First Steps

In the step by step evolution revolution, what might be some of the first steps? There are many, many  possible first steps we could take in moving away from our present system towards the just distribution we want. We should not spend too much time debating which of several possibilities is the best one to try first. Think about it, analyze it, yes. But remember there is no perfection. There is no way to know which of several possibilities is best. We cannot accurately predict the future in detail. (See Kahneman’s chapter “The Illusion of Validity”.) There is no grand theory to guide us. We have only our goals to guide us. The only way is to try something that seems like it would move our systems in the direction we want. If, after we make the change (in our laws, in the way our system works) we look at the result after some trial period. If the modified system is closer to our goals, keep the change; if it is not, or if there are negative unintended consequences, then reverse that change and try something else.

Here are some possible first steps.

Change our unemployment insurance system so that when people are unemployed they get more money if they go to some school to improve their skills and knowledge.

Go back to a free education system for all people through college and graduate school.

Limit credit creation since unrestrained credit creation by banks seems to be a root cause of cycles of booms and busts, bubbles and crashes.

Separate commercial banking from financial speculation (gambling with other people’s money).

Limit the level of allowed derivatives. No more derivatives of derivatives of derivatives …  No more CDO’s squared, etc.

Devise and implement a system for electing legislative representatives that does not depend on candidates spending (or others spending for them) large amounts of money.

Eliminate victimless crime laws.

All time in jails and prisons to have an education component, say, eight hours per day developing useful skills and knowledge.

All education to include significant components for developing interpersonal communication skills, developing improved thinking, eliminating precursors to the various mental illnesses such as phobias, paranoia, depression, etc.

Pay people a livable wage to educate themselves to a level that allows them to be productive members of our societies as if educating oneself were work, since it is work.

Change the money system. Adopt Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Governments speed up research and development of non-carbon emitting energy production. Tax carbon emissions.

Break up large corporations. Beyond a certain size corporations become less efficient. When they are too large they are dangerous, too powerful, destructive of the well-being of others, uncontrollable, the leaders can’t possibly know what all the parts are doing, and they have the same deficiencies as communistic systems — they are too complex for central planning to work, they are subject to looting by employees, executives, and others.

Tax excessive inherited wealth out of existence or down to some reasonable size. Heirs surely don’t do anything to “deserve” their inherited wealth.

Reestablish the rule of law.

Establish a practical concept of just law whereby courts could declare laws or parts of laws unjust and thereby nullify them. Laws would be unjust if they mainly benefited select individuals or groups and harmed the people as a whole or the system as a whole. The details here would be critical, but the idea does not seem impossible.

Require Congress to declare war per the Constitution and to reauthorize each war in each country yearly. War would mean any military, covert, or other activities carried out by any agencies of the government whose intent is to capture, detain, torture, physically harm or kill people or to destroy other people’s property.

I could go on and on, but this is enough for now to give you some ideas about how we might begin to change our systems to move them closer to our goals of a just distribution system. Remember each of these is a possible first step. Some are bigger steps than others. And of course other people have good candidates too. There are many good ideas. We might try several at a time, but we must be careful because if we try to change too many things at once, we run a greater risk of negative unintended consequences (or maybe some positive unintended consequences). And if the outcome is good, we may not be able to separate out the effects of each action. So we shouldn’t try too many at once. Then after some period of time when we have had enough time to verify that the changes made have moved our systems toward the just distribution goal, we can evaluate, estimate, analyze, guess, a second step and then try it for some period, etc. Maybe the evaluation period will be built into the law — for example the laws to try a step might be written to expire after two years, or five years, or whatever seems reasonable; and if the step wasn’t successful, don’t renew the law. Thomas Jefferson suggested that all laws expire after twenty years. That still might be a good idea.

Why No Theory?

Why do we want to construct a new economic system outside the framework of any grand economic theory. There are several reasons. First two of the grand economic theories — Capitalism and Communism have already been tried and each failed. Each failed to provide a just distribution of the human necessities. Secondly, all these grand theories are built upon some conception of a fixed human nature. Human nature is not fixed. We are not genetically determined. Human behavior depends on culture as much as it depends on genetics. Human behavior, and thus human nature, is variable over cultures. If a grand theory, based on some assumptions of a fixed human nature, were a true description of human economic behavior, then every culture would have that same economic system. They clearly do not. So any grand theory based on assumptions of a fixed human nature cannot be a true description, an accurate model, of any economy.

So, not only are the individual grand theories wrong, but the whole framework on which they are based — a fixed human nature — is wrong. For example capitalism is based on an assumption that humans base all their economic decisions on a kind of greed — always trying to maximize their individual welfare, their individual utility. There are huge numbers of people in the world today who think this way, or try to. For them almost every decision is about money. But not everybody does this. And even those who think they can make economic decisions this way in many cases they do not. In many cases they are not greedy — they actually want to be generous, be helpful toward other people, and often they do want to avoid harming other people. So the fundamental premise about human nature even for those who believe that everyone is greedy, or should be greedy, is wrong. Beyond this people cannot behave, in many, many situations as the theory postulates. The theory of maximizing your individual utility — called utility theory — is impossible to actually follow in many circumstances. In many situations we do not know, we cannot calculate what our individual utility is. So we surely can’t maximize it. It has been well-known that utility theory is impossible in practice for more than 150 years. Some of the contradictions and absurdities of utility theory have been demonstrated experimentally and described in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

Furthermore these theories are not clear as to what their goals are. Each theory presumably describes a complex of human behaviors, human interactions, human communication pathways — a system — that results in the production and distribution of goods and services by people for people. The theories were created on the assumption that the system already existed (at least for capitalism) and it was the job of the theory to describe the already existing system accurately, even scientifically, and/or mathematically, so that the theory could make accurate predictions. The idea of a goal or purpose of the system didn’t even come up. It was just assumed that there was one, and only one, system existing that had to be described, characterized, modeled, mathematisized, etc. It was not as if anyone had a choice. It was in a kind of afterthought that Adam Smith added the idea that in the capitalist system he described an “invisible hand” would ensure that the results of the operation of this system would be good for everybody. Well, they weren’t and they aren’t.

In reality the goals, the purpose of the capitalistic system is to allow and encourage all individuals to try to get as much money, property, and influence as they possibly can for themselves with almost no concern for what happens to anyone else. This is the main goal of the capitalist systems, their real purpose.

Well, now we know there is not just one such system. There are many variations of capitalism. Every capitalist country has its own version with some socialism mixed in. Communism came and went in less than one hundred years. And of course capitalism has evolved as all human institutions do. The theory has not kept up with the real evolving systems because, for one thing, it was wrong in the first place. It is so quaint to talk about shoemakers and bakers and a pin factory when there are corporations larger than countries and collateralized debt obligations squared.

Our economic and political systems evolve. We change them with every new law adopted. We change them almost every day. Why do we change our laws so much? Right now it is often done to accommodate special interests — to give tax breaks, reduce regulation, give special favors to individuals and corporations who contribute large amounts of money to political parties and candidates. So we change our laws to give favors to a limited class of people — mostly the 1%. Sometimes a law will be passed that has the goal of providing some benefits to some larger class such as the poor, or the middle class, or in very rare cases laws may be passed with the goal of making the whole system work better for everyone. Sometimes laws are passed with the goal of making the system better conform to some economic theory. So we change the system in ways that are haphazard, quasi-random, biased toward helping special groups (especially now to helping the rich get richer and the poor and middle class, the 99%, get poorer).

So what is the obvious change we need? We need to change the goals of all our system changes, of all the new laws we propose and pass. Every law should have the goal of moving our system in the direction of providing a just distribution of human necessities to all people.

It should not matter what such a system is called. To try to categorize the new systems into one or another of the dying grand theories is a waste of time and energy, and worse it just leads to confusion and needless arguments. (See for example the recent discussions about Libertarianism at Naked Capitalism.) If the new systems build on bits and pieces, old ideas, from some of the old grand theories, that’s fine as long as they move our systems toward the just distribution goals.

This is the non-violent revolution we want. First accept and spread the goal of a just distribution of human necessities. Then use the goal to constrain changes to our systems so that all changes move us toward the goal. Since this is trial and error, we don’t know how long it will take, and of course the “error” part means sometimes when we implement a change, it will move us farther from our goal, or it will have unintended negative consequences, and so we will have to reverse that change. This is surely no worse than what we do now. For example the repeal of Glass-Steagall — which allowed banks to gamble with depositors’ money — should probably be reversed.

The changes we make now are generally not consistent with our goal. They are not consistent with each other either. They often cause waste of human and natural resources. They make things worse. Our evolution is just drifting. We don’t know what we are doing. We don’t know where we are headed. We don’t have any purpose except mostly self  aggrandizement.

We can create economic and political systems that move us, step by step, non-violently towards our just distribution goals. But first we must throw out all the dead and dying grand economic theories.

Speeding up Cultural Evolution

In previous posts I have discussed deficiencies in human thinking as described in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. The discovery and explanation of these deficiencies can reinforce pessimism. We might conclude that human thinking is so messed up that we are doomed to failures, confusions, mistakes that it’s a wonder we ever do anything right. Our economic theories are mostly crap; our democracy has been captured by the 1%; wars continue. Our understanding of human thought and behavior is wrong. Why bother to try to change or improve anything. Since our thinking is full of errors, confusions, illusions, delusions, conceits, and unwarranted optimism we would be foolish to try to fix anything that isn’t working or is working poorly.

If unwarranted optimism is bad, unwarranted pessimism is much worse since unwarranted pessimism leads to inaction, depression, and even death.

So how can we be optimistic after reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow”? We can be optimistic because we can see it as part of the larger process of cultural evolution. Groups of humans more or less working together — families, tribes, clubs, associations, corporations, towns, cities, states, nations, all organizations — change and evolve their social and individual behaviors by discovering, generating, assimilating new ideas through doing science and art and other social and individual activities. We invent new things, we make inspiring movies and videos, we speak and write stories and novels and poetry, we create images, symbols, illustrations and paintings. This is the process of change and evolution of human groups and of human cultures in general. Evolution is more than just change. Evolution builds on what came before. Change could be anything. The way cultures change is by building on what they already have. Thus cultures change through evolution.

Kahneman provides scientific facts about mistakes in human thinking he and other psychologists discovered by doing psychological experiments on groups of people living mostly in the last half of the twentieth century. Some of the mistakes in thinking he described may result from the physical structure of the human body and brain. Examples might be certain optical illusions and the fact that our memories do not store all the information about an event that we have at time of the event (see the cold hand experiment — Kahneman p. 381-383). A person might think that if a deficiency results from such structural factors that the error is then inherent to the nature of humans. But humans are adaptable. I am not saying that we can learn to store in our memories all the relevant information for the cold hand experiment (although I suspect we could with training), or that we can train our sensory systems to avoid sensory illusions. But we can, if are aware of dangerous situations, if we learn the categories of situations in which mistakes sometimes or often occur, then we can work around them, we can avoid them by thinking in a different way. As Kahneman said:

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2. This is how you will proceed when you next encounter the Muller-Lyer illusion. When you see lines with fins pointing in different directions, you will recognize the situation as one in which you should not trust your impressions of length. …” — Kahneman p. 417.   

So Kahneman discovers and spreads the word about deficiencies in human thinking. This is not bad news. It’s good news. Now we know more about mistakes we often make and so we can correct these mistakes, work around them, or otherwise avoid them. This is progress. This is cultural evolution at work.

Most importantly, this new knowledge, as it spreads through the human population, will speed up cultural evolution since cultural evolution depends on human creativity which depends on human thinking, human choices, human decisions. So if we can learn to think better, learn to make better choices, learn to make better decisions, this will help us create new useful and beautiful things, help us create more humane and just social arrangements, improve our own individual behavior both with respect to ourselves (improved physical and mental health) and it will improve our behavior with respect to others.

There are many other things which have speeded up and which will speed up cultural evolution in the future besides just improving our thinking. Some are: cooperation, competition, care for others, maximal individual freedom, democracy, art, science, engineering, many human inventions such as writing, printing, mechanized farming and transport, mass education, computers, expansion of interpersonal communications (cell phones, the internet).

And for the future, to speed up cultural evolution, very shortly after now, maybe directed non-violent revolution — a pushed non-violent evolution towards a world whose economic and political systems will more justly distribute the goods produced by humans as a whole so that each individual person has the basic human necessities in order to live and thrive. These include food, clothing, shelter, education, health, maximal individual freedom consistent with the freedom and well-being of others, all in accord with the earth’s limited resources and preserving other life on earth.

This is not impossible. We can adopt this goal and work toward it. We will modify our economic and political systems carefully, one step at a time, always with the goal in mind, evaluating each step (did it get us closer to the goal, did it cause harm, did it have any unintended consequences). Then repeat, repeat, repeat. This is trial and error. But trial and error is mostly all we have here or in any other human activity. The grand, glorious theories have failed. Forget them. Maybe take some parts of them, some smallish principles, and see if we can use them to modify our present systems and move us closer to our just distribution goal. Since this is a non-violent evolution we must build upon what we know now. If some idea from our present systems would seem to bring us closer to our goal, use it, try it out, test it to see if it actually does work to bring us closer to our goal.

But look for new ideas too. Especially those which look likely to speed up our directed revolution.

Perhaps the very idea that there is some grand and glorious theory that can explain, model, and predict human economic behavior is itself a monstrous example of the Illusion of Validity. See Kahneman, chapter 20, “The Illusion of Validity”.

The very idea that such theories exist, or must exist, or could exist if only we could find them leads to a lot of wasted time and mental energy. Worse this idea is pernicious for at least two reasons. First is that the current candidates for grand theory are so wrong that they cause serious harm in the real world. Second, when people glom onto one such theory as the correct theory, the one and only true way, they cut themselves off from the possibility of change, and they try to cut everybody else off from the possibility of change and improvement too.

These are reasons why the revolution must not glom onto any grand economic type theories. Discard them all: Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, etc. (What other “ism”’s are there?). At most take pieces, smallish parts, maybe certain principles, certain ideas from any of them which look like they might make sense, might work in a new pragmatic framework that is being evolved carefully from our present system, and then adopt provisionally, check, test, evaluate, to determine if this old idea might actually work in our new evolving system to actually bring us closer to our just-distribution system.

Down with Grand Theories. The only test for any modification of our systems, any policy change, any new law, should not be does it conform to some theory, but rather it should be: Does it bring our systems closer to our just-distribution goals.

Revolution as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Can we predict the future? Sure we can. But the question is how often are our predictions right. How successful are we when we predict the future? One principle seems clear: Near term predictions are more likely to be correct than longer term predictions. Weather models are good out to about 5 or 7 days. We can predict eclipses and orbits of the planets for hundreds of years very accurately. But here too as the time into the future increases, the predictions become less accurate.

What about social stuff? Some things are harder to predict than others. Will the US continue to exist in 2020? Most likely, almost surely, yes, in one form or another. Will it exist in 2100? Surely nobody knows or can know. Are human activities causing global warming? Very likely yes. Will present trends continue through 2100? We really don’t know. If they do, it is very likely bad things will happen. Notice that some of these statements are not very specific. More specific situations are less likely to occur than less specific situations. Certainly some bad things will happen in 2100 no matter what else happens. Certainly some good things will happen in 2100 too. So it is easy to make correct predictions if the predictions are general enough. The particular is harder to predict accurately than the general.

Sometimes global properties of collections of things can be accurately predicted even though the actions of the specific things in the collection cannot each be predicted. The random motions of molecules in a confined gas give rise to simple relations between the gas temperature and its pressure even though we can’t possibly know what each molecule is doing. Macroeconomics is based on a similar idea. So there may be some hope of making accurate predictions regarding the behavior of collections of people.

On the other hand, Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” says:

“The often used image of the ‘march of history’ implies order and direction. Marches, unlike strolls or walks, are not random. We think that we should be able to explain the past by focusing on either large social movements and cultural and technological developments or the intentions and abilities of a few great men. The idea that large historical events are determined by luck is profoundly shocking, although it is demonstrably true. It is hard to think of the history of the twentieth century, including its large social movements, without bringing in the role of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. But there was a moment in time, just before an egg was fertilized, when there was a fifty-fifty chance that the embryo that became Hitler could have been a female. Compounding the three events, there was a probability of one-eighth of a twentieth century without any of the three great villains and it is impossible to argue that history would have been roughly the same in their absence. The fertilization of these three eggs had momentous consequences, and it makes a joke of the idea that long-term developments are predictable.” — Kahneman p. 218.

So what does all this have to do with the revolution? The idea is that if we can change enough people’s minds about certain things — in particular about our economic and political systems —  then this will change their behavior towards these systems and they will change these systems so that the systems work towards the human goals of fair and just distribution of the human necessities to all people. And we have said that if most people can come to understand, accept, and use the new scientific knowledge about how human thinking actually works, as described in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (and elsewhere), then they will improve their own thinking and thus be less susceptible to propaganda, more open to change, more able to see the need for change, and more able to make the changes needed.

So this is a kind of social prediction. Does Kahneman’s comment make this prediction an absurd joke? No it does not because we are not counting on just the simple random diffusion of ideas. We are going to push the ideas for the changes to our economic and political systems that we want, and we are going to push the ideas that will help people think better, help people make better choices and decisions. Simple diffusion might get us there, but a real goal directed revolution where we spread the revolutionary goals and ideas, and where we also spread ideas that support and encourage and facilitate the acceptance and use of the revolutionary ideas, is much more likely to get us there, to get us to better systems, systems that more justly distribute the earth’s limited resources and the produce of human cooperative work to all people. And the changes will happen faster.

Rather than a passive diffusion of new ideas, the revolution is an active process of spreading not only new ideas but also new and better methods of generating, spreading, and getting people to accept and use new ideas. We want to identify and spread new ideas that speed up the generation, spread, acceptance, and use of new ideas. This is one thing improving human thinking does. This is why Kahneman’s book is relevant to how to make a revolution.

The revolution is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ideas Diffuse

We are looking at the possibilities for the revolution that may result from understanding some deficiencies in human thinking as described in the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. The basic idea is simple and to some people obvious: If we understand biases, errors, mistakes in human thinking then we should be able to fix or avoid them. Let’s not waste time by getting into the “strange loop” (See Douglass R. Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop”) of whether we are trapped since if human thinking is defective, how can we think our way out of it using our defective thinking? The answer is simply that human thinking is not perfect (nothing is) but it is useful, it works for us in many situations. Besides what else do we have?

I have argued that as human culture evolves, we will incorporate the scientific knowledge about these deficiencies in almost everybody’s minds and thus almost everyone will be able to avoid many or all of the errors and mistakes described by Kahneman. This is how cultural evolution works. New scientific knowledge is discovered. If the new knowledge is sufficiently useful to individual people then it should diffuse to almost everybody in some period of time. New knowledge can also be pushed by our social institutions — schools, churches, corporations, governments, any groups or organizations, as well as by individuals. And to better make a revolution, we should push this new knowledge, since for one thing, it will make propaganda less effective.

Simple. A nice, simple, coherent story. Just the kind of thing System 2 likes and sometimes accepts too quickly. We all know simple explanations can be wrong. There is nothing new about that. But I don’t think this explanation is wrong. Besides I’m going to elaborate this explanation, I’m going to make it less simple. And I am not just relying on my intuition or anyone else’s.

So, let’s look at a specific example. I ended an earlier post with the claim that some day there will be no more stock pickers. This is an example of the above type of argument. Research for more than 50 years has shown that stock pickers cannot consistently beat the stock market averages.

“Although professionals are able to extract a considerable amount of wealth from amateurs, few stock pickers, if any, have the skill to beat the market consistently, year after year. Professional investors, including fund managers, fail a basic test of skill: persistent achievement. The diagnostic for the existence of any skill is the consistency of individual differences in achievement. The logic is simple: if individual differences in any one year are due entirely to luck, the ranking of investors and funds will vary erratically and the year-to-year correlation will be zero. The persistence of individual differences is the measure by which we confirm the existence of skill among golfers, car salespeople, orthodontists, or speedy toll collectors on the turnpike.” — Kahneman p. 214.   

Yet, after 50 years of scientific research showing that trying to pick stocks is a waste of time and money —-

“… Typically at least two out of every three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year.” Kahneman p. 215.

—- there are still large numbers of mutual fund managers and individuals who think they have a skill to pick stocks and are still trying to do it. What’s going on here? Doesn’t useful knowledge diffuse? In the above formulation I said “in some period of time”. OK, so there is a fudge factor. Just wait. 50 years isn’t long enough.

This is too simple. It doesn’t really explain anything. Why is 50 years not enough time for the stock picking idea to die out? Kahneman has some relevant comments:

“The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the [financial] industry. Facts which challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. …” Kahneman p. 216.

“Finally, the illusion of validity and skill are supported by a powerful professional culture. We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers. Given the professional culture of the financial community, it is not surprising that large numbers of individuals in that world believe themselves to be among the chosen few who can do what they believe others cannot.” Kahneman p. 217.

OK, here it is: Facts which challenge basic assumptions are not absorbed.

And the more a new fact is perceived to challenge a person’s livelihood or self-esteem, the more quickly and completely and silently is that fact ignored by individuals and by groups. So the reason stock picking isn’t dead yet is because the idea that stock picking is useless has been prevented from entering the financial community by those in that community. Maybe our cultures are collections of cults. Cults deliberately try to isolate their members from outside influences. They don’t want any new ideas coming in and changing things.

The sea of human ideas is not uniform enough so that any idea can diffuse anywhere. There are partial barriers, compartments enclosed by semi permeable membranes that ideas have to cross. An idea — in order to get into the mind of any individual person and stay there and be used by that person — has to fit in with the ideas that are already there. If a new idea contradicts an idea already there, much mental work will need to be done for it to fit in. So the idea that stock picking is useless will have a very hard time getting accepted into the minds of stock pickers.

Is the idea that useful knowledge will diffuse to almost everybody itself useless? No, because in addition to passive diffusion, there is also active diffusion. Ideas can be pushed deliberately through human communication, education by social institutions, organizations, and individuals.

Ideas don’t exist in isolation. They move around together. So multiple ideas have to be spread together or in some sequence where the earlier ideas prepare the way for later ones. Stock picking may only fade away when our present broader financial systems are changed drastically because of their failures and the great harm they have caused and are causing to our societies. We must help to modify the cults of our present financial systems. We must decrease cultish thinking in general — any systems of ideas that close themselves off from new scientific knowledge. To make a revolution, we will have to push many new ideas at once.

One curious consequence of Kahneman’s book may be a reluctance of people to study and try to understand and use the discoveries about human thinking described in the book because it can be demoralizing to contemplate all the many ways all of us so often get things so completely wrong. Who would want to risk commenting on these mistakes in human thinking and in the process make some of the mistakes being commented upon? I am probably one such person. But we need to try to understand and use this new knowledge. Otherwise, why did Kahneman (and other psychologists) do all this work?


How to improve your thinking

We are examining the question of whether humans can improve their thinking on the basis of the scientific facts presented by Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. On page 472 he said “… I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely …” But this is already a significant improvement. Kahneman learned to recognize such situations the hard way — maybe the hardest way — by devoting his life to the scientific discovery and description of these situations “in which errors are likely”. We do not have to do nearly as much work as Kahneman did in order to recognize these situations because we can learn them either on our own (start by reading Kahneman’s book) or we can learn them through our education processes — in one way or another, at least to some extent, we can learn which situations are dangerous and which ones are not Then when we recognize such dangerous situations, when we “recognize the signs that [we] are in a cognitive minefield, slow down and ask for reinforcement from System 2.”  In other words, slow down and think slow. Kahneman (and other psychologists) did the discovery work. All we have to do is to learn the results and use them in our thinking. Thus we improve our thinking. As I said, this is already a significant improvement in our thinking.

It can be very discouraging now to see the mistakes, fallacies, and general ignorance displayed by economists, financial players, politicians, decision makers of all types — all of us. We make decisions, choices, little ones and big ones, every day of our lives, minute by minute. One could read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and despair. I reject that. Every fallacy, every mistake, every error in thinking identified and described at least opens up the possibility of fixing it or avoiding it. By learning and understanding the limits of our real human thinking now, we can improve it, we can get rid of some of the limits now and in the not too distant future. Some day there will be no more stock pickers (chapter 20, The Illusion of Validity).

And by the way, we can improve our thinking too if we stop using war memes — “cognitive minefield”.

Is System 1 educable?

Maybe I am “prone to overconfidence” — most of us are — but there are many reasons that the extensive fact based scientific knowledge about how our thinking actually works, and sometimes makes mistakes, as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, can be used by us to improve our thinking, our choices, and our decision making.

Why do we acquire new knowledge? To use it. How will we use this new knowledge about how we humans actually think? First we must use it in any theories that depend upon how we think. Any such theories must be modified to take account of this new knowledge — particularly economic theories, sociobiological theories, but really all social theories.

In practice, education will be changed to reflect these new facts, interpersonal communication will be changed, mass communication will be changed, art and science will be changed. This assumes that these new scientifically established facts will diffuse, will be spread far and wide, through most of our cultures, to almost all people. This will take time, but it will happen because this knowledge is useful. People who acquire this knowledge will think better. Their choices and decisions will better correspond to reality. They will get more of what they want. They will want more of what is good for them because they will better know what is good for them. They will be happier, healthier, and live longer than people who continue to think and communicate and choose and decide crudely and poorly.

Groups, organizations, societies, and cultures that acquire and use this new knowledge will be more effective, more efficient, more likely to attain their goals.

Daniel Kahneman is a proper scientist. He and other psychologists conjecture, test, validate, and methodically record and report the results psychological experiments. This is their job, this is how they see their jobs as scientists. They do not project to the future. But we can project to the future on the basis of sound principles of cultural, societal evolution. One such principle is: Knowledge — useful information — spreads through human communication. It will spread on its own through diffusion, person to person. And it will spread faster if those who have it deliberately spread it to more people.

So we can’t expect Kahneman, in concluding his book, in the quotes from yesterday (repeated below), to be as confident as I am here. Indeed there is an overconfidence mistake we often make. And most of us, on many occasions, are “prone to be overconfident”. But many of us are sometimes depressed, even overdepressed. This is a serious mistake too since it leads to inaction and sometimes death.

“What can be done about biases? How can we improve judgments and decisions, both our own and those of the institutions that we serve and that serve us? The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to my age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely: “This number will be an anchor …,” “The decision could change if the problem is reframed …” And I have made much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than my own.”  — Kahneman p. 417.

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2. … We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult  to recognize than perceptual illusions.” — Kahneman p. 417.

Kahneman says above “System 1 is not educable”. System 1 itself may not be educable but at least some of what it works on may be. Part of what System 1 works on is associative memory. This is information we acquire through learning and experience. Part of it consists of heuristics — rules of thumb, little rules, little associations, little connections we have learned and which we use automatically via System 1. Since this is all information we have learned one way or another, it may very well be able to be improved. Indeed Kahneman gives examples of vast improvements in the associations, the heuristics of System 1 in his chapter 22 “Expert Intuition: When can we trust it?” So experts can improve their associations and heuristics that System 1 operates on, and although not everyone can become an expert in everything, most people do become more or less expert in some few areas. So Kahneman’s own chapter 22 demonstrates that the quality of at least some of the information that System 1 works on can be improved. So System 1 can give better answers for us if we improve the information it works on.

When can we trust an expert’s intuition? Kahneman worked with another scholar, Gary Klein, on this question:

“At the end of our journey, Gary Klein and I agreed on a general answer to our initial question: When can you trust an experienced professional who claims to have an intuition? Our conclusion was that for the most part it is possible to distinguish intuitions that are likely to be valid from those that are likely to be bogus. As in the judgment of whether a work of art is genuine or a fake, you will usually do better by focusing on its provenance than by looking at the piece itself. If the environment is sufficiently regular and if the judge has had a chance to learn its regularities, the associative machinery will recognize situations and generate quick and accurate predictions and decisions. You can trust someone’s intuitions if these conditions are met.” — Kahneman p. 242.

The environment must be sufficiently regular and the expert must have learned its regularities.

The environment must be sufficiently regular and the expert must have learned its regularities.

“… [Some] experts may not know the limits of their expertise. … [they] … do have intuitive skills in some of their tasks, but they have not learned to identify the situations and  the tasks in which intuition will betray them. The unrecognized limits of professional skill help explain why experts are often overconfident.” — Kahneman p. 242.

So we need to learn to evaluate our own intuitions by asking ourselves: Is the environment, the subject matter (stock prices, psychological evaluations, politics, chess, medical diagnosis, etc.) sufficiently regular and if it is, have I really learned its regularities.

Can people learn these things? Can we learn how and when and where to be skeptical about System 1’s answers? Of course we can.

Changing people’s minds non-violently

The revolution is and must be about changing people’s minds non-violently. Even when in wars threats and force and violence are used the aim is still to change people’s minds.  Threats and force and violence are not very efficient in changing people’s minds. One of the most important changes we want to see people make in themselves is for people to see that force and violence are poor ways of changing people’s minds. So if we used threats and force and violence to try to change people’s minds we would be doing the opposite of what we want since we would be teaching, through our own actions, that force and violence are acceptable ways to try to change people’s minds. And we would be less effective than we could be.

If we must not use violence etc. what can we do to change people’s minds. First, we cannot change someone else’s mind. We must communicate with them to help them change their own minds. There are well established methods for doing this. All the non-violent and non-threatening methods of education are ways we help one another change our minds. There is also a practical and very successful counseling/negotiating/educating practice called non-violent communication — read the book “Non-Violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg. Every communication between two people changes both of their minds, more or less, sometimes very little or for a short period of time, and sometimes very much and permanently, and everything in between.

When people are communicating with one another they are passing ideas, information back and forth, each to and from the other. They are thinking. They are using System 1 and System 2 as described in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. System 1 includes our intuitions, our sensory perceptions processing, language comprehension, feelings — automatic and instantaneous mental activities almost always not conscious. System 2 includes our calculations, ruminations, conscious choices, conscious decisions, etc. System 1 is Kahneman’s fast thinking; System 2 is slow thinking. System 1 and System 2 work together. System 1 is based on associations, connections, similarities, metaphors. System 2 does calculations, elaborate comparisons, what we call logical thinking (reasoning). System 2 is lazy. If System 1 offers an immediate answer to some question or problem, System 2 might do nothing more than accept it. System 1 works on information associated immediately with the question or problem. For System 1, what it sees in its limited automatic way, is all it has to work with. This Kahneman calls “What You See Is All There Is” — WYSIATI. System 2 is likely to try to give an answer if System 1 does not come up with one. But if System 1 has a quick answer, System 2, being lazy, may just accept it without question, without further thought. Many mistakes in thinking occur because System 1, being limited by its WYSIATI, gives a poor answer, and System 2, being generally lazy, doesn’t bother to check System 1’s answer. It is true that most of the time System 1’s answer is OK, it works well for most everyday activities, and so it’s fine that System 2 does not check these System 1 answers. Also there are many System 1 answers that System 2 is never aware of, that System 2 has no access to, so it couldn’t possibly check them. Also since system 2 is slow compared to System 1, System 2 would be hopelessly bogged down if it tried to check very many of System 1’s answers.

So this is the dilemma. System 1 is automatic and fast but is limited by WYSIATI and can be very wrong; while System 2 is slow and lazy and doesn’t have enough time to check very many of System 1’s answers.

Kahneman has documented numerous specific ways in which System 1 and System 2 get things wrong, numerous ways in which humans make mistakes in thinking. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a big book both scientifically and by size (499 pages, 38 chapters, 2 appendices). On the basis of this immense collection of scientific facts can we do anything to help humans make fewer mistakes in thinking? And if we could, would we speed up the non-violent revolution most of us want?

Daniel Kahneman does not seem to be optimistic:

“What can be done about biases? How can we improve judgments and decisions, both our own and those of the institutions that we serve and that serve us? The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to my age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely: “This number will be an anchor …,” “The decision could change if the problem is reframed …” And I have made much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than my own.”  — Kahneman p. 417.

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2. … We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult  to recognize than perceptual illusions.” — Kahneman p. 417.

Maybe I am “prone to overconfidence” but …(to be continued).