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The Benefits of Being a Slow Thinker

Taking a more measured approach may help to reduce bias.

Key points

  • People typically use one of two systems when they think and make choices.
  • System 1, a fast decision approach, relies on intuition; System 2, a slow decision approach, relies on conscious deliberation.
  • System 1 thinking leaves you vulnerable to bias, but System 2 thinking comes at the cost of time and effort.
  • The context determines whether a fast or slow approach to thinking may be more appropriate.
DanaTentis / Pixabay
Why being a slow thinker isn't always a bad thing
Source: DanaTentis / Pixabay

Are you up for a quick quiz to jog those little grey cells? Take a look at the four questions below and see whether you can figure out their answers.

  1. If you’re running a race and you pass the person in second place, what place are you in?
  2. A farmer had 15 sheep and all but 8 died. How many are left?
  3. Emily’s father has three daughters. The first two are named April and May. What is the third daughter’s name?
  4. How many cubic feet of dirt are there in a hole that is 3’deep x 3’ wide x 3’ long?

The questions were taken from Thompson and Oppenheimer’s revised version of the so-called “Cognitive Reflection Test.” The quiz is deceivingly simple, but there is a little twist. While each question only has one correct answer, all items were designed to evoke an immediate, intuitive solution, which appears to be correct but—alas—is not. The reason for this question design is not to trick people, but to tease out natural differences in their thinking styles. More specifically, the test aims to establish whether the quizzer is more of a fast, intuitive thinker or a slow, reflective thinker.

We can examine the differences in thinking styles using the first test question as an example. Item 1 challenges you to infer your place in a running race. After reading the question, an intuitive answer is likely to pop into your mind immediately. If passing the person in second place, surely you’d be taking pole position!? This intuition is highly persuasive because only one place is better than second place and that is first place. Hence, if you’re better than the runner-up, surely you’d be first.

A quick, intuitive thinker is likely to be satisfied with this initial hunch. In comparison, a slower, more reflective thinker might realise that by passing the person in second place, you will be taking their position in the race. This means that one person is still in front of you, making you the runner-up.

What about the rest of the questions? Here are the answers, which include both the intuitive and the actual solutions:

  1. Intuitive answer: first; correct answer: second
  2. Intuitive answer: 7; correct answer: 8
  3. Intuitive answer: June; correct answer: Emily
  4. Intuitive answer: 27; correct answer: none

How did you get on in the test? Were you misled by your initial gut responses or did you see right through the tricky questions? By counting the number of questions you got right, you’ll get an indication of your personal thinking style—either fast and intuitive or slow and reflective.

Fast and Slow Thinking

A theoretical framework for fast and slow thinking is provided by a famous dual-process model. Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his longstanding colleague, Amos Tversky, proposed that thinking usually activates one of two cognitive systems.

  • System 1 is a fast and intuitive approach, which is often ruled by emotional responses, habits, or instincts. It has the advantage of generating fast solutions but is typically prone to common decision biases and reasoning errors.
  • System 2 describes a slow and deliberative approach, which includes analytical reasoning and more conscious reflection on different options. It has the advantage of yielding more purposeful and accurate results but is also associated with the cost of higher cognitive effort.

Which Thinking Style Is Better?

Following the initial quiz, you might be wondering what your own thinking style reveals about yourself. Which system is better: fast or slow? In colloquial language, the adjective “slow” often comes with negative connotations. We may even use it to describe someone with less-than-average intelligence. Interestingly, however, our little self-experiment with the misleading quiz items seems to suggest quite the opposite. Taking a more measured “System 2” approach to reasoning clearly produced better results. Does that mean slow thinkers are the overall winners?

It might not actually be that simple. The test questions from the beginning intended to measure people’s inherent preferences for one thinking style over another. However, in reality, most people use a combination of System 1 and System 2 approaches, with the context determining which system is dominant. The relative importance of a task and the amount of time available to make a choice are amongst the factors influencing how you think.

For example, getting dressed in the morning might involve a merely instinctive pick from the wardrobe, even more so if you are late for work and don’t have any important meetings scheduled for that day. By contrast, selecting an outfit for your wedding day is likely to be pre-empted by much conscious deliberation. Most people start thinking about their marital attire many months in advance and compare many different options while carefully considering their pros and cons.

The above example demonstrates the important influence of context. A friend of mine tried on a grand total of 106 wedding dresses for her special day, and man, she did look stunning in the end! However, if she was to invest the same amount of time and effort into every single outfit choice, she’d be unlikely to ever emerge from the fitting room!

With this in mind, we may have to re-phrase our initial question. Rather than trying to identify the better thinking style, the challenge appears to be one of finding balance. Knowing when to think fast and when to think slow might be the real game-changer for increasing efficiency and overall success.

References

Thomson, K. S., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2016). Investigating an alternate form of the cognitive reflection test. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(1), 99-113. doi: 10.1002/bdm.1883

Frederick, S. (2005). Cognitive reflection and decision making. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(4), 25-42. doi: 10.1257/089533005775196732

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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