a System of Intuition and Reasoning

In listening to Daniel Kahneman talk about intuition I get the sense that he’s an advocate for developing an environment that accepts intuition as a fundamental feature of human behavior, and accommodates its flaws and strengths.

Kahneman, and other cognitive psychologists, describe a two-part process of thought involving intuition and reasoning.

System 1 (intuitive) is: fast, automatic, confident,, parallel, effortless, associative, slow-learning, and emotional.

System 2 (reasoning) is: slow (it doubts and deliberates), serial, controlled, effortful, rule-governed, flexible (it can be taught/can learn), and (emotionally) neutral.

According to Kahneman we are governed by System 1, it works sub-consciously as it responds to changes in our environment automatically, confidently, (doubt and deliberation are not features of System 1) and emotionally. When it works well it provides fast and useful impulses along with a rational and useful network of coherent associations. When it doesn’t work well it provides fast, confident, impulses and irrational yet coherent associations for the reasoning mind (System 2) to work with. System 2 works with, deliberates on, whatever it’s fed from System 1, so if the information/associative network is bad, our subsequent decisions are flawed – the speed, confidence, and sub-conscious nature of System 1 makes training it very difficult – Kahneman points out that System 1 seems actually resistant to learning – resistant to a change in direction of stimulus from the perceptual/nervous system to a dialogue with one’s reasoning mind. Training System 1 is possible, however.

Skilled, intuitive chess masters or violinists may spend upwards of 10,000 hours of practice in order to cultivate (train) their intuition. Cultivating intuition is labor intensive, and requires more than a time commitment, Kahneman points out that successful training of System 1 also requires quick and unequivocal, reliable feedback. Cultivating one’s intuition for chess or music, for example, can be successful as both of those areas are highly understood and highly rule based – hence the feedback one receives from interaction with those processes can be unequivocal and reliable. Put another way, System 1 responds to interactions that are similar to its own tendencies. These conditions are not often met, and the result is flawed intuition and flawed reasoning – we often fall victim to the law of small numbers, for example, i.e., making a law or governing principle based on a brief experience.

Most of us, it seems, are slowly training our intuitive minds by persistent interactions with the environment., many of which are less than optimal.

This seems to be an opportunity for artists and designers, doesn’t it? Obviously some of us have been exploiting these cognitive tendencies for a long time – think about advertising, product, and commercial interior design. The perception-to-System 1-to-System 2 paradigm seems to make the world present itself to us one problem at a time (the serial nature of System 2 – we are most aware of the last thing that happens, and in this process that’s the reasoning of System 2), and seems to make it difficult for us to draw critically and deeply on past knowledge to solve these immediate, present problems and dangers – Kahneman calls this Narrow framing and I wrote about it here two weeks ago.

It occurs to me that environmental elements are participants (silent partners, really) in the decision making process, and those whose job it is to make things and arrange environments, and those who care about building knowledge and improving our conditions may benefit from a point of view that includes an understanding of the psychology of interaction, and a respect for just how much the things we live with matter.

Knowledge, as Piaget noted a long time ago, is operative. Kahneman and his colleagues have expanded and described our understanding of perception, intuition, and cognition by experimentation and observation in a way that makes an enhanced critical dialogue and practice surrounding art, design, and interdisciplinality possible.
In an interview following his recent talk at Berkeley, Kahneman, in response to a question about decision making within the System 1 and 2 paradigm, had this to say:

Q: You say that skills are acquired in an environment of feedback and opportunity for learning in a social network. That would help us understand what makes it possible for [professional intuition] to be [successful].

A: They think about situations a lot and they talk about things a lot, so they develop models of various kinds of files. They don’t have to experience — you know, we are capable of learning a great deal from simulated experience. Even athletes can learn from simulating things in their minds, and they do: they practice a lot at night without doing anything. This is one piece of machinery that we dispose of. It will not help you in certain domains; it’s not something that a CIA analyst can do, because the systems that they deal with are fundamentally more complicated.

Q: Which raises the interesting question of how groups can learn from their own experience. Your work is related to decision making in the marketplace, and in a minute we’ll talk about your article in Foreign Policy. In those cases, what is the difference when you have institutions and groups that would like to correct these kinds of errors?

A: Well, in the first place, my main observation would be that groups, by and large, do not correct errors. That’s [from] recurrent observations. There’s a lot of lip service paid in organizations about improving the quality of our intelligence and the quality of our decision making but I think it’s mainly lip service, because imposing a discipline on decision making, as I illustrated by my example of the book — you know, I don’t want to impose discipline on my decision making, and the leaders of organizations — civilian and governmental and commercial — don’t like to be second-guessed. It’s the rare leader — [although] there are very salient examples; the Cuban missile crisis is the example that people think about, where President Kennedy developed a deliberating team that was superbly efficient in allowing dissent and in allowing ideas and slowing down the process of decision making to a rate that was appropriate to the complexity of the situation. That’s very rare.

“…President Kennedy developed a deliberating team that was superbly efficient in allowing dissent and in allowing ideas and slowing down the process of decision making to a rate that was appropriate to the complexity of the situation.” I think that’s a brilliant and intriguing observation, and find myself how one might design an environment so that the rate of decision making is more often appropriate to the level of complexity of a given situation.

Here’s the interview quoted above – and, again, this is a companion event to the Kahneman’s lecture linked in the previous post. Oh, and enjoy the intro music…



last week in class we looked at the cognitive psychology effect called priming

here’s a definition:

Priming refers to a increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. Because priming it believed to occur outside of conscious awareness, it is different from memory that relies on the direct retrieval of information. Direct retrieval utilizes explicit memory, while priming relies on implicit memory. Research has also shown that the affects of priming can impact the decision-making process (Jacoby, 1983). about.com

our decisions and behaviors can be subliminally influenced as we respond subconsciously to environmental stimuli.

the wikipedia entry goes into much more detail, and gets into perceptual vs. conceptual priming, and more.

John Bargh, currently of Yale, is considered a pioneer in the field:

below is Derren Brown’s subliminal advertising project, (we also watched this in class) – he gets into detail about how this worked at the end, he has another elaborate priming scheme featuring Simon Pegg, too – but that one occurs in very much of a lab setting – the one below uses priming elements embedded in the outside world, and based on my previous post, it’s a bit more interesting:

here’s an excellent lecture by Daniel Kahneman where he gets into priming, intuition, associative coherence, anchoring, system 1 and system 2 cognitive processes, and framing. the lecture is preceded by a lengthy introduction, and the ideas about priming begin around minute 20.


we also watched these short videos of Brian Wansink’s experiments into mindful (or often mindless…) eating. i think you’ll see the connection with the videos above – two quotes of Wansink’s that come to mind are, “do you think you’re smarter than a bowl?”, and, “the best diets are the ones we don’t know we’re on.”



to me, priming effects (and their related associative coherencies, coupled with the ways we seem to process them) are interesting because they demonstrate how persistently sensitive to, and dependent on our environment we are – just like any other animal on this planet. the conscious mind is one feature of our experience but, it seems, is not in any way the predominant, controlling influence some of us seem to believe it is. as an artist, designer, and thinker i find this work inspiring as it opens the doors to increased learning by making subtle changes to the environment that amount to asking it questions. i feel that i want to understand these phenomena better, and i feel that increased understanding can be developed by, in reference to my previous post, observing the natural experiments going on all around (and within me), and developing methods appropriate to my environment (the “field”) to reveal its features in greater detail. in short, i find Kahneman, Bargh, et al opening the door to field research, actual research, utterly appropriate to what artists and designers have always done – namely, building things (including making gestures) and placing them in given environments.

here’s a quote by Daniel Kahneman from an EDGE master class (this excerpt is near the end):

…We are all aware that our behavior and our thoughts and feelings are highly context-dependent: none of us is quite the same person at home and in the office, in bed or in the subway. We are used to the context-dependency of our behavior and we have stories that make sense of it—social pressure, norms etc. What we are learning from the priming-anchoring effects is that context-dependency is mediated in part by multiple subtle cues of which we are not necessarily aware. The effect of pictures of eyes on contributions to the honesty box illustrates this. People were barely aware of this contextual cue and had no idea it had a large effect on their behavior—they were responding pretty much as if they were under observation. The example shows that it does not take actual fear of social sanctions to make us behave in a manner that would be appropriate in a truly social context. I believe that if you consider the factors that govern our adjustments to the contexts of our lives, the suggestive effects of primes and anchors should become less mysterious.

The novelty of the recent priming literature is in something that I called “Associative coherence” or “the poetry of priming”. The characteristic of our responses to stimuli (I believe I used the word VOMIT as an example) is that they are coherent—the entire associative machinery (including the autonomic and skeletal responses that the machinery controls) seems to be reset for a new context. We are more alert, we are prepared to recognize stimuli that are predictable (in a Bayesian sense) in the new context, we are ready to escape etc. This coherent response makes a great deal of sense in an evolutionary context. The fact that some associations appear bizarrely symbolic (e.g., to notions of distance or reminders of money) makes sense in the context of theories of “embodied cognition”, which trace some of the concepts people have to early experiences, e.g., of social and physical distance or of the difference between situations in which money and exchange are or are not relevant).

Finally, let’s look at the importance of the phenomena. Perhaps wrongly, I read Nathan as proposing that the effects are either extremely powerful or negligible, and my response was that they are somewhere in the middle. I find it helpful to think of behavior as a choice of values along multiple continua (e.g., of friendliness, wariness, effort, driving speed, etc.). At any one time each of these features of our behavior and mental state can be represented as an equilibrium, which is influenced by multiple forces, some of which are internal (habits, intentions, stored knowledge) others drawn from the context. We are not specifically aware of all these forces (any more than we are fully aware of what determines our choice of speed on a winding road), but they are at work, and priming is one of the ways this comes about.

inside out

on the downtown A a large man was shuffling around. he started to sit down and began talking – which lead me to believe he had found someone he knew.

he had a clear, resonant voice that cut through the rattle and noise of the train. i went back to reading a book.

a few minutes later, pulling out of 125th with many more people on board he stood up, and began talking again – this time it was clear he was alone. i half-listened while i continued to read, but soon lost interest in my book in favor of checking out what was happening on the train.

while looking out a window i noticed green light in the tunnel and just at that moment heard the man say, “green light in the tunnel.” i started listening without looking at him and realized he was verbalizing whatever he became aware of – ads on the train, people, thoughts, whatever crossed his conscious mind. sometimes he swore – but nothing he said, if understood as an inner monologue was odd at all. i know that my inner monologue, with some adjustments at least, is very similar to his. what made him sound strange is that he was voicing his inner thoughts while slowly shuffling around one section of the train.

it occurred to me that our raw, inner monologue is raw because it’s divorced from the normalizing influence of the shared, external world. for most of us, when we act on our inner monologue, when we introduce our thoughts in the form of actions within shared space, that process is one of adaption – or, perhaps, translation – and, at least for me, those domains – the inner, and the shared each have their own dialects, vocabularies, and prosodies. the fellow on the train obviously had some issue about making the translation from inner to outer – and it made an impression on me as i don’t recall ever experiencing something like that before.

identity trip

while doing some research on self-experimentation (actually identity-experimentation is more accurate, i’m interested in developing some insight regarding understanding my own [and by extension one’s own – we’re very similar, you and i] affective relationships with environmental elements [a la Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Theory], and my cognitive biases- new year’s resolution…) i found a series of scientific american articles.

in the article on Alexander Shulgin, an octogenarian chemist known as the world’s foremost psychonaut, i read that “…rodents will happily ingest most intoxicants and narcotics —from marijuana to heroin—but not the headier psychedelics.”

while rats have something similar to our pre-frontal cortex (the place in our brain where dreams, plans, hallucinations, and other mental simulations are made) they don’t have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex as we do. i find this interesting.

i also find it interesting that the same article mentions “…Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one of the researchers who is restarting basic research into psychedelics. His lab has shown that psilocybin, the active ingredient in the variety of fungi known as magic mushrooms, can bring on lasting feelings of well-being. This may indicate that it could be harnessed to help clinically depressed or addicted patients.”

i think i’ll catch that wave of volunteerism sweeping across the country.

narrow framing

My cat kept eating a plant in my apartment that made her vomit. I realized what was going on and moved the plant where she can’t get at it. Apparently some of its leaves were left under a chair and she found them this morning, ate them, and about twenty minutes later let out a series of pre-puke cries and threw-up twice. Poor cat. Why can’t she learn not to eat that plant? Something about it stimulates her highly developed mammalian brain to consume it, and regardless of the inevitable aftermath she can’t override that impulse. If only she had a more developed pre-frontal cortex, like us?

As a fellow mammal with equally puzzling behaviors in response to environmental stimuli – but with the benefit of additional cognitive apparatus, I am reminded of this part of a lecture by Daniel Kahneman called a short course on thinking about thinking sponsored by edge – the excerpt below is from session one, there is video/transcription for all the sessions here. I’ve been voraciously consuming Kahneman’s work lately…. The excerpts in bold/italics are my doing.

Well over 30 years ago I was in Israel, already working on judgment and decision making, and the idea came up to write a curriculum to teach judgment and decision making in high schools without mathematics. I put together a group of people that included some experienced teachers and some assistants, as well as the Dean of the School of Education at the time, who was a curriculum expert. We worked on writing the textbook as a group for about a year, and it was going pretty well—we had written a couple of chapters, we had given a couple of sample lessons. There was a great sense that we were making progress. We used to meet every Friday afternoon, and one day we had been talking about how to elicit information from groups and how to think about the future, and so I said, Let’s see how we think about the future.

I asked everybody to write down on a slip of paper his or her estimate of the date on which we would hand the draft of the book over to the Ministry of Education. That by itself by the way was something that we had learned: you don’t want to start by discussing something, you want to start by eliciting as many different opinions as possible, which you then you pool. So everybody did that, and we were really quite narrowly centered around two years; the range of estimates that people had—including myself and the Dean of the School of Education—was between 18 months and two and a half years.

But then something else occurred to me, and I asked the Dean of Education of the school whether he could think of other groups similar to our group that had been involved in developing a curriculum where no curriculum had existed before. At that period—I think it was the early 70s—there was a lot of activity in the biology curriculum, and in mathematics, and so he said, yes, he could think of quite a few. I asked him whether he knew specifically about these groups and he said there were quite a few of them about which he knew a lot. So I asked him to imagine them, thinking back to when they were at about the same state of progress we had reached, after which I asked the obvious question—how long did it take them to finish?

It’s a story I’ve told many times, so I don’t know whether I remember the story or the event, but I think he blushed, because what he said then was really kind of embarrassing, which was, You know I’ve never thought of it, but actually not all of them wrote a book. I asked how many, and he said roughly 40 percent of the groups he knew about never finished. By that time, there was a pall of gloom falling over the room, and I asked, of those who finished, how long did it take them? He thought for awhile and said, I cannot think of any group that finished in less than seven years and I can’t think of any that went on for more than ten.

I asked one final question before doing something totally irrational, which was, in terms of resources, how good were we are at what we were doing, and where he would place us in the spectrum. His response I do remember, which was, below average, but not by much. [much laughter]

I’m deeply ashamed of the rest of the story, but there was something really instructive happening here, because there are two ways of looking at a problem; the inside view and the outside view. The inside view is looking at your problem and trying to estimate what will happen in your problem. The outside view involves making that an instance of something else—of a class. When you then look at the statistics of the class, it is a very different way of thinking about problems. And what’s interesting is that it is a very unnatural way to think about problems, because you have to forget things that you know—and you know everything about what you’re trying to do, your plan and so on—and to look at yourself as a point in the distribution is a very un-natural exercise; people actually hate doing this and resist it.

There are also many difficulties in determining the reference class. In this case, the reference class is pretty straightforward; it’s other people developing curricula. But what’s psychologically interesting about the incident is all of that information was in the head of the Dean of the School of Education, and still he said two years. There was no contact between something he knew and something he said. What psychologically to me was the truly insightful thing, was that he had all the information necessary to conclude that the prediction he was writing down was ridiculous.

COMMENT: Perhaps he was being tactful.

KAHNEMAN: No, he wasn’t being tactful; he really didn’t know. This is really something that I think happens a lot—the outside view comes up in something that I call ‘narrow framing,’ which is, you focus on the problem at hand and don’t see the class to which it belongs. That’s part of the psychology of it. There is no question as to which is more accurate—clearly the outside view, by and large, is the better way to go.

Categorized as psychology