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Kahneman’s Clarity: Using Mysterious Coinage in Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Feeling is a form of thinking. Both are ways of processing data, though one is faster. Establishing those re-conceptions required a powerful under-noticed scientific technique that needs no instruments or mathematics, just new language. What Daniel Kahneman calls “theory induced blindness” can be cured by artful use of mysterious new coinage.

In his field reshaping, paradigm-tipping book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman carefully wrestles with flaws in conventional ideas about judgment and choice. “Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, people are generally rational…Second, emotions…explain most of the occasions on which people depart from rationality.” But Kahneman’s Nobel Prize-winning work “documented…and traced [systematic] errors to the design of the machinery of cognition…rather than corruption…by emotion.” Grasping this requires new “richer and more precise language” better suited “for thinking and talking about the mind.” But novelty alone doesn’t always cut it for a confusion-ectomy, sometimes meaninglessness can create needed curiosity.

Kahneman neatly sidesteps centuries of confusion simply by using new, and hence undisputed terms for “thinking, fast and slow”: the brilliantly bland, and even “ugly names” “System 1” and “System 2” (Seuss-like labels coined by Stanovich and West). Unlike the novel but readily decipherable phrase “theory induced blindness,” the meaning and attributes of System 1 and 2 have to be learned. Mystery is key to their utility.

The empirical attributes of System 1 and System 2 cut across ill-defined distinctions embedded in prior terms. Conventionally our intuitive information-processing has been considered irrational, but System 1’s fast thinking is often logical and useful. Conversely, though we’d like to think we reason well when we do it consciously and deliberately, our use of System 2 often produces seemingly irrational results. These counter-conventional observations lead to what Kahneman labels “errors” and “cognitive biases” (problems with that language will be the subject of upcoming posts.)

Mere language-laundering risks bringing forward baggage from prior confused use. New and neutral language can be key to what Daniel Dennett, in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, calls “jootsing,” which is an acronym for “jumping out of the system” (an idea from Douglas Hofstadler). Dennett doesn’t say this but unencumbered coinages like jootsing can enable jootsing. To terminate terminological wrangling and deconfuse a field, sometimes requires clear-cutting key category-defining terms, restarting with a blank semantic slate, and rebuilding clusters of characteristics around new, neutral labels.

A version of “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” applies: Nothing in human behavior makes sense except in the light of Systems 1 and 2. At least for now, we can benefit from mapping all human environmental data processing onto Kahneman‘s clarifying labels.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

Kahneman and Bentham’s Bucket of Happiness

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.comwww.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.comwww.hangingnoodles.com. It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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