Readings #7: Thinking, Fast and Slow (and What That Means for Martial Artists).

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences (decision making) and a former professor of psychology at Princeton University. His 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” is still a popular book for people trying to figure out how our cognitive selves operate.

Though he is intelligent and highly educated, he can take the sophisticated nature of human psychology and simplify it so the average person can understand it… most of the time. I caveat my statement only because there is still some of the information I have yet to process fully. It’s a dense book.

The book’s underlying idea is two systems of thinking govern our lives, which Kahneman characterizes as System 1 and System 2. Here is how the book describes them:

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

System 1 works subconsciously through our intuition. We often don’t realize it is even working. It operates in many daily activities: detecting the direction of a sound, driving on empty roads, adding 2+2=4, etc. It only deals with the limited information that is right in front of it, what Kahneman calls “What You See Is All There Is––WYSIATI.”

System 2 works more deliberately and systematically. It requires focus though and is easily distracted. Some of its functions are comparing two items for value, solving complex math problems, searching a crowd for a particular face, etc. System 2 is lazy and often defers to System 1 through mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, stereotypes, or biases.

I will not attempt to discuss everything within the book, but will focus on a part that is important for martial artists and others trying to become experts in a given field. About halfway through the book, Kahneman highlights two heuristics of which we should be mindful: The Illusion of Validity and Trusting Expert Intuition.

With The Illusion of Validity, Kahneman discusses how we form biases and convince ourselves that we are skilled or have somehow mastered a domain. He describes two elements that enable us to do so: cognitive ease and coherence.

If the decision is easy and without much thinking, his research suggests we take the easiest cognitive route because our System 1 is emotional and devoid of rational thought.

In this same manner, System 1 forms a coherent story based on this limited information. This story is the second element, the one that allows you to hold firmly to a bias. It cements the idea that you are correct in your assumptions because you have information, albeit limited, and you have created a logical story based on that data.

System 1 doesn’t look for other information because it has what it needs to make a decision. This creates a problem because “a mind that follows WYSIATI will achieve high confidence much too easily by ignoring what it does not know” making most of us “prone to have high confidence in unfounded intuition.”

We become overconfident when we overlook or don’t seek other data that may conflict with our initial judgments. Something for us to remember is just because we feel confident, it doesn’t mean we are accurate about our abilities. 

This leads us to the second heuristic: Trusting Expert Intuition.

If our intuitions are flawed, and limited data plus System 1 processing skews our perceptions of our expertise, how can we master a skill and become experts in a given domain?

In Kahneman’s research, he sees intuition as meaning “knowing something without knowing how we know it.” In a simple way of understanding it, intuition is pattern recognition. The more you have seen, the easier it is to see patterns and make judgments about them. The implications of this realization are why those who train more often will likely appear to learn faster. They have more sights in their rear-view mirror.

Kahneman suggests there are two conditions to acquiring a skill:

  • An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable
  • An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

According to him, when these two conditions are met, a person’s intuitions may be sufficiently skilled. His rule for this is: you can’t trust intuition in the absence of stable regularities in the environment.

One of the main “stable regularities” Kahneman says enables skilled intuition is feedback loops. He writes, “Whether professionals have a chance to develop intuitive expertise depends essentially on the quality and speed of feedback, as well as on sufficient opportunity to practice.”

His notion of expertise and intuition should way heavily on the minds of martial arts “masters,” business moguls, and stock traders alike.

We develop our prowess and acumen through consistent training and exposure to little failures. We gain knowledge from our superiors, but more importantly, from the arenas where we put our expertise to the test. If we aren’t exposing our knowledge or skills to testing, how can we know if it is valid or effective?

It’s hard to know if what you know works without some form of feedback, whether it’s sparring in class, rolling in a tournament, or fighting in a cage. You must test what you know.

That brings us into System 2 thinking. When you have a body of experiences to validate your knowledge, and you possess a sufficient number of skills to draw from, you can make a more logical, deliberate decision in the heat of the moment.

Mastering certain skills and domains takes time.

In one analogy, Kahneman writes, “Learning high-level chess can be compared to learning to read… After thousands of hours of practice… chess masters are able to read a chess situation at a glance. The few moves that come to their mind are almost always strong and sometimes creative. They can deal with a ‘word’ they have never encountered, and they can find a new way to interpret a familiar one.”

But even with experience and exposure to many situations, that doesn’t mean we know everything about our particular arena. Kahneman says, “Expertise is not a single skill: it is a collection of skills, and the same professional may be highly expert in some of the tasks in her domain while remaining a novice in others.”

Even black belts and world champions may not know every detail or move. That’s why it is important to maintain a critical, skeptical approach. In other words, always be the student.

We may not overcome every bias because we often aren’t aware they are present. We also may have sufficient knowledge and still not know everything. That’s okay.

Test what you know. Learn what you don’t. And never stop looking for more information.  

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