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©2018 by Merle van den Akker

The Beast Within


A baseball bat and a ball cost €1,10 together. The bat is €1,00 more expensive than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you have never seen the example before and you quickly read the question, your answer was very likely €0,10. If you do the mathematics and allow for (slower) deliberation, you see that this answer is wrong. This is a famous example of System 1, your quick reasoning system, screwing up.

Some decisions we make quickly, with the use of heuristics and/or emotions. Other decisions require more careful thought or reasoning. Sometimes the distinction between these two forms of thinking is not too clear. The distinction was made famous by Daniel Kahnemann in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. This book outlines the difference between the two systems operating in our minds. The first system we share with quite a lot of other animals, the second system is uniquely human.

Now getting the amount a baseball costs wrong by a shocking amount of €0,05 will probably not be a life-threatening event. But let’s now study the separate systems and dive into the details a bit more, to see where exactly it’s going all wrong.


System 1 The theory of two different processes giving rise to (different) thoughts is called dual-process theory in psychology. The first of the two processes consist of an implicit, automatic, unconscious process. This is often dubbed system 1, or type 1 reasoning. It has also been called animalistic reasoning, which is why I chose the title for this blog to be the beast within. We like to think we are so much smarter than animals, but we still have similar systems of thinking in place. And they often lead to interesting choices.

System 1 is quick. It doesn’t need many resources, so it comes up with answers whether you wanted it to or not. That is one drawback of its automaticity. System 1 is permanently switched on. It is incredibly difficult to ignore the answer given by system 1. The location of the off switch is still unknown.

Another drawback is that system 1 is not rule-based. It draws from heuristics, such as salient past experiences and emotions. As such, it is great for survival. System 1 reasoning pretty much ensures it. As soon as any negative emotion is experienced system 1 will give the signal to fight or flight. Most likely flight. We act on impulse and get ourselves into safety. This is the system we share with animals.


System 2 So system 1 is an automatic system. System 2 is unfortunately not automatic. This system has to be consciously activated. It is therefore a lot slower than system 1. Where system 2 is still computing a response or looking for a logical argument, system 1 is shouting an answer loud and clear. Whether that answer is correct or not. System 2 will tell you whether it is correct or not, if you give it the time to do so.

So what makes it so slow? System 2 has many different names that explain why it’s slow. It is known as the explicit system, the rule-based system, the rational system or the analytic system. It performs slow(er) and sequential thinking. It is domain-general: it is performed in the central working memory system. Because of its relation to working memory, it has a limited capacity. Activation of system 2 is highly correlated with general intelligence.

System 2 is uniquely human. It can identify gaps in logical reasoning, perform quite intricate and massive calculations and allow for us to engage in cognitively engaging tasks. Activating system 2 is what allows us to override initial impulses by going through information in a logical order. System 2 let’s us have control over the beast that is system 1.


Implications Now you might think that as long as we give ourselves enough time, we will always manage to activate system 2. But unfortunately, system 1 can be incredibly powerful. As I mentioned before, it is an animalistic type of reasoning. It is a system necessary for survival, and as a result very much in touch with reflexes and basic emotions.

One of the most powerful emotions we can experience is fear. When afraid, people activate their fight and flight response. Most people engage in flight. Meaning that when a person afraid of anything, they will do their best to avoid it at any cost. Some people, although a minority, will engage in fight. This means becoming aggressive towards the object of their fear.

If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, don’t be surprised. This is the strategy for most political standpoints on migration, mainly those against migration. There is no real logical argument to be build on refusing refugees to enter safer countries. Most of the people that have the option to leave their country are well-educated and quite wealthy. As a result of that they are not likely to come here to steal low-skill, low-wage jobs, nor are they trying to steal money from the government by living on benefits. The worst one of them all is the fear that is instilled by terrorism. Accusing people who have just gone through hell of being a terrorist is helping neither you nor them.

Any type of racism is based on fear, not on a logical argument. This is system 1 reasoning. Flee from your fear. Avoid it at any cost, even when the object of your fear is in your direct environment. If necessary fight the object that you are afraid off. But what is that going to achieve in the end? We need to learn how to cope with our most primal emotions, and understand how they affect our perception and our reasoning. It is time to sit down and engage in system 2 reasoning. We need to not respond to fear or anger. We need to go through the argument again and again and give ourselves the time to see the logic behind it, if there even is any. Mind you, politicians know how to get you where they want you to be. Politics is nothing but a game of manipulation, in which they are counting on your system 1 to take over. Engage. Wait. Think. Respond.


We are not beasts.