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The Cognitive Science of Star Trek

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

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Star Trek needs more advanced cognitive science. The work of Kahneman can augment one of its central philosophical themes. We now have less warped models of intuition, logic, and morality.

Take one small but telling example from the latest Star Trek movie: Kirk, in a dire spot, says he wants to be more like Spock: He’d like to choose not to feel. This reiterates an old rationalist desire. Rationalist philosophy, says David Brooks, believes “reason is more powerful than and separable from emotion” and hopes that “reason…triumphs over emotion.” This widely used dichotomy mis-frames what cognitive science shows.

Per Kahneman, feeling is a form of thinking. Both process data. Feeling does it faster. Either can be logically apt or inept. Each comes from different cognitive systems that Kahneman calls Systems 1 and 2. System 1 generates feelings; it’s fast, intuitive, and reactive, like Kirk. System 2 consciously thinks; it’s slower, deliberative, and capable of logic, like Spock (hat tip to Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind which uses Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson similarly).

Kirk’s wish is futile. We can’t directly choose not to feel. That’s not how human cognitive plumbing works. Feelings are like heart-rate or digestion, they’re involuntary. This unwilledness led the ancient Greeks to believe that strong feelings were visited on us by the gods (by personified external forces).

Our System 2 (inner-Spock) can choose our feelings, but only indirectly, by putting our System 1 (inner-Kirk) in situations that evoke them. We can train how our System 1 (inner-Kirk) reacts to contextual triggers, but only with substantial prior effort, not simply by System 2 (inner-Spock) decisions on the spot.

Kirk’s famous intuitive gut-feel decisions are System 1 driven. But “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition,” says Kahneman. A firefighter knows “without knowing how he knows” that a situation is unsafe because his System 1 recognizes cues, even if his System 2 can’t name them. This is “the norm of mental life.”

When should Kirk-like intuitions be trusted? Kahneman says only if two conditions are met: first, in environments with sufficiently “stable regularities”; second, after prolonged exposure to learn those regularities. Intuition can work in chess, but not in stock markets (which Kahneman says are subject to the “illusion of skill.”). Sometimes following intuitions is extremely rational, as in the firefighter (see also Julia Galef’s Hollywood rationality error #3). In unstable unpatterned contexts, no productive intuitive System 1 recognition is possible.

Rationalist aspirations also misrepresent the dramatic moral conflicts that drama needs and Star Trek does so well. Jonathan Haidt has shown empirically that System 1 intuition is “the main cause of moral judgment.”

System 2 rationality later provides justification.

To boldly go where no one has gone before, take both your inner-Kirk and your inner-Spock. Intuitions and logic work better together.

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
Kahneman’s Clarity: Using Mysterious Coinage in Science
What Rational Really Means

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 His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at 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.

Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. kkinney 12:35 pm 05/24/2013

    Someone has to say it- “Kaaaaaahneman!”

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  2. 2. Simon Says 1:28 pm 05/24/2013

    I have always said and believed, “We have logic to temper our emotions, and we have emotions to temper or logic.” Yeah, I thought of that!

    Two, examples, 1. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” Winston Churchill. This is reason over emotion. 2. “Sometimes the good of the one outweighs the good of the many,” Star Trek/James Kirk. This is obviously emotion over logic.

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  3. 3. brian1625 6:10 pm 05/25/2013

    This could be fleshed out in a new TV series.

    Though intuition “tells” me that intuition is more nuanced than this article lets on. Which is why it’s great for story.

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  4. 4. brian1625 6:20 pm 05/25/2013

    Also, what’s great about Star Trek is that it just tells stories where you can see things a different way. The idea is to take things out of context. That’s Rodenberry’s mission. Star Trek took emotion and logic apart and puts it on display. It’s up to the audience to see the value and pitfalls of both and put them back together.

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