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Slow Thinking: Faster is not always better

Posted: Monday, Feb 11th, 2013

Since the appearance of my last article in this space, I realized that the name, which I have given to this column — Slow Thinking — calls for some explanation. Some readers apparently thought that Slow Thinking is a veiled reference to “SLO” and some distinctive way that people in this area are presumed to think. Others figured that by calling my column Slow Thinking I was being self-deprecating in an attempt to charm or disarm readers.

Still others surmised that in calling the column Slow Thinking I was making an inside joke or wise-crack that eluded them.

The real explanation is quite different. With the constant bombardment of sound bites, outbursts and kaleidoscopic images coming at us from the mass media, this column offered an opportunity to try to switch gears and direct some focused attention on matters deserving of serious consideration. Doing that involves thinking slowly.

As I first learned in a college philosophy class, being able to think slowly is a valuable skill to cultivate in life. In the world we live in, though, it is barely recognized. You probably have never heard of anyone expressing pride in, or being complimented for, the ability to think slowly.

That is because of the almost universal belief that the ability to think fast is a hallmark of high intelligence, and the common usage of the term “slow” to describe a presumed deficiency in intelligence.

With such attitudes prevalent, not many people are incentivized to hone their ability to think slowly. This leads to limitations in mental activities that depend on slow thinking, such as questioning, analyzing, criticizing, evaluating, creating and reflecting.

The acclaimed 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” helped shed light on our various ways of thinking. Among other things, the author, Daniel Kahneman, focused on two modes of thinking we employ: System 1, which “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control;” and System 2, which “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations” and frequently involves the mental activities of choice and concentration.

In describing how the systems interact, Kahneman observed that “the automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.” And he added that there are “circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1.” (Page 20.)

In the writing and reading of this column, my intention is to go beyond System 1 and engage System 2. We get more than enough sounding off, impulsive visceral and emotional reactions and biased and unconsidered notions in our routine daily activities.

Serious subjects, however, warrant effortful, concentrated attention by means of the conscious, slow thinking process involved in the use of System 2.

The purpose of this column — hopefully not too grandiose — is to take up such subjects and give them the careful consideration they deserve.

If we get nothing else from such exercises in slow thinking, we will hopefully be made less susceptible to buying snake oil remedies, conspiracy theories, bogus factual claims and over-simplistic solutions to complex problems, among the many suspect commodities always on sale in the marketplace of ideas. But then, again, that may be a little too fast and freewheeling to contemplate in this context.

Len Colamarino has resided in Atascadero since January 2005, after having practiced international business law in New York for almost 30 years. He ran for Atascadero City Council in 2008 and has served on the Atascadero Planning Commission since February 2009.

For the complete article see the 01-25-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-25-2013 paper.

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