Think Fast! Why Critical Thinkers Need to Pay Attention to Dual-Process Theories of Rationality


In the next two episodes we're going to talk about what I believe are the two most important myths, or misconceptions about critical thinking.

So here goes. Myth number one:

Critical thinking is primarily about improving our conscious, deliberative reasoning processes (e.g. through instruction in logic and argumentation, or other formal tools, like cost-benefit analysis).

Why is this a myth? It's a myth, or a misconception, because what we understand today is that the cognitive processes that issue in beliefs, judgments and decisions involve a complex interplay of conscious and unconscious processes.

The term that psychologists use today is "dual processing". There are at least two distinct types of cognitive processing. One is fast, automatic, involves feelings and emotional responses in a fundamental way, and is largely outside of conscious control. The other is slow, it requires conscious attention and effort, and it's what we normally think of as conscious, rational deliberation.

In the psychology literature, these two types of information processing are sometimes called "system 1" and "system 2" processing, or "fast" vs "slow" thinking, or thinking in terms of an "automatic presets" setting vs a "manual override" setting.

And the reality is that system 1 -- the fast, unconscious mode that is dominated by cognitive shortcuts, or "heuristics" -- is the dominant mode in most of our everyday decision-making. It interacts with system 2. System 2 can override system 1, but system 2 is generally lazy and its default mode of operation is just to rubber-stamp what system 1 tells it.

System 2 is crucially important for deliberative decision-making of course, but the reality is that we spend only a small fraction of our days in system 2 mode, compared to system 1.

So, if our goal is to improve the quality of our beliefs, decisions and judgments we have to understand that all of these are products of this complex dual processing system.

And we have to understand that the specific skills associated with conscious, deliberative reasoning, like logic and argumentation and other forms of rational deliberation, are only playing a supporting role within this bigger picture of human rationality.

The myth, the mistake, is to believe that people can dramatically improve the quality of their reasoning by working out their System 2 muscles. It's a mistake because it ignores the interplay between System 2 and System 1, and the fact that System 1 is most often in the driver's seat when it comes to forming beliefs and making decisions.

Now, this invites the question of what the alternative is. How do you improve the quality of our thinking if most of it is governed by unconscious processes?

First of all, congratulations, because now you're asking exactly the right question. This is where critical thinking education has to go if it wants to be genuinely relevant and useful.

And the answer, not surprisingly, is that it's complicated, but every year the folks who research these questions are making progress.

We can learn to cultivate habits of thought that are known to improve the quality of our judgment.

We can educate ourselves about the psychology of cognitive biases and how they structure our thinking, and how they're used to manipulate us.

We can learn how to use simple protocols to minimize bad outcomes due to cognitive biases.

We can train our intuitions, through practice and repetition, to see relevant patterns that inform higher quality judgments.

Logic and argumentation are always going to have an important role in critical thinking education, but they'll need to supplemented with different kinds of literacy and different kinds of training, if they're going to be effective supporting players in our everyday reasoning.