Observations on a car ride

During jsconf2012 Brian Ford urged everyone to go read Thinking, Fast and Slow. I had a 6 hour car ride ahead of me, so I downloaded the audio book and listened to about the first thirD (it’s about 20 hours). So far it’s been incredibly interesting especially since I have a thing for the way we think, etc, but the most fun I’ve had so far has been discussing it with Kathryn the next day in the car.

The basics of the book detail the operations of two styles of thought, how they interact, and when they step in to solve problems. Go read the book to learn about it, but for this discussion’spurposes what you need to know is that “system 1” is intuitive thinking and can be kind of a jerk. “go to hell” is an emotional outburst that comes from system 1. System 1 is also the system we spend most of our time in, as we drive a car, solve simple math problems, and ehold carry on basic conversation. This is because system 2 is responsible for complex/rational thought that requires extra energy (yes you literally pay attention with glucose) and thus is as lazy as it can be. Finally, system 2 will step in to override system 1 at times, but it can’t step in when it’s already busy doing something else.

So that’s the setup, now for the observations. One of the first observations Kathryn made was that this explains why so many fights occur in the car. When having discussions, you often engage system 2 but when traffic conditions worsen priority shifts over to that task leaving system 1 free reign on the conversation without proper self control.

The second observation is the explanation of the phenomenon we have described as “this sucks – you’re my enemy.” What we mean is when some crisis occurs we have observed you are much more likely to turn on the other person as if it’s their fault for the crisis. Note most of the time, the turning isn’t directly over the crisis but instead over something petty like tone of voice or some super minor inconvenience. This now makes much more sense as in a moment of crisis, your rational self is more likely to be concentrating on solving the crisis instead of stopping system 1 from being a jerk.

My lone observation was more of a connection and a question, but I am really curious to know. at some point in the past year, we were listening to the excellent radio program and they had a theme of loops (http://www.radiolab.org/2011/oct/04/). During this episode, they talked with a woman who at one point in time went into this pattern where she would ask what day it was, note her disappointment in missing her birthday, and proceed to hold the exact same conversation until she basically reset and asked what day it was. The segment is particularly eerie because as long as her daughter gave her the same answers the conversation continued identically as if underneath it all, we are but simple machines responding to inputs. What I was curious about is that knowing system 1 is oftentimes in control of simple conversation, if for some reason system 2 were inhibited, would we all go into a loop like this? Is it merely system 2 stepping in to say “we’ve already asked this question?”


About joeldart

I am a 29 year old software developer living in Indianapolis, IN.
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