Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Kahneman’

Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes the fundamental obligation of human beings to acquire knowledge with their “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.” . . . . God has given each human being a mind and the capacity to differentiate truth from falsehood. If individuals fail to use their reasoning capacities and choose instead to accept without question certain opinions and ideas, either out of admiration for or fear of those who hold them, then they are neglecting their basic moral responsibility as human beings. Moreover, when people act in this way, they often become attached to some particular opinion or tradition and thus intolerant of those who do not share it.

(Quoted from the official Bahá’í website)

The Conscious Universe IRM

This sequence from two years ago still seems relevant.

My recent post on psi, as well as a positive reference to it in Irreducible Mind, triggered me to go back to a book I read many years ago before I started blogging. It is Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe.

It deals in depth with the wealth of research that had been undertaken until that point on the vexed issue of psi. It reveals how meticulously those involved in this research had taken on board the criticisms of the sceptics and refined their methodology until it had reached the point where its replicated confirmation of the reality of psi could not be explained away by any serious scientist who bothered to examine dispassionately the work that had been done.

I won’t review the whole of his book, which I am convinced will amply reward anyone prepared to read it. It covers the whole area, including methodology, from telepathy through remote viewing to field theories of consciousness.

I will instead confine myself to one example of how carefully considered his treatment is of this issue, then I’ll focus on his chapters exploring the reasons for the prevailing scepticism – endemic then in 1997 and still a common response within the scientific mainstream – before outlining briefly in a second post the sources of some of the distortions of thinking operating here and elsewhere.

The Point of Detail

Remote Viewing SketchWhen I recently published a post on psi I noted that I was doubtful that everyone could demonstrate the level of remote viewing skill Jeffrey Iverson quotes in his book. I concluded:

I am not at all sure . . . that everyone is currently capable of psi: however, I am hopeful that over a long period of time humanity will evolve to a point at which this could well be so.

Radin has helped me refine that view in the light of two pieces of research. In terms of remote viewing (page 102), he states:

. . . . . mass screening to find talented remote viewers revealed that about Remote Viewing Angel1% of those tested were consistently successful. This says that first class remote-viewing ability is relatively rare, but it probably varies across the general population much like athletic ability and musical talent.

Neither practice nor training seems to do much to improve upon someone’s starting level of ability.

However, micropsychokinesis, tested by means of random number generators (RNGs) tells a different story, perhaps because influencing electronically generated numbers is a less demanding skill (page 143):

Roger Nelson and his colleagues found that the main RNG effect . . . . [contained] no “star” performers – this means that the overall effect reflected an accumulation of small effects from each person rather than a few outstanding results from “special people.”

This is just one example among thousands of what has been revealed by decades of painstaking research.

So, do scientists irrationally persist in not taking the reality of psi seriously?

Radin demonstrates that this is very much the case before tackling head on the question of why that might be so.

A Field Guide to Scepticism

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

We can start by considering how well-informed scepticism was at the time of Radin’s writing this book. He quotes Paul Churchland as a not untypical example (page 207):

‘… There is not a single parapsychological effect that can be repeatedly or reliably produced in any laboratory suitably equipped to perform and control the experiment. Not one.’

Radin’s reposte, which his book proves is completely warranted is (ibid.):

Wrong. As we’ve seen, there are a half dozen psi effects that have been replicated dozens to hundreds of times in laboratories around the world.

Radin goes onto explain that such sceptics as Churchland have not even bothered to find out what the tiny handful of well-informed sceptics had come to accept (page 209):

Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.

Part of this resistance to the clearly proven stems from something I have explored at length already on this blog: the a priori assumption that psi is impossible, no respectable scientist need therefore investigate it and any evidence that claims to support the idea must be flawed. That this can lead to wildly unsubstantiable claims almost beggars belief (page 211):

. . . . in 1983 the well-known sceptic Martin Gardner wrote: “How can the public know that for 50 years sceptical psychologist been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]?”

Radin confirms that Gardner made no attempt to support his assertion, which was in any case pure fiction. There was no such body of careful experimentation by sceptics.

Radin quotes Honorton as defining this whole approach as (page 212) ‘counteradvocacy masquerading as scepticism.’ In other words, not the cautious mindset of a true scientist, but convinced and intransigent disbelief.

Another tactic, given the weight of evidence (ibid.), was to claim that the effect of psi was too weak to be interesting, a claim that conveniently forgets the history of electricity, whose initial manifestations (page 213) were decidedly weak and ‘erratic.’

In the end it is hard not to disagree with an early sceptic, Donald O. Hebb’s own description of his inability to accept the overwhelming evidence (page 214): ‘My own rejection of [Rhine’s] views is in a literal sense prejudice.’

It was hardly surprising that the popular press followed suit (page 219), when the National Research Council (page 215) and introductory psychology textbooks (page 223) danced to the same mocking music, even when they could and should have known better.

In the end, one of the most fruitful ways of looking at this tendency to discount, distort or completely ignore the evidence for psi is to see it as the mirror image of what sceptics accuse believers in psi of doing – warping what they see to confirm what they believe and then, consciously or unconsciously, faking the evidence to prove it (page 224-25).

This paves the way for his more detailed examination of the processes that reinforce this very human tendency. More of that tomorrow.

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Dream GameAs I hinted at the end of the previous post, I don’t think the Transactional Analysis model goes far enough. It helps us develop a reasonable sense of part of the mind’s layout, but it lacks any contour lines to give us a real feeling of its depth.

One of the problems with TA is that it privileges the intellect – our head to use the everyday expression. In a way it has the same weakness as Kahneman’s model, discussed in detail elsewhere. Yes, we can clearly see the importance of distancing ourselves from our gut reactions, which Kahneman in my view mistakenly terms intuition. But, we have only our head to rely on in both these models. I don’t deny that this is far better at making wise decisions than our guts, particularly when complex situations are involved.

The TA psychotherapist who led the group I was in recognised that this emphasis on intellect was a weakness which is why she also drew on Gestalt therapy techniques and dream work in her approach. In fact, when I started to write this sequence of posts I had forgotten that and it was only as I thumbed through a journal I wrote at the time that I saw references to both techniques.

Even with the inclusion of both those methods, and I have given a vivid example in another post of how I used them to powerful effect many years later, TA still did not go far enough, as we will now see.

Star-diagramAn Encounter with Psychosynthesis

There are models that suggest we can and should go one step further at least. We need to be as suspicious about all our thoughts not just some of them. All our thinking is infected or at least influenced by ideas we have never questioned. We need to step back from our thoughts in their entirety just as I had been trying to step outside the prison of my conditioned reactions. Even positive thoughts may not be reliable.

While I was studying for my psychology degree at Birkbeck, I lived in Hendon, not far from the Psychosynthesis Institute. I’m not sure whether that’s what triggered my interest in that particular form of therapy. It may not have been, given the similarity between certain aspects of Psychosynthesis and TA, namely the exploration of subpersonalities. Jean Hardy, in her book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – explains that (page 38) ‘the concept of subpersonality is a means of approaching… hidden and often seemingly forbidden areas.’

That may have been what drew me to Psychosynthesis, but it was not the main idea I derived from my reading about it.

In the end what captured my attention was the psychosynthesis idea of disidentification. That it presupposes a transcendent dimension including a Higher Self, with which we can get in touch, might have been expected to put me off, given my agnosticism at the time, but it did not seem to. This approach also emphasises the importance of values, which we need to connect with in order to guide our use of will power (yes, Assagioli believes that discredited faculty does exist), but I don’t think that’s what hooked me at the time either.

Assagioli explains (Psychosynthesis – page 22):

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

Hardy quotes Assagioli on this issue (page 24):

. . . . the ‘man in the street’ and even many well-educated people do not take the trouble to observe themselves and to discriminate; they drift on the surface of the mind-stream and identify themselves with its successive waves, with the changing contents of their consciousness.

Psychosynthesis places great emphasis on practising disidentification exercises (see image below for an adapted example) so that we can learn how to step back from the contents of our consciousness and operate more calmly and wisely from a more grounded sense of ourselves. This of course immediately appealed to me, given that I was operating in a bit of a cauldron at work and needed to learn how to maintain my composure and presence of mind under pressure.


Existential Psychotherapy

However, this was not the end of his influence. Assagioli himself, in the opening pages of Psychosynthesis, prompted me also to look at Existential Psychotherapy. At first I was only really aware of the importance this approach attached to meaning and choice: the perspective changing insight from existentialism came much later as I will explain in the next post. At this point in the development of my thinking I could see the importance of both meaning and choice, but somehow the existential approach to meaning seemed to ring a bit hollow.

Ernesto Spinelli’s valuable exploration of existential therapy – Demystifying Therapy – contains a passage that highlights what was the problem for me (page 294):

. . . . we are confronted with the meaningless of it all. The meaninglessness refers to the idea that nothing – not you, nor I, nor any ‘thing’ – has intrinsic or independent or static meaning. If things are ‘meaningful,’ then they are so only because they have been interpreted as being so. . . . . . Each of us, if we follow this line of argument, does not inhabit an independently ‘meaningful’ world – rather, we, as a species, as cultures, and as individuals in relation to one another, shape or create the various expressions of meaningfulness that we experience and believe in.

This sounds rather like Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian, in Carlos Castaneda’s series of books: in explaining the way of the warrior, he argued that the best we can do is achieve a kind of ‘controlled folly’ by investing meaning in the meaningless.

A warrior must know first that his acts are useless, and yet, he must proceed as if he didn’t know it. In other words, a warrior must know he is unimportant, but act as if he is important.

A Moment of Choice

I was struggling to discover where I stood on this for the whole time I was earning my BSc degree. Does life have a meaning or doesn’t it?

As I came to the end of my degree course I had to begin considering my next step. Emotionally, I was clear. I wanted to become a psychotherapist. I wasn’t sure what kind of psychotherapist I wanted to become, but was swinging between two options: Existential Psychotherapy or Psychosynthesis.

I decided to consult with my tutor. I explained my dilemma and also added that ultimately I wanted to work in the NHS not in private practice. I was stunned by the advice I got.

She said, ‘If you go into the NHS as a psychotherapist you will have to work under the direction of a psychiatrist.’

My extreme scepticism about the medical model made this option completely unacceptable.

‘What should I do then if I want to work within the NHS?’

‘I think the best option,’ she said, ‘is to become a clinical psychologist.’

I went off in a state of frustration and shock to explore this idea. In the end I went with it, thinking that when I’d got my clinical qualification I could always do my psychotherapy training.


In re-examining my diaries of the period in which I was doing my Clinical Psychology training, I came to realise that my world-view was fundamentally changing in a way I had failed to remember. I thought I was still resolutely agnostic at least if not downright atheist during all this time. It seems that this was simply not the case: my reality was slightly more complicated. I find the word ‘spirit’ occurring far more often in my journals of this period than I would have expected. The reason for that seems to have been my exploration of Buddhism.

Osho-Buddha-MAJJHIM-NIKAYAI can still remember the day I stood in front of the Surrey University library shelves and took down a book on Buddhism. Memory says I did this because I’d had a heads up about how sophisticated the Buddhist model of the human mind was. This may have been the case. It may have been more complicated than that at the unconscious level, in that my aunt, by then in her late 80s, had asked me to investigate Roman Catholicism again and, refusing to see a priest, I had agreed to look at a book on the subject, pulled down from shelves in the same section of the library.

Whatever the reason, I not only read about Buddhism, I also visited the Buddhist Centre in London and attended classes on meditation. I can locate this accurately in time as I was in the first year of the course doing my child specialism placement. By the 11 January 1981 I was taking detailed notes from Alan WattsThe Way of Zen. My comment on my reading up to that point may be revealing:

That reading stemmed from my need for some moral or value focus in my life. Interesting that in 1792 the Retreat in York was founded by Tuke, a Quaker, on moral principles not knowledge, and yet achieved so much so far ahead of its time for ‘lunatics.’ And yet so much harm has been done by fanatics in the name of various moralities. Only a life-centred rather than idea-centred morality will serve. Buddhism comes closer than any I know.

A fortnight later, while reading Christmas Humphreys‘ book, my thinking has moved on:

Even being committed to the “right” side in a battle… blinds my mind to the transcendent realisation that both sides are in the last analysis one. Best to tend the wounded of both sides than fight, even for freedom!

I was already showing strong reservations about the limits of psychology and responding strongly to Buddhism:

I will continue to think about Buddhism. It’s shedding an unbelievably clear light on my problems and giving me the strength to cope with them.…. People and their welfare are more important than the sterile ideas peddled on the course, more important than any ideas at all in fact. I can at least use the experience of the course better to understand my fellow human beings and myself under stress – it won’t be wasted.

A year later I seem to have achieved a more harmonious perspective:

My life is slowly becoming simpler, more integrated, less fearful. I can see how poetry, psychotherapy and Buddhism fit together. And perhaps how they all cohere with my personal life.

More on my struggles to learn how to meditate next time and on one of the epiphanies that helped shift my perspective radically.

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As more references to Kahneman’s work are coming up in the current sequence of new posts, it seemed worthwhile republishing another angle on his impressive work. This is the last of two posts: the first was posted yesterday.

In the previous post we looked at the general picture of investor performance Kahneman paints from the research he has examined. Now we can look a little more closely at what lies behind that overview.

Digging Deeper


There were exceptions to this general trend in that (3856) ‘the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest’  and (3857) ‘men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.’

The main source of this poor performance resides in one pattern in particular (3861-3862):

Individual investors like to lock in their gains by selling “winners,” stocks that have appreciated since they were purchased, and they hang on to their losers. Unfortunately for them, recent winners tend to do better than recent losers in the short run, so individuals sell the wrong stocks.

The Persistent Achievement Test

There is also another way of looking at this situation. Persistent achievement is a basic test of skill which (3867) ‘Professional investors, including fund managers, fail.’

He is very confident of the truth of this statement (3873):

. . . . the evidence from more than fifty years of research is conclusive: for a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than like playing poker.

This has an impact on investments in general (3874): ‘Typically at least two out of every three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year. ‘

This is not a very flattering state of affairs for the pundits (3877):

There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.


Kahneman’s Own Research

Kahneman’s own research confirms this view. He was invited to investigate the figures of a firm to whom he had been invited to speak. He was given access to (3882) a ‘spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years.’

He took the first basic step in this assessment of skill (3884):

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them.

The rank ordering allowed for the calculation of how well each person’s rank held up over the whole time period studied. The more consistent people were the stronger the correlations would be between each year’s figures.  He created ‘28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years.’

Then came the surprise (3887):

I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero.

Which meant, in effect (3889), that ‘[t]he results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.’

Conclusions about the Illusion of Skill in General

‘The illusion of skill’ (3899) is a deeply embedded one.

It is also deeply misplaced. He explains (3922):

Unfortunately, skill in evaluating the business prospects of a firm is not sufficient for successful stock trading, where the key question is whether the information about the firm is already incorporated in the price of its stock.

What we learn from carefully analyzed data is that (3958):

. . . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.

And it gets worse (3963):

In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.

Firefighters Putting Out a Fire

Two Important Lessons

He feels that two important lessons need to be learned from all this (3982):

The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).

With co-workers he investigated where the border falls between what we can and what we cannot predict (4339-4347):

If subjective confidence is not to be trusted, how can we evaluate the probable validity of an intuitive judgment? When do judgments reflect true expertise? When do they display an illusion of validity? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

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

Physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters . . . face complex but fundamentally orderly situations. The accurate intuitions . . .  described are due to highly valid cues that the expert . . .  has learned to use. . . In contrast, stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.

How are we to move from fire fighting, in what seems a losing battle sometimes, to effective fire prevention in this aspect of human affairs?

The Bahá’í position on the development of societies casts an interesting light on this, and is, I feel, validated by both Taleb’s and Kahneman’s analyses. A recent statement on this issue reads:

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided. Scientific knowledge, to take but one simple example, helps the members of a community to analyse the physical and social implications of a given technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—and spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that uphold social harmony and that ensure technology serves the common good. Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

At present too many of us in so-called ‘developed’ societies, by which I mean ‘industrialised,’ are caught in the ‘traps of consumerism.’ The lemming mindset of the markets, hurling themselves confidently off the cliff’s edge convinced they’d find riches there, and the evidence I’ve recently seen in China of a huge nation becoming increasingly in thrall to the spell of possessing more and more material goods, do not suggest that we have yet got the balance right between prosperity and spirituality. And a lot hinges on our doing so, not just here but across the world as a whole, before it is too late.

In a later post I will be looking more closely at where I feel Kahneman’s admirable analysis breaks down. He is good at disentangling where our ways of thinking get us into trouble, he shows how we can improve, but he does not go by any means far enough, in my view, in explaining how we can best grow beyond our limitations in that respect. But that will have to wait.

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As more references to Kahneman’s work are coming up in the current sequence of new posts, it seems worthwhile republishing another angle on his impressive work. This is the first of two posts: the second will be posted tomorrow.

The Prologue of Nassim Taleb‘s thought-provoking if somewhat repetitive book, The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, provides the best quote possible to justify looking closely at what Daniel Kahneman has to say about the decision-making processes in the world of high finance. Taleb writes (page xviii):

This combination of low predictability and large impact makes the Black Swan a great puzzle; . . . . . Add to this phenomenon the fact that we tend to act as if it does not exist! I don’t mean just you, your cousin Joey, and me, but almost all “social scientists” who, for over a century, have operated on the false believe that their tools could measure uncertainty. For the applications of the sciences of uncertainty to real-world problems has had ridiculous effect; I have been privileged to see it in finance and economics. Go ask your portfolio manager for his definition of “risk,” and odds are that he will supply you with a measure that excludes the possibility of the Black Swan – hence one that has no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology… This problem is endemic in social matters.

Though published in 2007, we are still living in the aftermath of the impact of the kind of Black Swan he is talking about – an economic meltdown made inevitable by but invisible to those speculators bent on massive profits and convinced of their own infallible prescience.

In his fascinating and meticulously researched book, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Kahneman shows us the blind spots warping  our conclusions about the world across many areas of crucial decision-making. The one I’m focusing on right now is finance and speculation on the stock market. I will be returning in a later post to the more mundane aspects which focus on the day-to-day decisions we all make, but I thought this would be a great taster. Most of the material I quote comes from Chapter 20 – The Illusion of Validity.

A Personal Experience of Predictive Failure

The beginning of his interest in predictive judgement in general began with his own experiences as part of a team attempting to predict from a one hour intensive training experience the suitability of military trainees in Israel for officer status. Their methodology was extremely systematic and all members of his assessment team would converge on a confident and united view of each candidate’s prospects at the end of the experience.

However, an examination of the future careers of these recruits strongly suggested that their predictions were only marginally better than chance (my Kindle version unfortunately does not give me page numbers: 3804).

The dismal truth about the quality of our predictions had no effect whatsoever on how we evaluated candidates and very little effect on the confidence we felt in our judgments and predictions about individuals.

When they came to look at the corporate world they found the same pattern of consensus confidence resulting in virtually useless predictions.

Unreliable Prediction in Corporate Life

People generally discount the influence of luck on short-term performance. As a result (3687) ‘[a] few lucky gambles can crown a reckless leader with a halo of prescience.’

The Long-term Overview

New-York-Stock-ExchangeWhen you take a more systematic view of performance over the longer term the picture looks very different (3741-2):

On average, the gap in corporate profitability and stock returns between the outstanding firms and the less successful firms studied in Built to Last shrank to almost nothing in the period following [a highly popular] study. The average profitability of the companies identified in the famous In Search of Excellence dropped sharply as well within a short time. A study of Fortune’s ‘Most Admired Companies’ finds that over a twenty-year period the firms with the worst ratings went on to earn much higher stock returns than the most admired firms.

Kahneman continues (3831):

Since then, my questions about the stock market have hardened into a larger puzzle: a major industry appears to be built largely on an illusion of skill.

He begins his analysis of what goes on in the process of speculation by flagging up the point that for every seller there is a buyer and vice versa, each with their opposite assumptions (3833):

Most of the buyers and sellers know that they have the same information; they exchange the stocks primarily because they have different opinions.

He picks up the paradox (3835):

The puzzle is why buyers and sellers alike think that the current price is wrong. What makes them believe they know more about what the price should be than the market does? For most of them, that belief is an illusion.

Tracking individuals does not confirm their sense that they know what they are doing (3843):

Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.

Investors, when they looked at the overall picture, clearly expected the stock they chose to buy would do better than the stock they chose to sell. The figures did not confirm that (3850):

Odean [a finance professor at Berkeley] compared [using 10,000 brokerage accounts over a seven year period] the returns of the stock the investor had sold and the stock he had bought in its place, over the course of one year after [each] transaction. The results were unequivocally bad. On average, the shares that individual traders sold did better than those they bought, by a very substantial margin: 3.2 percentage points per year, above and beyond the significant costs of executing the two trades.

Kahneman, in discussing this study, damningly concludes that (3854) ‘it is clear that for the large majority of individual investors, taking a shower and doing nothing would have been a better policy than implementing the ideas that came to their minds.’

His critique of the finance sector in the book as a whole stretches to include Chief Finance Officers as well. His discussion of their weaknesses comes in a later chapter and I will only include a few points here in order not to overcomplicate the picture but simply to show that prediction is a problem in many places.

In Chapter 24, after reviewing the evidence he concludes (4738):

. . . . .financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero! When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.


Nassim Taleb

He explains this in terms of the following dynamic (4760):

As Nassim Taleb has argued, inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment inevitably leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid. However, optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers.

This tendency stands on the shifting sand of insecure judgements about complexity in general (4053-4055):

Another reason for the inferiority of expert judgment is that humans are incorrigibly inconsistent in making summary judgments of complex information. When asked to evaluate the same information twice, they frequently give different answers. . . . .  Experienced radiologists who evaluate chest X-rays as “normal” or “abnormal” contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same picture on separate occasions.

This is a good place to pause before we go on to consider some exceptions to this pattern and also to see the results of Kahneman’s own investigations and his eventual overall conclusions.

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3rd 'I'When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the fifth post.

The previous posts in this sequence have attempted to illustrate the problem that certain kinds of dilemma pose for Kahneman‘s model of decision-making. He explores two basic modes of human cognition, which he labels System 1, which I have short-handed as instinctive, and System 2, which I have short-handed as intellectual. He shows how drawing on the powers of System 2 enhances our decision-making very significantly. He does not seem to consider that there is anywhere else for us to go beyond that.

For my part, I have been arguing that there is evidence, such as the effectiveness of dreamwork, to support the idea of a System 3, a genuine deeply intuitive mode, which draws on right brain and possibly spiritual capacities which are both slower and more holistic than System 1, and less verbal and more visual-kinaesthetic than System 2. I used the powerful image of the heart when referring to this mode of being, and suggested that because it whispers, we cannot hear its wisdom unless the mind is quiet.

This post and the next will examine first of all how silence is key to mobilising System 3 for an individual, and then look at how interthinking/consultation works for a group, especially if its members understand how to connect with their hearts. Both contexts, to my understanding, depend upon a state of what is usually termed ‘detachment’ and a process best captured by the word ‘reflection.’

Those who prefer not to accept the idea of a transcendent spiritual reality can still make use of these concepts up to a point, as the enhancement of cognitive therapy by the addition of mindfulness compellingly testifies. Those who embrace the idea of soul or spirit can, if the evidence of Dossey is to be believed, resort to prayer as a way of further strengthening the process without justifiably being accused of irrationality. Maybe Jack, who has been ruminating on his quandary for six weeks now, could do something with this to break his ties to the pendulum of indecision from which he is suspended.

Silence participants

Participants in ‘The Big Silence

How Golden is Silence?

Some time ago I watched a series of television programmes which illustrated how important silence can be in assisting us to gain access to aspects of our being which are extremely elusive. I blogged about it and in the process included what are for me two key quotes from the Baha’i writings on this subject. The first asserts (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 156) that ‘The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.’

I cannot pretend to plumb the depths of this statement. I have quoted it because I feel it not only establishes the critical importance of silence but it also links silence with detachment. As we will see in a moment, even at its most basic level, one that does not necessarily challenge a materialist to believe in God or accept the reality of the soul, detachment is a state highly conducive both to accessing our deepest intuitions and to apprehending accurately what others are seeking to communicate to us. More on the second point later.

 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expands on the possibilities inherent in silence (Paris Talks page 174):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

I have already blogged at length about the difficulties presented by our terminology when discussing mind, soul, spirit, and so on. I will not rehearse all that again here and would request that no one reading this allow themselves to get sidetracked from the essence of what I am seeking to convey here by the fact that the translator of this passage has used the word ‘intellect’ instead of ‘mind.’

ConvergenceConvergence of Approaches

Contemplation, reflection, mindfulness and meditation are words that are often used to mean closely related states of mind and modes of thinking. This is not to say that there are no differences at all between them that could be illustrated by different schools of thought. What I am going to be focusing on, though, is their illuminating common ground.

Almost every exercise in mindfulness involves a process of breaking old distracting patterns of thought and substituting a different mode of consciousness. Whether we are asking ourselves to focus on a candle flame, a raisin (as many psychologists begin by doing), a mantra or a melody, what we are doing is unhooking our consciousness from its usual flow of self-talk and imagery, and choosing instead one thing and one thing alone to concentrate all our attention upon.

It is easy to see how this step shifts us from a cacophony of distractions in the head to a state of relative quiet where the flow of our breathing or of a melody, the taste of a raisin or the glow of a candle, helps us tune out the din.

In describing these exercises I have used a key expression: ‘unhooking our consciousness.’ For me, this is an aspect of detachment. If it is not a pure state of detachment, it is certainly a step towards it. It also suggests that silencing the mind and achieving a state of detachment of some important kind are related, are mutually reinforcing.

It seems to involve stepping back from our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and plans. Psychosynthesis calls this process Disidentification (see link – Disidentification exercise). This approach to psychotherapy believes it is a path towards recognising the essence of our true nature, towards connecting with what we truly are.

In Existentialist Philosophy this process is called reflection. Reflection, in their terms, is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects, we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our assumptions, models and maps. We come to see we are consciousness not its contents.

The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and indecision and opens us up to new experiences, different perspectives: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It is the antithesis of drowning where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them. As we will see it paves the way for exchanging perspectives with other people and learning from that exchange to find transcendent positions.

1 Earth Heart aloneConnecting with our Core

That so many different systems of belief converge on this one idea suggests that it is real, implies that it is a powerful way of connecting with the deepest levels of our being.  Koestenbaum is no theist, but the image by which he chooses to summarise this insight speaks volumes.

He explains it as follows in his book ‘New Image of the Person: the Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’, (page 73): ‘The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’ Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ This links back to an unexpected core idea he had already presented (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

We are not so far away from the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. ‘It is an axiomatic fact,’ He states, ‘that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

It must say something important when such divergent traditions of thought converge on this one point. Why would we then deny that deep inside us is a source of wisdom it is well worth tapping?

At the bottom of this post is a simple exercise anyone can try that takes a small step in the direction of connecting us with the ground of our being. Hopefully any experiments with this will clear the path for tackling the challenges of the next post which will deal with group processes. It could be that this would also have helped Jack find a way to transcend his dilemma, on the horns of which he has been pinioned uncomfortably for weeks now. Perhaps we’ll see.

Bahai Mantra

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3rd 'I'

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the second part of the third post.

In the previous post we were looking at how we might consult with our dreams in order to discover different and more helpful ways of approaching our challenges in life, other than than the two described by Daniel Kahneman as System 1 and System 2. We got part way through a description of a process, mostly derived from the work of Ann Faraday in her book The Dream Game, by which we could learn how to do this. The idea is that this represents a genuine third way of seeing, even a third kind of self through which to see. It is not the only such way and we will be considering others. For now we’re picking up the threads from where we left off – how do we decode the symbols in the dreams we have recorded.

Stage 2 – Decoding the Dream Continued

d. Defining the Dream Elements

This is a crucial part of the process and so easy to get wrong. It is vitally important to be completely objective in listing the elements. I had to be careful not to dismiss any that I felt were not promising or not sufficiently drenched in deep significance. Also elements, as I discovered, are not just objects and people. They are everything in the dream including actions, feelings, fragments of conversation: even my own thoughts as a dreamer need to be included.


Dali’s The Persistence of Memory – for source of picture see link

e. Decoding Dream Elements

There was an over-riding consideration I rapidly realised applied to all aspects of dreamwork. The most fruitful assumption to make, once I decided a dream was worth working on, was that all the dream elements were aspects of my mind at some level, even though I was neither familiar, nor likely to be comfortable with them.

There were two stages now to decoding the elements. If I had decided to work a dream then, even if some elements related to past or future events, this was unlikely to be all they meant, so I would have to work with them as seriously as any other element.

i. Free Association
Anyone who is as averse to key aspects of the Freudian model of psychoanalysis as I am, don’t worry. I used to use the Jungian method of association.

With the Freudian method, as I understood it, you were meant to start with the stimulus word and associate from it in a chain. ‘Radio,’ ‘waves,’ ‘ocean,’ ‘the Gulf Stream,,’ ‘the Gulf War,’ ‘Syria,’ going back to the beginning again until all associations were exhausted. You can see the problem. I usually became exhausted well before the associations were. Whenever I tried it the chain never seemed to stop until each word had at least half a page of wide ranging associations from which I could not derive any coherent meaning at all.

Jung’s method was far more congenial. You provide an association then come back to the root word for the next. ‘Radio-waves,’ ‘radio-third programme,’ ‘radio-therapy,’ ‘radio-London,’ and so on. The process generally never created more than a paragraph of associations, and there was usually some kind of coherence to the way they grouped.

There is, of course, no need to be rigid about this. There have been times when allowing a string of connected ideas to flow from the one word has proved most fruitful. It’s just that I found the chain of associations method more confusing than helpful most of the time.

Sometimes, I did not need to go beyond this stage. The meaning of the dream became sufficiently clear for me to use what I had learned and move on.

The most dramatic example of how an association can free the conscious mind from the prison of its self-deception, came from a patient I worked with who had been diagnosed as having an ‘endogenous’ depression, ie one that was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She was an articulate lady who gave clear descriptions of her history, which included a basically contented childhood, and of her current feelings, which were often suicidal, though she did not understand why. One day, she spoke of a recurrent dream she had. With variations, it was of being in a room with Hitler’s SS. They wanted information from her and were preparing to torture her.  Before the torture could begin she invariably woke in terror. Following the model I used for my own dreams I asked her to give me a full description of every aspect of her situation in the dream. She described not only the people, but also the size and shape of the room and the kind of furniture that was in it.


For source of image see link

Naturally, we focused at first on the people, but, apart from the obvious link of her having been brought up in the aftermath of World War Two, there were no links with the SS officers who were threatening her. The room did not trigger any useful insights either. We were beginning to wonder whether this was simply a childhood nightmare of the war come back to haunt her, when I asked about her associations to the furniture. We were both instantly shocked by her first answer. It was exactly the same as the furniture in the kitchen of the house in which she had grown up.

It would not be right for me to go into any detail about where this led. I imagine everyone can see that the picture she had persuaded herself was real, of a contented childhood, was very wide of the mark. That she had no vivid memory of any one traumatic incident was because there were none to remember: her whole childhood, as we then gradually came to understand it, had been a subtle form of emotional starvation and neglect successfully disguised for her at least as normal parenting.

I was utterly persuaded then, if not before, of the heart’s power to use dreams to make us wiser when we are safe and ready, and of the truth of this not just for me but for everyone.

In terms of my own dreamwork, if I’d missed an important issue, either by using associations to decode the dream, or the Gestalt approach below, I usually got another dream reminder pretty quickly.

Sometimes, quite often in fact, associations did not work completely enough. For instance, the figure from the freezer elicited a few fruitful associations, not least to the monster created by Dr Frankenstein, to O’Neill’s powerful exploration of despair, and to the idea of the Iceman as a personification of Death, fears about which were part of the air I breathed in childhood as a result of my parents’ unassuageable grief at the death of my sister four years before I was born. Some of my poems testify to the powerful impact of this period on my mind.  However, not even these powerful links convinced me I’d completely decoded the dream.

ii. The Gestalt Method

This method was almost always the key to unlocking a code that associations could not decipher. As Ann Faraday explains in her Chapter 8, there are also ways for asking your dreams for help with decoding very resistant dreams (page 130):

Since the main problem in understanding the dream is to discover what issue on your mind or in your heart provoked the dream, you can take a shortcut by asking your dreams for help on a certain problem of emotional significance before falling sleep. . . . . Religious people to whom prayer comes naturally may like to ask God for enlightenment on the dream. However you frame your request, it is essential to have your recording equipment ready, since failure to do so is a sure sign that you’re not serious, and the unconscious mind is not fooled.

Before resorting to that, I generally tried the Gestalt approach. This involves role playing the dream element.

SnowmanTake the figure from the freezer I described in the dream in the previous post. Once I spoke as the dream element (and you can also do this for inanimate objects – we will come back to this next time) its meaning became blindingly obvious fairly quickly. It is possible, and often necessary, to dialogue with the element as well. To do this you have to allocate different places in the room for the two or more elements to the dialogue to speak from. What follows is a reconstruction of work done many years ago.

The Iceman (from a kitchen chair): Why did you lock me away in here? What had I done? I have been shut away in the dark and the cold for I don’t know how long. Why are you so afraid of me? (Silence)

Me (from my armchair): I am scared of you, it’s true. But I swear I didn’t know I had done this to you. Can you promise me you mean me no harm?

The Iceman: I don’t want to harm you. I just want to be free. To be in the light and warm. I don’t know why you were so scared of me that you had to lock me up. (Silence)

Me: I’m not sure. There must have been something about you that scared me.  Can you guess what that might be? When did I lock you away?

The Iceman: I’m not sure. I’ve grown up in here. I was shut away when I was only a child.

To cut a long story short, it became clear that the pain and rage I felt as a child, when I was placed in hospital and operated on without really understanding why, had been unbearable. It also had associations with feelings of intense cold because of the way I experienced the chloroform they used as an anaesthetic. After cutting myself off from that part of me that felt the pain, I’d fed him with every subsequent unbearable pain or intolerable rage. In this way he became bigger and bigger and ever more scary. It became harder and harder to think of integrating that part of me again into my ordinary conscious experience.

Finally, in my imagination, there was a tearful reunion. I embraced the figure that had frightened me so much, welcomed him and brought him back into the warmth of my ordinary life. A key idea in dreamwork is to embrace what you fear and thereby reintegrate it. In that way we can gradually reclaim all our energy and all our powers. Even anger has a place in a constructive life. How else are we going to know how to mobilise ourselves to respond to evil and injustice when it crosses our path. I had repressed my pain and rage. Taking them out of the cage and reintegrating them is not the same as acting them out. Our culture is not good at treading the middle way between repression and disinhibition. The middle way is to remain aware of how you are feeling but to contain it, reflect upon it (something we will look at in the final two posts of this whole sequence) and decide how best to deal with and if appropriate express the feelings constructively.

C. The Implications of IntegrationBerrington Buddha v3

This has been a rather extensive treatment of the basic aspects of dreamwork as one example of how we can gain access to another system of thinking than the two Kahneman seems to feel are all that is available to us.

The point reached –  the integration of and balance between extremes – hopefully has signalled how useful even this one approach could be to helping us get past a pendulum dilemma, where we swing between two apparently incompatible courses of action in response to a challenge. There is a theme that Jung deals with, but which is already present in Myers’s thought, that is relevant here. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind  (page 64):

In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.

Jung believed that when we are caught in the vice-like grip of this kind of conflict, we have to find the ‘transcendent’ position that lifts us above the paralysis induced by two apparently irreconcilable opposites to which we feel compelled to respond in some way. Stephen Flynn makes an important point in his discussion of Jung’s concept:

Jung mentions one vital aspect of Transcendent Function, as ‘active imagination’ whereby the apparent haphazard frightening images from the unconscious are integral to the healing process.

This obviously relates to my figure from the freezer and anything else of the same nature. He then quotes Jung himself about any related conflict (The structure and Dynamics of the Psyche 1960 – page 88):

The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing – not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principle tertium non datur but a movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation ….  the shifting to and fro of argument and affects represent the transcendent function of opposites.

There are other paths towards this kind of transcendence and discussion of them inevitably includes a consideration of the undoubtedly spiritual. I have deliberately avoided confronting that aspect of the matter so far, as even the more mundane powers of the dream seem magical to me, and draw on the right brain or what we often short-hand as the heart, something not reducible to either System 1 or System 2, in my view.

I realise we still have not begun to explain what kind of solutions might have occurred to Jack as a result of such a process. I plan to move a bit closer to that aspect of the problem next time.

The posts next week will explore some of these implications partly in the light of an important dream I once experienced. As a preparation for the way the first of these will edge closer to a sense of the way that dreams can be seen as a borderland between ordinary and transcendent consciousness, and even at the risk of making this long post unbearably longer, I think it’s worth sharing the experience of a Visiting Professor of Transpersonal Psychology which he quotes in relation to his investigations of paranormal phenomena. David Fontana describes it towards the end of his book, Is There an Afterlife? (page 425):

[Psycho-spiritual traditions teach that] astral and energy bodies hover just above the sleeping physical body each night . . . . I once had an interesting experience that could be connected with this belief in some way. For many nights I have been waking briefly in the middle of the night with a clear awareness of a presence standing on the left side of my bed. I had no idea of the identity of this presence, and it seemed to vanish each time just as I became fully conscious. Every time this happened, I fell asleep again almost at once. There was nothing frightening about the seeming presence, but I was interested to find an explanation for it. One night when I awoke with a strong sense of it, I received simultaneously the clear impression that to find the answer I must think back to what had been happening just before I awoke, rather as one rewinds a film. I did so – many things seem possible in the moment of waking from sleep – and immediately became aware, to my utter astonishment, that the “presence” was in fact myself, in the moment of reuniting with the physical body. . . . Whether or not [the experience] supports the notion that consciousness leaves the body each night during sleep I cannot say. But I know that the experience happened, I know it was not a dream, and I know that, having had the curious insight into what might have caused the presence, the experience never happened again . . .

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For the source of the image see link

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the second post.

Over the years my models for working out what to do in difficult interpersonal situations have been thoroughly tested. Even the best of them have sometimes reached breaking point. Take one of my favourites, for instance: Transactional Analysis. The grasp I have of my scripts and ego states, of the nature of the games that tempt me, and of the ways to apply to ongoing situations the Persecutor-Rescuer-Victim triangle that they borrowed from Karpman have occasionally left me in the lurch.

Even that powerful tool from existentialist thought, reflection, has sometimes proved inadequate to the task before me, and that’s even when it was fortified by prayer and meditation as well.

I haven’t wanted to go into detail about the situations that have been so testing as that would involve revealing details about other people. So I invented the story in the previous post instead.

Such dilemmas are not unique to that kind of situation or this period of history. They are typically human predicaments. Take this example from a novel of 1814. Fanny has refused to take part in the performance of a play at Mansfield Park, resisting the entreaties of almost the entire family of uncles, aunts and cousins with whom she is living, except Edmund who seems to feel as she does. She retreats to her special room to reflect (pages 116-117: Everyman Edition):

To this nest of comforts Fanny now walked down to try its influence on an agitated, doubting spirit—to see if by looking at Edmund’s [her cousin’s] profile she could catch any of his counsel, or by giving air to her geraniums she might inhale a breeze of mental strength herself. But she had more than fears of her own perseverance to remove; she had begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do; and as she walked round the room her doubts were increasing. Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for? what might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance, had set their hearts? Was it not ill-nature—selfishness—and a fear of exposing herself? . . . .  It would be so horrible to her to act [in a play], that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples, and as she looked around her, the claims of her cousins to being obliged, were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them. The table between the windows was covered with work-boxes and netting-boxes, which had been given her at different times, principally by Tom; and she grew bewildered as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced.

Everyone knows of the world famous ditherer of somewhere between 1599 and 1602 (I’m not quite sure of the date the writing of the play began!) and his most famous dithering moment when he couldn’t make up his mind whether to be or not to be. If I was better versed in the Classics I’m sure I would find even the most stoic among the Greeks would have had their moments of equivalent uncertainty.

So what am I trying to illustrate?

Even if you had no real idea what the story in the previous post was meant to illustrate, I’m sure you got the drift that there were at least three levels of reaction or thought, along with their possible strengths and weaknesses, that I was examining: gut feeling, logic and something deeper that the story didn’t define.

Now we come back to Kahneman and his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. I have already looked at an area of public life, dealing in stocks and shares, where his model sheds light on the consistently poor judgements that occur. I said then that I would come back to his model to see where, though powerful, for me it breaks down.

The story in the previous post was meant as a somewhat simplistic illustration of that, partly because we, like Jack, only have Jack’s point of view. But that’s something  that’s often true for all of us – we only have our own perspective to guide us. We’ll be coming back to possible ways of overcoming that problem later. Given his situation at the time of the story, gut feelings and logical thought didn’t help Jack resolve his dilemma. How does that relate to Kahneman’s model?

He describes two aspects of our thinking: System 1 and System 2.

System 1

System 1 corresponds roughly to  gut feeling or instinct, if you like. In the story, that takes the shape of Jack’s strong and immediate emotional reactions to his brother’s request for money – his frustration and anger, for example, at being asked for money to support a course of action he really dislikes. That is only one aspect of System 1’s nature.

In a way that to my mind is misleading, Kahneman uses the word ‘intuition’ as a short hand for System 1. I think instinct is a better word to use, for reasons that will become clear as these posts unfold. Instinct is the First ‘I.’


For the source of the image see link

It’s very useful but it has considerable limitations. According to Kahneman System 1 responses are good at dealing with short term problems. They are part of our builtin survival skills, mediated by old parts of the brain such as the amygdala, which he describes (5420) as ‘the mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.’  They are also derived from over learned skills and allow us both to free conscious attention up for other tasks as well as enabling us to respond quickly and effectively in complex but essentially predictable situations such as nurses and fire fighters have to deal with. It is the automatic system to which learned skills are handed over such as driving, sport, music and chess. That kind of complexity System 1 can be trusted to handle.

Kahneman states (282): ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It (340) ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’

System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading.

His conclusion about its limitations is (433): ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it—unless your attention is totally focused elsewhere.’

System 2

System 2 is very different. We can short hand it as ‘intellect’ and call it our Second ‘I.’ I have to agree that it immensely enhances our decision-making powers.

It is left brain in origin  – basically logical, empirical and sequential. It is better at long term thinking. It makes maps that can, though, be mistaken for reality. He describes System 2 as one that (340) ‘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.’ He adds (375) ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

He also contrasts it with the operation of System 1 and indicates how they can complement each other (423): ‘System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’

He concludes (429): ‘In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.’

In words that are reminiscent of McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary Kahneman ends this part of his description by saying  (523): ‘In the unlikely event of this book being made into a film, System 2 would be a supporting character who believes herself to be the hero.’

This hint of scepticism notwithstanding it seems clear that Kahneman regards System 2, powerful though flawed, as the best hope of good decision-making at our disposal.


For the source of the image see link

Is that all?

As we saw in the story, System 1 and System 2 did not provide the means of transcending the blocks that stood in the way of Jack’s making up his mind what to do. Is there anywhere else to turn? Is there something better?

And this is where it begins to be possible to question whether intuition might not lie somewhere else than System 1 and be that source of more reliable inspiration. It may be true that System 2 is doubly deluded and has in fact two hidden masters – instinct and intuition. It may be interesting to explore whether the First ‘I’ is a mechanism mainly for survival in the material world and a means of making automatic the execution of over-learned skills to free up our attention for other things, whereas intuition/inspiration, possibly the Third ‘!’, is linked to the Right Brain, as McGilchrist might argue, and far slower than instinct to float to the surface of consciousness: it is non-verbal unlike System 2, and is the means of connecting us to spiritual aspects of experience.

We will be returning to that in more detail in the next two posts over the weekend.  I hope also to describe in a later post one possible way of overcoming the problems that arise when I have only my own simulation of reality to go on.

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