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1.2: A Closer Look at Fast and Slow Thinking

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    Look at this picture, and notice your first reaction. Do you have an emotional reaction, good or bad? What is your opinion right off the bat? Going with your gut, what do you think? Notice I am asking you about two things: (1) your emotional reaction and (2) your first thought.

    A cardboard sign with the handwritten message "Dreamers make America great" held up by a woman in a crowd outside a multi-story lighted building.
    Image by Rhododentrites on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.


    If you are a Dreamer yourself or if you have DACA protection or you were brought to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant as a child, you probably agree (your first thought) and your emotional reaction might be something like, “Yeah!” Even if you are not a Dreamer, you may have a similar positive reaction. If you haven't thought too much about Dreamers before or are unfamiliar with the issues surrounding them, you might be tempted to still respond positively because of the positive word "Dreamer" and the appeal to America's greatness. Or, if you lean to the right politically and are familiar with right-wing rhetoric on immigration, you may have the opposite reaction: you disagree with the protester and react negatively, something like, “this is BS!” 

    This instant reaction, your gut feeling and first thought, we will call “fast thinking.” In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents evidence from psychology about how the human mind works. Your quick reaction to the photo is what Kahneman calls fast thinking, which is quick, automatic, and little effort is involved. Other examples of fast thinking: looking up when you hear a loud noise, saying “fine” when someone says “how are you,” or finishing 2 + 2 = ___. In contrast, slow thinking takes time and effort. When you tell someone your phone number, park a car in a small spot, figure out 24 x 17 = _____, or write an essay for English, you must do slow thinking. As a human being, we do both fast and slow thinking every day. In this chapter, we will analyze the photo to explore the ways that people think fast and slow and to see how academic slow thinking approaches might lead to better understanding of the issues raised in the photo.

    Fast thinking and emotion

    “I have a bad feeling about this.” - Han Solo

    Let’s start with the idea of emotion and fast thinking. In the U.S., illegal immigration is an emotional issue, and psychologists have found that people often make decisions based on their emotions. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that people make moral decisions, make up their minds about right and wrong, very fast and largely based on gut feelings. People decide “immediately and emotionally,” and reasoning is “merely the servant of the passions.” Looking at the photo of the protester with a sign saying, “Dreamers make America great,” we will decide what we think fast and based largely on emotion. We don’t immediately do slow thinking; we don’t  say “I have no opinion; I need to see if there is evidence proving that Dreamers are good for America; show me the stats.” Instead, we decide in an instant based on our feelings.

    In a way, this is a bad thing: we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions, and we should examine the evidence! However, psychologists have also found that people need their emotions to think clearly. Antonio Damasio and others discovered that people who have lost their ability to feel emotion—based on a brain tumor or injury to the brain—also lose their ability to make rational decisions, and so end up making messes of their lives, losing their jobs and wrecking their marriages. Evidence has been piling up that feelings and reason are linked. We may do bad thinking when we allow emotions to cloud our thinking, but we also need emotions to think clearly. Think again about your emotional reaction to the photo, and then ask: are my feelings making me irrational, or are they helping me find the truth? 

    Fast thinking and bias

    Even when we are not having an obvious emotional reaction, fast thinking can lead to errors because of bias more generally. We may be the smartest creatures on Earth, but have numerous cognitive biases; that is, there are errors in reasoning that are common to all people. For example, we suffer from confirmation bias: we tend to look for evidence that confirms what we already believe, and have trouble dealing with anything that goes against what we already believe. Look at the photo again. If you already believed that Dreamers are good young people going to college and they should be allowed to stay in the U.S., then based on confirmation bias, your fast thinking will tell you that the protester is right. On the opposing side, if you think illegal immigration is a bad thing and Dreamers should be deported, or if you like Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again,” then your fast thinking will be different: your confirmation bias will kick in and the photo will confirm all the negative thoughts you have about immigrants and liberals.

    A cardboard sign with the handwritten message "Dreamers make America great" held up by a woman in a crowd outside a multi-story lighted building.
    Image by Rhododentrites on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.


    Another bias we all carry around is called availability bias: we tend to decide what we think based on the examples, evidence, or experiences we can easily call up in our minds, and based on information we have been exposed to recently. I will use myself as an example here. I am a California community college professor, and I have been teaching in California since the 1990s. That means I have had countless Dreamers in my classes, I have known thousands of students who are immigrants or whose parents are immigrants, and most of the immigrants I meet are college students. I can easily call to mind many examples of young people, some of whom are immigrants or Dreamers, who are going to college and contributing to society in the most positive ways, so based on my availability bias, the evidence easily available to me will lead me to agree with the protester in the photo. 

    Google “cognitive bias” and you will find there are dozens of different kinds of bias. In this sense of the word “bias,” we are all biased because we are human. When we do fast thinking, we may be on the right track, or we may be in error due to cognitive bias. Daniel Kahneman and others have shown that bias is very powerful. Even when presented with evidence showing they are wrong, confirmation bias is so strong that you often get the “backfire effect”: people will dig in their heels and believe even more strongly when they are given evidence that contradicts their beliefs. We can overcome our biases, we can do slow thinking and examine the evidence and logic, but our brains are hardwired to have bias.

    Fast thinking and the “post-truth era”

    The information environment of the 2020s encourages fast thinking. Once many people read newspapers daily. Now, many of us get daily news and information from social media sources such as TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. As we scroll social media or the web, images like the photo of the protester appear constantly and in such a large quantity that most of us are exposed to hundreds of images, posts, videos, or tweets every day. In this information environment, fast thinking rules: we look for a second, we read a headline without reading the whole article, we decide to click like or not, we decide to share with friends or not—all based on fast thinking, emotion, and our biases.

    Certainly, technology can help us be well-informed, but there are dangers. Unlike traditional media, where there are reporters who majored in journalism, editors, and fact-checkers, anyone can post in social media or on the internet, and often an unreliable source looks just like a reliable one—so how do we know what is true? Moreover, social media, web search engines, and YouTube have algorithms that give you more of what you’ve already looked at, so you may end up in a filter bubble, or echo chamber: only information and ideas you already agree with (remember confirmation bias?) will appear in your feed. Sometimes social media will suggest new things that are more outrageous or extreme, and studies have found that social media posts are far more likely to go viral if they appeal to emotion

    In fact, studies of misinformation in the 2016 election season showed that falsehoods spread faster and farther than true stories. American politics has become angrier and more divided, and the “outrage” style of political opinion—lots of name-calling, wild exaggerations of the views of opponents, and appeals to emotion--has grown in recent decades. On top of all that, we have a problem of trust: more and more Americans do not trust traditional sources of information such as newspapers, government research agencies, network TV, colleges and universities, and even science itself. 

    The result? There is a lot of BS out there. Misinformation is such a problem that “fake news” is now an ordinary word in the U.S.A., and many have argued that we are now in the era of “post-truth.” In the post-truth era, facts don’t matter, and people make up their minds based on emotion, biases, and political loyalty. (For a good summary, see the book, Post-Truth, by Lee McIntyre.) According to Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago, over half of Americans subscribe to at least one conspiracy theory. About 10% of Americans still believe that vaccines cause autism even though this claim has been thoroughly debunked. Some Americans read and share articles from fake news websites as if they were real. For example, look up America’s Last Line of Defense; this website declares itself to be satire, completely made-up stories, but so many people were sharing these stories that felt the need to debunk stories from this site 24 times. Magazines such as The Atlantic publish stories such as “Stop Trusting Viral Videos.” If you Google “misinformation about coronavirus,” you will find many websites devoted to combatting myths and disinformation about Covid 19. And climate change? There is no controversy among scientists, but a significant portion of Americans still believe the problem does not exist or that the science is uncertain. Speaking of established science, surveys show that a large proportion of Americans don’t believe in evolution—again, there is no disagreement here among scientists. Distrust of science is so strong that Sara and Jack Gorman wrote a whole book about science denial called Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us

    Possibly the most dramatic post-truth event of our lifetimes happened in the wake of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Joe Biden won the election with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232, and Biden won the popular vote by 7 million votes. Voter turnout was high and it was not a close election (even Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell admitted this). However, Trump claimed with no evidence that the election was stolen. Spurred on by Trump’s falsehoods, supporters stormed the Unites States Capitol on January 6, 2021, resulting in five deaths and 140 injuries. And as of April 2021, a poll by Forbes showed that 60% of Republicans still believed Trump’s lie that the election was somehow rigged. In some cases, the spread of a lie may be dangerous to democracy itself. According to Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and author of On Tyranny, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.”

    When American media users in 2020 saw the photo of the protester with a sign about Dreamers, it was in this sort of information environment. Fast, emotion, and bias are always there, but on top of all that people don’t even agree on the most basic facts, like who won an election. 

    Thinking fast and slow—in college

    To summarize so far: looking at the photo of the protester, people will form an opinion immediately based on fast thinking and emotion, and under the influence of cognitive bias. We need fast thinking to get through the day—emotions, gut instincts, reflexes, intuitions serve us well most of the time—but we need to develop slow thinking too. Let’s go back to our photo of the Dreamer protester and do some slow thinking. Of course, it’s good to notice your fast thinking–your feelings and gut reactions and snap judgments–when looking at this picture. But then it’s time to slow down, think it through, do some research.

    Often this begins with defining key terms and clarifying what exactly is being said. The word “Dreamer” can be found in any online dictionary, and is usually defined as follows: undocumented immigrant, came to the U.S. as a child, qualifies for the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act was first proposed in 2001 but has never been passed by Congress. The act would grant Dreamers legal residency and possibly a path to citizenship if they met a list of qualifications (including “good moral character”). 

    A cardboard sign with the handwritten message "Dreamers make America great" held up by a woman in a crowd outside a multi-story lighted building.
    Image by Rhododentrites on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.


    Back to the picture: a young woman is holding a sign saying that “Dreamers make America great.” Slow thinking: what does that mean? Is this an argument that Dreamers contribute to the economy? That they bring cultural contributions? That they benefit the USA overall? That the way America treats Dreamers should show greatness of heart? We don’t know. Maybe should consider context. The protesters were in the streets because Trump was going to rescind DACA, a move by Obama that gave temporary legal residency (but not a path to citizenship) to some Dreamers. So maybe the exact words of the sign aren’t the point; maybe the real claim being made is something like: “Trump, you are wrong to rescind DACA!” 

    Beyond interpreting the photo, your next slow-thinking move would likely be research, but what research you do would depend on your purpose. As a college student writing a paper or doing a project, this could mean many different things. You could gather evidence about people who were brought to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants when they were children: how many are there? Where did they come from? How long have they been here? What percent attend college? What kind of jobs do they have? What would happen to them if they were deported? 

    You could also research DACA itself–what its provisions are, how long it’s been in place, how DACA status is different from having a green card, and more. In addition to gathering facts, slow thinking might mean examining ethical questions such as this one: do undocumented people who arrived as children have a moral right to stay and become legal residents or citizens? 

    Given your feelings and biases, some information may confirm your fast thinking, but research can also disappoint. Let’s say your fast thinking about the photo was “Yes!” You are a college student, your undocumented friend just transferred to UC Berkeley from your community college honors program, and you generally think Dreamers truly are a positive influence on America. But then in your research you find that only a small minority of DACA recipients have attended and graduate from college. Here’s what you found from a 2017 study by the Migration Policy Institute: “While DACA recipients are almost as likely as U.S. adults in the same age group (15-32) to be enrolled in college (18 percent versus 20 percent), they are far less likely to have completed college (4 percent versus 18 percent).” Well! What does that show? Do Dreamers have trouble completing college because they lack financial resources or aid? Or because they get deported before they can finish?  Because of internalized prejudice? Or for some other reason? How do they do in comparison to non-immigrants whose parents have the same level of education and economic resources? Is college completion a good measure of contribution to society? How should this statistic influence our opinion of Dreamers and their contribution to America? 

    Slow thinking is partly this: realize that it’s complicated, get confused, spend some time thinking about the information and what it means. And by the time you’ve done all the slow thinking for a college research paper, you’ve changed: your gut reaction isn’t all there is, you have a head full of facts and ideas. You may still have a strong opinion, but you might add, “It’s complicated.” You have a lot more to share in conversation about the Dreamers in America, and many more questions to continue exploring.


    Adapted by Anna Mills from “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Alex Sterling, included in "Critical Thinking for the 21st Century" on Canvas Commons, licensed CC BY-NC 4.0

    1.2: A Closer Look at Fast and Slow Thinking is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.