In praise of “slow thinking”

A while ago, I wrote a post reflecting on Daniel Kahneman’s extraordinary book Thinking Fast and Slow.  And just a few days ago, my friend and teacher James Flaherty, the founder of New Ventures West, published his own comments on this book in the latest issue of his quarterly newsletter, Distinctions.

In this post, I’m pleased to feature excerpts from his thoughtful essay, in which he challenges his readers to take up the practice of “slow thinking”.

We are in a hurry. We have many tasks, many e-mails, many needed conversations, books to read, movies to see, trips to take, projects to complete, plans to make—so we nearly worship efficiency.  Our biology is built upon using the least possible effort and expending the smallest amount of energy because both maximize survival.  The shared everyday world pulls us into speed and our body happily cooperates.

There are, though, usually unnoticed negative consequences of going fast—we make many repeated observational/cognitive errors resulting in behavioral mistakes. (I don’t mean here typos or misunderstanding instructions, but misreading what we want/need, or what someone important to us is communicating, or the signals our social sphere is giving us that change is necessary.) We don’t notice them because they feel right, correct, appropriate.

An extraordinarily powerful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman, brilliantly and succinctly lays out the blindness caused by speed that gets hidden by the structure of our nervous system. From the book, here’s a partial list of the chronic mistakes our fast thinking makes:
–  It suppresses doubt and neglects ambiguity.
–  It concludes that something must be true if it is associated with pleasant feelings.
–  It focuses on existing evidence and neglects absent evidence (we don’t look into longer-term causes and conditions, forget context, don’t even ask what happened just before or what will happen immediately next).
–  It responds more strongly to losses than to gains (called “loss aversion”) leading to success amnesia and exaggerated planning and fears.
–  It infers and invents causes and intentions—innumerable relational messes begin here.
–  It generates a limited set of basic assessments (called “common sense”) that lead to ridiculous statements like “How hard is it to be US President?” because we only have a very limited idea of what it takes given our extremely limited views following from our very small set of possible assessments/ observations.
–  It makes sense of behaviors/situations immediately and comes to quick conclusions because associative memory gets activated—we don’t notice the uniqueness of the moment.
–  It substitutes an easier question for a difficult one, dumbing down our response, taking us out of a full encounter with someone/the full situation (e.g. “Do I love you? Well, I really like the way you dance and you are such a good cook”).
The list goes on. And we are for the most part blind to these events for the reasons cited above. Which of these do you fall into? How could you find out?

Meditative and other practices, such as yin yoga and Tai Chi, systematically slow down the nervous system, allowing more of the wisdom of our slower thinking to come forward. Having regular breaks from relentless work blunts the momentum of our racing minds.

Are you onto yourself in this area? Many of the messes we are in the middle of arise because we are unaware of the mischief of our fast/automatic thinking. For most of us, we have important work to attend to around this topic. Let’s start—slowly.

To read more of James Flaherty’s essays, as well as his book reviews, visit the resources section of his website, where you can find a 10-year archive of newsletter back issues.


About Tom Cummings

I've been a political liberal for the past fifty years, and a committed secular Buddhist for the last ten. As I move forward with my personal practice of Buddhism, and as I take note of the increasingly tribalistic "us-against-them" tenor of political discourse in countries across the globe (most notably here in my own United States), I appreciate more and more how much these two worthy traditions - liberalism and Buddhism - share in common. My intention in writing this blog is to provide a forum for the exploration of these overlapping values, and how their confluence might relate to current issues affecting American citizens and the global community. Two convictions underlie the posts that will appear here: (1) Buddhism's invitation for us to embrace generosity, compassion, and wisdom offers a clear path for resolving our national and global problems effectively and humanely; and (2) liberalism, by virtue of the high value it places on the social good, is the natural home for a politically engaged and pragmatically meaningful Buddhism.
This entry was posted in Books, Effectiveness, Mindfulness and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s