Too Slow for Fast Populism?

As a human rights lobbyists in the EU, ‘we’ effortfully collect evidence-based facts and figures to produce policy reports and recommendations to influence the EU to tackle rights violations. At the same time populist politicians (often also eurosceptics) seems to effortlessly glamour voters with their simplistic rhetorics and appealing emotions, out-performing all our efforts. ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011) has helped me to understand how come ‘we’ often lose, despite our solid arguments. Kahneman describes two interacting brain systems.

System 2 (Slow) is the one that concentrates and put a lot of effort in what it does. It thinks rational and strategic, asks questions and compares choices before taking decisions. It is often busy, but also kind of lazy.

As it requires effort, it also has a limited energy for its activities. If it is low on battery it starts to fail, and will be more inclined to adopt the ‘fast’ solutions and suggestions by System 1. For early-bird persons System 2 works at its best in the morning, and for the night-owls the best time is in the late evening.

System 1 (Fast) on the other hand is more easy going, confident, intuitive and creative. At the same time it is impulsive, impatient, gullible and biased.  System 1 will more likely kick in, in the evening for morning persons and reversed for the night-owls.

‘While System 2 is busy with its effortful thinking, self-control and concentration, System 1 can take the opportunity to influence.’   

System 1  produce a sense of familiarity, which System 2 relies on to judge if something is true or false. In other words, we believe in falsehoods when it is frequently repeated. Familiarity of one phrase in a statement tricks us to believe the whole statement is true (even when it is not). When we believe a conclusion, we are also more likely to believe the arguments that appears to support it, even when they are unsound.

Kahneman explains that it is important to make it  easy for the recipient to understand a message. ‘Cognitive ease’ is associated with good feelings and will make your message sound smarter. Avoid complex and pretentious language, and skip the jargons and complicated names, it counter any effort to be perceived as credible and intelligent. Instead, try to make it memorable and effortless. (Interestingly Kahneman does not live as he learn, as his book isn’t particularly cognitively easy to read..).

When System 1 is not sure about something, it simply answer based on its experience of recent events and its current context, without keeping track of alternatives. When System 2 is busy, System 1 will trick it into believing most anything. System 1 has a preference for coherent stories, and will therefore make its best to create such a storyline, disregarding both data and facts. In other words, it simply jumps to conclusions. Often, the more we know the more complex issues become, therefore knowing little makes it easier to fit everything we know into a coherent pattern. As System 2 is lazy and has limited energy, it will be prone to believe System 1’s story telling. Especially because System 1 communicate in an easy and familiar way, and is also highly confident, which suppress any doubt or ambiguity System 2 may have.

Kahneman illustrates how we have a tendency to either like or dislike everything about a person based on our first impression, the so called ‘halo effect’, triggered by System 1. For example, my first impression of an Irish person was lovely, since I tend to simply like all Irish people immediately, without actually knowing them. More serious it gets when an employer lets its first impression, based on nationality or ethnicity, colour its judgement when going through a hiring process of a new employee.

Altogether I have found these observations useful when trying to work out how to understand, remain critical and counter both prejudices and populist views, professionally as well as personally.

Kahneman develops his theory on more than 400 pages with an almost infinite number of examples and illustrations of how the two systems interact. As I have not yet finished reading, I may come back with a sequence post about more insights Kahneman brings.

Read my other blog post on the basis of the book ‘Taking Fear Seriously’

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