Last week we spoke about two different brain functions, which we metaphorically called System 1 (makes intuitive choices) and System 2 (responsible for effort and conscious decision making). We discussed how one of the main functions of the often lazy System 2 is to monitor and control the thoughts and actions suggested by System 1, and make corrections when needed. I also introduced you to three questions from the Cognitive Reflection Test. Just to recap, here they are:
- A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? _____ cents
- If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____ minutes.
- In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____ days.
If you are like most people, you will at least intuitively thought that 10 cents is the answer for the first question, 100 minutes for the second question, and 24 days for the third question. In fact, the correct answers are 5 cent (10 cent and 1 USD have a difference of 90 cent), 5 minutes (20 times the machines also make twenty times the widgets in five minutes) and 47 days (it keeps doubling in size, so its half the size a day earlier).
In case you got any of these answers wrong, don’t worry. Apparently even a majority of Harvard and Princeton students gave at least one wrong answer to these questions. These relatively easy questions evoke an intuitive but wrong answer to those of us who failed to actively check whether the answer suggested by our gut feeling was correct, despite the low cost of doing so. This can happen because we often tend to be overconfident with regards to their intuitions, and gladly avoid the cognitive effort required when using our System 2, whenever possible.
The important lesson here is that we need to be aware how our intuitions can fool us. This is especially so when we engaged in various forms of voluntary effort, whether cognitive, emotional or physical, that requires attention and effort and hence draws from at least partly the same source of mental energy. This is because the use of will power is tiring and affects our behavior.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team showed this through various experiments. For example, they invited participants to take a challenging test. Before taking the test, they were asked to wait patiently in a room that had tasty chocolate placed on a table for the one group. Radishes and celery for the control group.
All participants were asked not to indulge in the treats. The group exposed to the chocolate did significantly poorer in the test. The experiment showed how activities that require self control, and are demanding on our System 2, deplete our willingness to make the same effort in another task.
In a way then, answering any of these questions wrongly comes from a lack of motivation to put the necessary effort to override our gut feeling. The real issue of course is that if we are unwilling to invest effort to check our intuition, we may also prefer to act impulsively and impatiently, in other areas of life. This is because self control and deliberate thought often draw on the same limited resources of effort.
Please don’t get me wrong. Thanks to System 1, we are able to live our life swiftly and efficiently, and often effortlessly. However, as we saw with the questions of the Cognitive Reflective Test, System 1 does make intuitive mistakes, and these happen without any prior warning. Therefore it is important that we also learn to slow down our thinking when necessary, so that we can become aware of potential errors, and override them with our System 2. Within this spirit, I want to challenge you to slow down your thinking, from time to time, and especially before taking important decisions. The goal is to cultivate the use of your System 2 to monitor and control the thoughts and actions suggested by System 1, when necessary, so that you can take more conscious decisions.