Thinking Fast and Slow: A literary radar gun to measure the speed of thinking in Thailand
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has been the #1 bestselling non-fiction title on the Bangkok Post arts page for over a year. I’ve lost track it may have been two years. That is a long-time for a foreign title to occupy the top spot on a local bestseller’s list. Kahneman’s book reveals how people process thoughts and emotions and react to the constructs that thinking creates in their minds. It is also an extensive discussion, based on fifty years of research, into the cognitive biases that act as the filters through which our thinking passes.
When someone says I have a bias. I say that doesn’t go far enough. I have dozens and dozens of biases. Most of them infect my process operating system and until someone like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman comes along, shows the evidence, and I discover I’ve remained oblivious to the importance they play in the way I perceive and understand reality. It is a humbling experience to accept that you and everyone else suffers from the flaws and defects that cognitive biases cause in our assessment of evidence, facts, opinions, and data. To learn about biases is to recognize the role they play in your own life, inside corporations, governments, entertainment, sport and family life.
None of this begins to explain why in Thailand, of all places, it continues to be the top bestseller (if Asia Books bestselling list is to be believed). I’d like to explore a few ideas that may shed some light on why Thinking Fast and Slow has become and remained a bestseller even in a country like Thailand where one of the common expressions is “thinking too much makes one’s head hurt”.
We evolved over a long-time frame—200,000 years—into a species of fundamentally shaped emotional beings. Our emotions along with our perceptions and memory of the past are the building blocks of what we think of as ‘self’. If you want to a truthful look of who you are to yourself, take a day and audit the emotions you feel. Write them down. Write down the reaction to each of those feelings. And the stories you tell yourself to justify, explain, defend or advocate. Keep that list for a week. Then go back and look in that narrative mirror. That is you, how you react into the world. What sets you off, triggering the chemical reactions in your brain? We know what those chemicals are and a fair amount about how they work in the brain. That is, of course, a mechanical, science-based position. Others may think that emotions magically appear like forest fairies.
We have been first and foremost are emotional charged from the time we entered the world until the day we depart it. Our emotional life gives us a roller coaster ride and we make up stories to explain the spills and chills. The slow thinking, or the rational, empirical, deliberate thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. It is cold, calculated, time-consuming, uncertain, complex and tentative—all of these attributes, when combined, construct a reality that can be measured, examined, tested, evaluated by others, who may disprove a widely accepted idea or show evidence of how it is flawed and how it might be improved.
This new, rational way of thinking is recent. Many people think today is a dividend of the Enlightenment. Newton came along in the 17th century, and with a new type of mathematics, was able to predict motion and velocity with precision. The 18th century saw a new breed of thinkers from Hume, Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Musician geniuses like Bach, Haydn and Mozart emerged. In the 19th century scientific discovery bloomed through the empirical methods employed by Darwin, Maxwell, Tesla, Faraday, Kelvin, Boltzmann, Clausius, Doppler and Planck to name only a few.
If you picked two books that changed the ‘method’ of thinking it would be Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637) and Newton’s Principa Mathematica (1687). The world of magic, faith, and belief became challenged, along with unquestioned authority as custodians of the truth. What was changed? Truth no longer had an official master whose stories had to be believed. Truth left the domain of Sacred Authority to be revealed in the labs by scientists with their charts, instruments, procedures, formulae, and methods.
Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow about our psychological limitation to understand the truth is a product of that Enlightenment process. We had a better understanding how authority had traditionally acted as the oracle of our emotional lives. It also manipulated those emotions to suit the aims of the powerful. The problem was that there was no scientific method or explanation. People lived in a world of ritual and ceremony, which channeled emotions as a collective, unifying activity.
Pre-Enlightenment was like a grandfather clock, solid, reliable time keeping device in well-off houses. The problem with such clocks was the degree of accuracy required for advanced technology need a more precise measuring instrument. Atomic clocks operate on a different mechanism than the grandfather clock. Kahneman’s slow, deliberate thinking incorporates a self-monitoring, self-correcting features that have redesigned how our grandfather clock of emotions works.
When we think our grandfather clock of emotions remains our timekeeper, what happens when a culture or civilization has by-passed the Enlightenment generated system of methods, process, and procedures? A case can be made that a large number of people will be unhappy telling time the old way. Because they live in a vastly more complicated and complex world where how a person thinks is key to innovation, creativity and scientific advances in biology, nanotechnology, robotics, AI, and neural networks. The age of the grandfather clock, however, isn’t over. It continues to co-exist with the new realities. You see the evidence of this everyday in Thailand. And when there is a problem to be solved, confusion arises as to what problem-solving process should be used.
The Thais have embraced social media in large numbers. Given the recent political turmoil, and the attempt by coup-makers to turn the clock back, one would have expected more unrest. That hasn’t happened. Part of the explanation is that the Internet, games, and social media have provided a refuge, a place of escape from the messy, unpleasant emotional terrain of analogue life. The emotional transfer to the digital world has left a void in the analogue world. There may be few scattered demonstrations but largely, on the surface, people go about their lives as if disconnected from the political reality in which they live.
Then the junta was reported to have supported a proposal to reduce the digital interface into Thailand to a single pipeline. Suddenly all of those silent people who had disappeared from the analogue world of political discussion suddenly showed their anger. The DDos (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks that crashed many government and national telecom websites and hundreds of thousand tweets using the hashtag #SingleGateway showed a surprising degree of co-operation and collaboration to pull off the attacks. Whether this is the beginning of significant digital mass protest remains to be seen. The number of people involved in the attack is difficult to know. What is known is that more than a hundred thousand people have also signed an online petition to oppose the junta’s policy to install the Chinese-style “Great Firewall.”
Thailand’s digital community finally reacted. The emotional reaction leading to the in protest with the hashtag #SingleGateway found support on social media across usual political lines. It is difficult to find another proposed policy change that brought warring political factions to form a unified front. The opposition may have surprised the government, in any event, surprised or not, so the junta began to immediately backtrack on the idea.
Emotions about the Internet like all emotions are passionately held and defended. It may come as a surprise to the largely analogue core of senior government officials that a single pipeline would strike a nerve and an emotional reaction would spill over into the analogue world.
If the goal of the government has been to de-emotionalize the political discussion and to refocus that discussion to the grandfather clock era, the single pipeline policy proposal suggests a long, emotional battle may result. The most radical book in Thailand at present is probably Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as it is a guidebook on the kind of biases exposed in the positions and postures of government policies and proposals. The critics with this new Enlightened way of thinking are online; on LINE, on social media, and they argue, debate, become emotional, friend and de-friend each other with a large degree of freedom. Removing that platform, this safe harbor for debate is no small change. The Internet is a symptom of something else that is happening under the surface. Many cultures seek the best of both worlds; there is an uneasy duality of process depending on many factors from international treaty obligations to the demands of modern technology, finance and communication systems in order they can be coupled into a larger international network.
Thailand is no different from many countries, which seek to balance problem-solving processes in a culture where dual mechanisms compete. There is the local environment where the rules and regulations, law enforcement officials, judges, and regulators, for purely domestic problems, use pre-Enlightenment ideas whether based on magical thinking, non-scientific premises, forced confessions, or evidentiary techniques of a prior time. It might be a news story but it hardly causes a ripple outside of the country. The Sacred Authority model was once the worldwide model. There was no other. The style of thinking that underscores Sacred Authority is incompatible with the thinking style that created a complex, diverse and ever changing digital environment with all the rough edged emotional tumble colliding with games, videos, talks, articles, graphics, photographs, on countless platforms seeking audience attention. It is a world of conflict, contention, trolling, emotional vetting, and diverse ideas, big data, and large information sinkholes. DDoS attacks are Thailand’s Millennial generations way of exerting their values and priorities. They hadn’t melted away; they had escaped to an online universe where they wished to be left to pursue their interests, grievance, dreams, and desires.
After the Enlightenment, (I am aware of literature of how National Socialism and Communist regimes used these ideas to cause massive destruction and suffering), The Empirical Model rose to challenge the Sacred Authority Model on a political, social and economic battlefield and largely won most of those battles. The evidence of those victories are everywhere in the way business and trade is conducted. If you wish to use slaves to catch and can fish as the business model in your fishing industry, you may argue that you didn’t do it, or if some meddlesome person has evidence that you did, the back up is your domestic industry standards is no one else’s business; it falls within your Sacred Authority.
The history of the West illustrates the Sacred Authority lasted long after the Enlightenment had begun. The US Supreme Court in the 19th century Dread Scott case didn’t prevent a slaveholder from a Southern State to reclaim his ‘property’, an escaped slave, from a Northern state where the slave had sought refuge.
Most countries have a blended system that draws from both the Sacred and the Empirical methods to solve problems. A broad continuum exist in most cultures and groups argue often emotionally as to what regime of methods and processes should be employed—with one side arguing the solution is faith-based and the other that fact or evidence-based problem-solving mechanism provides the solution. One expects to find, and is indeed not disappointed to discover that all kinds of contradictions, tensions and conflict arise. Sharia laws are an example of the Sacred Method and way of thinking. The problem solvers are clergy. The problem-solving mechanism is theocratic. The problem is cast in terms of doctrine to be interpreted.
The Sacred decision-making process is binary—good and bad, right and wrong. Applying that mechanism to, say, construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants is a frightening prospect. Complex and complicated problems require a different way of thinking. A process where those in charge are accustomed to an environment of uncertainty and doubt, and testing for weakness and defects is normal. Thinking about a problem where the process is created as part of the sacred means honoring boundaries of thought and inquiry, and the role of the authorities is not to test boundaries but to defend them.
Less extreme forms of the Sacred can be attached to flags or constitutions that make them above the profane of daily life. How we think about problems and the methods for solving them is a good indication of where it is placed along the continuum of Sacred and Empirical. For example, to suggests that evidence from other countries shows that banning or regulating guns or introducing universal health care in the United States would have a positive results in saving money and preventing deaths—and suddenly you have a fight on your hands. The Empirical Model vanishes behind a super-heated cloud of emotions and appeals to the Sacred appear as if the Enlightenment had never happened.
In the modern world, other countries, which had gone through the Enlightenment (and notice that they are the developed countries with money to buy large amounts of fish), will collectively act and ban the sale of slave caught fish. Thailand’s fishing industry, in response to international pressure from trading partners, seeks to find solutions that can be audited by others to eliminate slavery. The real problem lies in the absent of empirical experience and resources to detect, avoid, and monitor such problems. The failure is the failure of processes and enforcement mechanism that often uses aspirations of goodwill as a substituted solution. (Aspirational goals appeal to emotions and can work effectively on shaping public opinion in countries like Thailand, where having “good intentions” is more highly valued than the actual quality or effectiveness of the proposed policy.) A problem-solving mechanism that appeals to the logical, analytical aspect of our nature and demands a different kind of thinking. It will likely excite the emotions of those in the Sacred Method camp, on the basis such an approach is a provocation to their beliefs.
The same problem arises with rules governing aviation. If you wish to have a domestic aviation industry where planes regularly crash for lack of maintenance, that may be a sovereign right, but for international flights, the planes must comply with international rules for operation and maintenance and violation of those rules will lead to banning the offending aviation companies landing rights.
The number of cars registered in Bangkok now exceeds to number of people registered as living in Bangkok. Traffic is a domestic issue. No one in New York, Toronto or London cares about lost time waiting in Bangkok traffic or the lack of parking space. When transportation policy is decided under the Sacred Authority methods, finding a systematic, rational and efficient system becomes elusive. The empirical methods are not developed or trusted as they might spill over into other areas pushing back the boundaries of the traditional way of thinking about things that need attention. Law enforcement officials with inadequate training or tools are discouraged from seeking professional assistance, for example, in evaluating DNA and other forensic evidence to be used in a murder case, for fear of losing control of the case to foreigners.
Emotions cause the best analytical tools to be left on the shelf; the empirical studies filed in the office filing cabinet. Emotions dictate the storyline; not necessarily the actual evidence. The problem with modern technology whether it is transportation, education, fishing, or forensic science is that the line between domestic and global commerce, trade and communication has resulted in the construction of an international system, mechanism, process and methods that is very difficult to avoid, unless one decides to embrace something along the lines of the North Korean or Saudi models (to name just two). Those bucking this new international regime with the Sacred Model as the funnel for emotionalism have no way out. The ability to have the best of both worlds has collapsed. Governments, however, haven’t stopped pretending that they can go back to the past when such a distinction existed and officials had control over what could and could not be done.
What is destroying the legitimacy of governments is the absence of creating problem-solving processes. Most countries share similar problems. Most countries invest in research and development not only in identifying problems but in the development of cooperative processes where experts and large data can fine-tune the methods and process where new solutions can be found to old problems, and new problems can be unearthed that lead to more fine-tuning to the methods and processes. In other words, it is a constant, endless re-examination and critical questioning of how to improve the process of decision-making. Given the accelerated rate of technological change, methods and processes are soon outdated. Audit, evaluate, modify, replace, and adapt, replace a fixed, certain, stable Sacred Authority model where time on the grandfather clock no longer reflects the reality of how time is measured in the modern world.
All of this change pushes emotional alarm buttons. Elites, with a vested interested in the grandfather clock model, experience fear, anger, and hatred as to the new order sees them not as partners but obstacles to the world where questioning, criticism, debate, curiosity, and uncertainty are considered normal.
What the Enlightenment brought was the possibility that people might disagree on an idea, theory or principle. That debated wasn’t settled by blood, or by war and hatred against someone with a different idea. A space has opened up for those who disagreed to take a step back from their emotional reaction, examine their biases, and ask for evidence to support an argument. The future is for those who invite evidence that contradicts their theory; it doesn’t belong to those who only seek confirmation, and seek to stifle those with evidence to the contrary.
Will Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow continue to be number one in Thailand for another year? It is possible. Such a radical book has attracted a Thai audience is worthy of note. It may be some evidence that many Thais, especially those exposed to social media, are seeking to better understand how their emotional lives are connected to their thinking process. Understanding what goes on inside the brain and how our emotions and thoughts are processed is something no one has figured out.
We are left with a vague glimpse of what might be possible. But for now, it is enough to hope that the how we think when self-reflection and doubt are incorporated into the process will make us more aware of how emotions guide our perceptions, stories, and sense of self. , We can’t avoid our cognitive biases but we can recognize the limitations they impose. It takes a lifetime of work where we slow down our thinking and calculate more finely the options beyond what we instinctively feel at the moment. Even then, we will continue to ambush ourselves with all of kinds of great stories as to why we were angry with Jack, and hate Helen and honestly believe that no one in their right mind could do anything but agree and support us. Because we are human. We are feeling machines, retrofitted with a lever called logic. You will find it on your own console; if like mine, it is the one with cobwebs on it.