprised. Suppose my Think-slow has thought through a particular policy issue, after allowing for all the objectives and restraints. When I explain it to some liberals they instantly object on the basis of a particular issue – a single dimension – to which they obviously give priority. The speed of their response tells me their reaction is from Think-fast. (I say to myself ‘you have not thought about it at all’; I really mean ‘your Think-slow was never in gear’.) Of course such instant responses exist on the left and the right. But the expression ‘political correctness’ implies the left seems more prone to them.


So Haidt’s finding does not say that religious liberals necessarily give a lower priority to the sacred/profane dimension. It may be that they go back into Think-slow when they are required to evaluate a sacredness issue.


Although Haidt does not go into this he may be sympathetic to the interpretation. But as a moral intuitionist he gives less weight to the calculations of Think-slow. In any case his central point is that liberals are not seen to be as widely concerned with all the moral dimensions in as balanced way as conservatives. He argues that unless liberals can portray themselves as concerned on all dimensions, their ambitions will be eventually overwhelmed by the conservative one. Those who focus on a few dimensiosn – even more so those who are obsessive on only one narrow policy – undermine the grand liberal project.


At this stage, now it would be natural for me to follow Haidt and discuss the politics of all this. I leave that to another venue. Because Ephesus is a liberal religious group let me explore the issue in terms of the future of religion. Haidt’s analysis might suggest that liberal churches are likely to lose out to conservative ones because they do not pay sufficient attention to all the moral foundations. Sound familiar?


Religious liberals might respond that they are committed to all the moral foundations, but some are usually dealt with in Think-slow. According to Haidt’s moral intutionism that is not what the public want. They want certainty – comprehensive certainty – that Think-fast gives them.


One scene from Bertolt Brecht ‘s Life of Galileo has haunted me ever since I saw it at Downstage. It is between Galileo and a Little Monk who wants to become a physicist. The conversation is precipitated by Galileo’s astronomical discoveries which were subverting early seventeenth century scriptural understandings. Imagine the two in a garden; Galileo on a ladder picking fruit which he hands down to the monk talking up to him. The monk says:


THE LITTLE MONK: I grew up in the Campagna. My parents are peasants, simple folk. They know all about olive trees, but very little else. As I observe the phases of Venus, I can see my parents sitting by the stove with my sister, eating lasagna. I see the beams over their heads, blackened by the smoke of centuries, I see distinctly their work-worn old hands and the little spoons they hold in them. They’re very poor, but even in their misery there is a certain order. There are cyclic rhythms, scrubbing the floor, tending the olive trees in their seasons, paying taxes. There’s a regularity in the calamities that descend on them. My father’s back wasn’t bowed all at once, no, a little more with every spring in the olive grove, just as the child-bearing that has made my mother more and more sexless occurred at regular intervals. What gives them the strength to sweat their way up stony paths with heavy baskets, to bear children, even to eat, is the feeling of stability and necessity they get from the sight of the soil, of the trees turning green every year, of their little church standing there, and from hearing Bible verses read every Sunday. They have been assured that the eye of God is upon them, searching and almost anxious, that the whole world-wide stage is built around them in order that they, the players, may prove themselves in their great or small roles. What would my people say if I were to tell them they were living on a small chunk of stone that moves around another star, turning incessantly in empty space, one among many and more or less insignificant? What would be the good or necessity of their patience, of their acquiescence in their misery? What would be the good of the Holy Scripture which explains everything and demonstrates the necessity of all their sweat, patience, hunger and submission, if it turns out to be full of errors? No, I can see their eyes waver, I can see them rest their spoons on the table, I can see how cheated and betrayed they feel. In that case, they will say, no one is watching over us. Must we, untaught, old and exhausted as we are, look out for ourselves? No one has given us a part to play, only this wretched role on a tiny star which is wholly dependent, around which nothing turns? There is no sense in our misery, hunger means no more than going without food, it is no longer a test of strength; effort means no more than bending and carrying, there is no virtue in it. Can you understand now that in the decree of the Holy Congregation I discern a noble motherly compassion, a great goodness of soul?

GALILEO … You want me to lie to your people?

THE LITTLE MONK: (in great agitation) The very highest motives bid us keep silent: the peace of mind of the wretched and lowly!


Later their dialogue goes on:

THE LITTLE MONK: Don’t you think the truth will prevail, even without us, if it is the truth?

GALILEO: No, no, no. Truth prevails only when we make it prevail. The triumph of reason can only be the triumph of reasoning men. You describe your peasants in the Campagna as if they were moss on their huts. How can anyone imagine that the sum of the angles of a triangle runs counter to their needs! But if they don’t rouse themselves and learn how to think, the best irrigation systems in the world won’t do them any good. Damn it, I see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine wrath?

THE LITTLE MONK: They’re tired. [1]


While Brecht is writing about events 400 years ago (and also writing about his times from the perspective of Marxist rulers) the underlying issues have a contemporary ring. People may no longer be as economically depressed as they were in the time of the Little Monk, and or even of Brecht, but the demand for the certainty of holy scriptures remains unabated.


In the economy, politics and society, that is the ‘modernisation’ problem. The world is continually changing. How to keep up? There are eternal verities but technological and external change and new understandings mean that we must keep updating their application, keep modernising (one of the themes of the history of New Zealand I am writing). We can only properly modernise our thinking in Think-slow; Think-fast is inherently conservative, because it is lazy. Yet the Think-slow rider on the elephant is not impotent for everyone. That is why we are not totally out of sync with the evolving reality.


Others avoid the challenge. Thus the presentism which bedevils today’s politics. People expect their politicians to address the hard, complex, long term issues – Think-slow ones – while they get on with Think-fast. However many politicians practice presentism themselves; perhaps we choose those who practice it although pretending to be addressing the real issues.


This belongs to another venue, but I suspect that the same challenge faces the Church, although because it is not unified – it is not the monopoly was in Galileo and Brecht’s days – the resolution is fragmentation, sects and schisms.


Is that the challenge of liberal Christianity? How to modernise while maintaining the flock’s need for certainties in its beliefs – even as they morph into other certainties – different ones?


Is Galileo’s view that they must learn to think – that is, make greater use of Think-slow – reasonable? What about the Little Monk’s response ‘They are tired’ or as we might say today ‘overwhelmed’? Think-fast, the low energy option, just wants certainty.


At the beginning of the seventeenth century new discoveries in the heavens were changing what could be said about us here on earth. And yet – and yet – the Little Monk asks whether we cannot just leave people with their beliefs. Eventually, the play says ‘he returns to the fold’. He probably did a more than adequate job of cosseting his flock. But it is Galileo, with his demand for truth in the light of knowledge, and his new heavens we remember.



[1] Bertolt Brecht (1939, 1947, 2007) Life of Galileo, Translation by Wolfgang Sauerlander & Ralph Manheim.