The benefits of being in two minds

The following article is my latest piece published at The Conversation.

The idea for this piece came about when I started reading Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman writes about the System 1 and 2 way of thinking, and how we utilise both systems. However, in reality, what I have really observed in people around me, including myself, is a polarisation in the degree in which either system is used. We seem to be either a System 1 or System 2 thinker in our daily lives.

The benefits of being in two minds


Are you a rational thinker, or do you make decisions based on intuition?

Are you the “lazy” or the “deliberate” thinker? Why can’t we have a hybrid?

Something has been bugging me for quite a while – how difficult it is to strike a balance between thinking fast, albeit impulsively and intuitively, and the slower, more cautious and deliberated sort of thinking.

Pause for a moment and observe your surroundings.

Consider my friend, Mr W. He makes snap judgments and decisions, rattles off the first thing on his mind without bothering whether what he says makes any sense. Unfortunately, he often annoys the ones around him. This is what psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West refer to as System 1. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, and is effortless. This system likes to avoid choices as much as possible, and often select the default option. System 1 is also what we utilise when we are driving.

On the other extreme end, meet my other friend, Mr F. He pauses and deliberates on his choice of words before he talks and makes any decisions. This sometimes borders on overanalysing, especially when the decision can be as small as what to have for lunch. This is System 2 at work, often associated with deductive reasoning and is honestly an awful lot of work.

The differences in the thinking processes of System 1 and 2 are perhaps the most distinct and observable in the economics classes I have tutored. During class participation, there are always students who seemingly accept and offer a superficially plausible answer that comes readily to mind. Often, these answers are what we see as illogical and irrational in economics. System 1 is the greatest source of irrationality and appears to be the bad guy in this story.

However, System 1 is not irrational all the time. For example, System 1’s accomplishment includes the ability to provide “expert intuition”, in which with much practice, a trained expert such as a doctor of firefighter can unconsciously go with their gut feeling and produce the right response to complex emergencies.

Then, there is another group of students who would take a minute or two to think before offering a more rational and logical answer.

In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he presents our thinking process as consisting of two systems: System 1 and 2. Kahneman claims that there is too much going on in our lives for System 2 to analyse everything. So, System 2 has to pick its moments with care, and is “lazy” out of necessity.

I am increasingly convinced that there exists a polarisation in the degree to which either system of thinking is utilised by people on a daily basis. Most of us seem to be either mainly a System 1 or a System 2 thinker.

Some people are closer to their system 1, like Mr W. I am always marvelled at the ease with which people such as Mr W are able to convince themselves that the first thing that comes to their mind is always right. At this point, I am tempted to jump the gun and categorise Mr W as a “lazy” thinker. But that would make me a “lazy” thinker as well.

There are others who are closer to their System 2 like Mr F, who possibly belongs to a small elite group of proficient System 2 people, far shrewder than System 1 people. These are the “engaged” thinkers; Stanovich would call them more rational, but not necessarily more intelligent.


However, I would like to think that the degree in which we tend to favour either system of thinking is habitual and something that can be consciously changed – perhaps not totally, but in a manner that benefits us. Ideally, System 1 thinkers should start to observe and recognise the errors that originate from this system of thinking, and learn to pause and seek reinforcement from System 2 in appropriate situations. On the other hand, System 2 thinkers should know that it is unnecessary to think critically in all situations, although it can be disastrous in other situations. However, allowing our intuition and gut feeling to take over in some situations can be good.

Organisations and governments are also able to help by using behavioural economics in their policies and decision-making processes. In fact, this is exactly what the US government did. It recognised that many of us undoubtedly are more prone to System 1’s manner of thinking. To tackle the problem of inadequate retirement saving in defined contribution plans, under the sponsorship of the US congress, Richard Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi of the Anderson School at UCLA have developed a plan called Save More Tomorrow (SMT). The SMT plan is a financial plan that firms can offer their employees. Those who sign on allow the employer to increase their contribution to their saving plan by a fixed proportion whenever they receive a raise. The increased saving rate is implemented automatically until the employee gives notice that she wants to opt out of it.

So why does this appeal to the System 1 thinker? In developing the plan, the authors addressed the issue of procrastination, which economists refer to as inertia. For example, the authors recognise that most workers may never bother to increase their savings rate over time. By making future increases in savings rate automatic, the plan eliminates the need for additional actions on the part of the participant. Besides, inertia is often so powerful that few will ever get round to opting out once enrolled in the plan. This plan has managed to align the laziness of System 2 with the long-term interests of the workers, recognising that System 1 likes the default option.

It is difficult to come to a consensus on which system of thinking is more superior than the other, particularly when both systems are essential in our everyday lives. The ability to combine elements of both System 1 and 2 thinking into a hybrid system of thinking for everyday lives will present ongoing challenges and implications for policymaking. This goes to re-emphasise a long-known fact that policies built on the concept of Homo economicus are inappropriate. The ability for governments and institutions to tailor policies to the needs of “hybrid” human beings will be important – and perhaps it will make a crucial difference for society.


This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Go forth and explore

The following piece is my latest thought piece published at HerCanberra.

When was the last time you found yourself shelving away a trip to a place because you were not able to find anyone to come along with you? I almost did. But, I decided to go ahead with the trip.

So, this summer saw me on a solo backpacking trip in Italy for three weeks, armed with nothing but a 50L backpack that towered over me.

Let’s be honest here. Solo backpacking is often a decision borne out of convenience, not something most people would deliberately choose to do. I am not a huge believer of the often talked about cliché of travelling alone for the purpose of ‘finding yourself’.

So, I was a little skeptical before starting on my trip. I had previously travelled alone but never this far, for this long, and what more in a country that doesn’t speak my language.

But, if you decide to take that risk, and go ahead with the trip, there is much to be learnt.

1. You are the boss! Do whatever you want!

Don’t feel like visiting a highly recommended place? Don’t do it! There is no need to worry about hurting others’ feelings when you are travelling alone. There’s almost a definite travel circuit that most backpackers follow. You don’t have to follow that, particularly if you know what personally interests you.

2. You will meet people you otherwise wouldn’t have met.

Be open when it comes to talking to strangers. You will definitely meet people – the other solo/group backpackers in the hostels or at locations, the very friendly Italians who help you out despite the language barrier, and even the people you talk to on train rides. But, what you need to accept is that most of these encounters with other travelers will be fleeting and short term. Just like you, everyone else has got their own plans.

3. The occasional loneliness

It is inevitable to feel the occasional loneliness while travelling. You will almost certainly feel a little alone if you are arriving in rainy and cold Florence on Christmas Eve! That feeling however is temporary and will fade.

4. CouchSurfing

The truth is it might not be that great an idea to be couch surfing when you are a solo female backpacker. However, if you love meeting other fellow travellers or locals along the way, the CouchSurfing initiative is still an excellent way to start.

I’ve had a local take me around in Florence for the best gelato ever, and ushered into 2012 with fellow couch surfers from all around the world in Venice. Admittedly, one of the most enjoyable serendipitous experiences while travelling was when I met a random solo traveller at the Cupola of St Peter’s Basilica where we explored Rome together for the rest of the day.

5. Do get yourself lost. But, the iPhone GPS always helps.

Maps don’t always work. Getting yourself lost is often a good way to travel. In fact, getting lost is highly recommended when exploring Venice, and in Naples, particularly for the former when maps really are useless. When all else fails, what I have realised is the iPhone GPS is an excellent tool.

If all this isn’t tempting enough to make you want to plan your next trip, the following should be. The most enjoyable moment in travelling isn’t in the above. Rather, it is the ‘what you see is what you get’ nature of travelling. People don’t have your history to hold against you. There are no yesterdays on the road. That can really be a breath of fresh air.

So, what are you waiting for? Go forth, the world is waiting.

Have you ever travelled solo? What were the best and worst parts of your experience?

So, what is a “friend”?

The following piece is my latest thought piece published at HerCanberra.

It may seem pedantic to even try to pin down an exact meaning for the term “friend” in today’s society. Besides, the term “friend” is also very subjective, where someone in their twenties would be expected to have a completely different perspective on whom is a friend compared to someone in their sixties. Does it even matter? defines a “friend” as “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” Yet, with the rise of social networking websites like Facebook, I can’t help but feel that the very DNA of the term “friend” has been altered, if not cheapened, and is now pretty much a label without much deeper meaning for many.

Before the evolution of social networking websites, and online interaction tools like Skype, GChat, WhatsApp, and even emails, friends are people you saw and talked to in person or at the bare minimum, over the phone. That is perhaps something our generation cannot possibly comprehend, having always depended on social networking websites and online interaction tools.

Don’t be mistaken. I am not advocating that we should all go back to a world where friends are people you see and spend time with frequently. That is impractical. For someone like me who has lived a quarter of my life abroad somewhere, tools like WhatsApp and Skype are fantastic for keeping in touch with friends I have known for more than half my life, and even with my mom. Besides, my Facebook account is an excellent place for crowd sourcing, and for organising events.

Facebook tells me I have 470 friends. Honestly, I like to think of these “friends” as connections, like how LinkedIn has done so. My friends are a subset of these 470 connections, of which some are not even in these 470 connections I have.

There is a subtle difference between real friends and friends of the more superficial kind. The former is a group of people I spend time and effort to get to know and am willing to go the mile for. These are also the people who do not judge you, and are reciprocal towards the time and effort you spend on them. This is in contrast to the less intimate relationships as defined by the latter group which are less demanding to manage, which really consist of people I have met from everywhere, people I only hang out and have fun with, or people I have coffee with from time to time.

Besides, there really is a limit to how many real friends one can have, isn’t there? At least British revolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests there is. Based on his research into primate behaviour, most of us can only maintain around 150 meaningful relationships (also known as the Dunbar’s number), online and offline. There are considerable emotional and psychological investments that a close relationship requires, and the available emotional capital we have is limited. On average, each of us possesses about 50 friends, 15 “good” friends, and a mere 5 that can be categorised as “intimate”. I reckon that is not far from the truth for most of us.

The truth is: Along the way, we all probably have made conscious decisions on who is a real friend, who isn’t; who are the people that you would spend your time and effort on establishing intimate relationships with;  and why. With that, I can now probably expect a few people to drop me off their “friends” list. But, I really am just stating the obvious.