Critical Thinking is Not for Cocktail Parties

critical thinkingI’m still learning not to talk about books at cocktail parties. At this point I haven’t figured out what you are supposed to talk about at them . . . but at least it’s finally beginning to dawn on me that people don’t go to cocktail parties to have their thoughts challenged. People go to parties so they can relax and have a good time, and when people are relaxed they don’t like to think too much. There’s actually research to back that up.  (I don’t mind mentioning that here, since I don’t have a glass in my hand and I’m not standing around next to a plate of hors d’oeuvres.)

In any case, I learn best from actual mistakes, so I try to make them as often as possible, which is why I brought up Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, while at a friend’s cocktail party in January. My close friends know that the Nobel Prize-winning researcher’s 2011 book is my latest favorite—and has been for about six months now—but at this party I managed to bring it up among five or six people who hadn’t heard me mention it yet. “I found it eye-opening,” I told them enthusiastically. “I hadn’t been aware of a few of the biases he writes about, but now I’m starting to catch them in myself at all kinds of odd moments!”

“I don’t believe in biases,” the tall, elegant blonde next to me responded immediately. This had the effect of rendering me momentarily speechless. But only for the three seconds it took to frame the first question that came to mind: “But what about all the research?” I hazarded. She didn’t believe in research either. “Well, how do you form your opinions?” I asked, truly curious.

“Experience.” she said.  She explained that she didn’t trust researchers or their studies, and that experience and good common sense were enough for her. The idea that people have biases is—in her opinion—nothing but a liberal political tool, and she has enough good common sense not to believe in them because her own experience clearly shows her she doesn’t have any. (Biases, I think she meant. Not common sense).

That’s when (after opening and closing my mouth a couple of times and probably looking a bit fish-like doing so) I mumbled something about needing to refill my drink and wandered off.

Which brings me back to my latest favorite book again.

“Many people,” says Kahneman, “are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.”

He then obligingly points out some of the ways our thinking lets us down when we’re chugging along on intuition, or System 1, as he calls it. System 1, explains Kahneman, operates silently and automatically in the background, providing impressions, impulses, intuitions and instant conclusions about what we hear and see. When you’ve got that peaceful, easy feeling—like when you’re chatting about nothing in particular at a cocktail party—you know System 1 is at the helm. As long as you’re in a state of “cognitive ease,” your thinking will be fairly superficial because of the relaxed vigilance of System 2, which is the more effortful, analytic thinking mode.

Interestingly, just as cognitive ease increases a good mood, a good mood increases cognitive ease. In other words, says Kahneman, “A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.”

This is because System 1 will jump to its conclusions on the basis of the relatively scanty information it is processing automatically and unless (or until) a sense of cognitive strain mobilizes System 2, the intuitive answers supplied by System 1 will hold sway. “Remember,” says Kahneman, “that System 2 is lazy and that mental effort is aversive.”

Of course, he could be making all of this up. But my personal experience and common sense are enough to tell me he’s probably right.

Hmmm. I wonder what Daniel Kahneman talks about at cocktail parties?

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