A liberal education ought to help college students to “think slow”

In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s marvelous book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he distinguishes between what he calls our brain’s “System 1” and “System 2.”

“System 1” is the part of us that thinks “fast.” It is our evolved set of reactions. These emerged deep in our past where we lived in small intimate groups, often on the edge of survival. Those circumstances generated the kinds of automatic responses we see in people today, often manifesting in poor calculations of statistical risk due to System 1’s biases for thinking fast and avoiding losses.

In contrast, “System 2” is our slow thinking, more rational side. It requires a conscious effort to analyze situations in terms of System 2. One has to be able to observe System 1 kicking in and possibly erring in order to know to engage System 2.

System 2 helps us avoid System 1’s biases.

A good liberal education should be focused on helping students learn to engage System 2, and think slowly to avoid built-in biases. Both pedagogy and curriculum should be thought of in terms of how it helps students become more self-reflective about their beliefs and thereby become better able to recognize when their own System 1 reactions might be leading them astray.

Liberal educators who wish to nurture informed, reflective citizens could learn a lot from reading Kahneman’s book.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is full of examples of the statistical and risk-related biases we need to learn to overcome, but similar System 1 reactions exist across the natural and social sciences. Our reactions to natural phenomena are often the products of System 1 taking appearances for reality, e.g., the perception that the sun goes around the earth. In the social sciences, we frequently get mesmerized by good intentions, neglecting to think through the unintended consequences of both individual actions and government policies. In the humanities, exposure to art and literature can lead us to see human behavior in deeper, more careful ways. All of these are ways that liberal education can engage System 2 to check our built-in System 1 perceptions and reactions.

Educating students to slow down and recognize and correct their “fast thinking” is not just a matter of getting them to confront authors and thinkers from national or ethnic traditions that they have not read before. Expanding the canon to include more diverse voices can be part of this process, but that by itself does not necessarily challenge students’ System 1 reactions.

Really engaging System 2 requires exposure to a variety of intellectual and theoretical perspectives. Intellectual diversity is the crucial ingredient that enables students to begin to get outside themselves and recognize the biases in their own thinking about the way the world works.

For example, when students get the opportunity to read thinkers who emphasize the idea of social phenomena as “spontaneous” or “unplanned” orders, they can start to recognize their own evolutionary bias toward thinking that their good intentions ensure good outcomes. They can learn that just wanting to help people doesn’t mean your ideas for doing so will be effective. Economics is particularly good at this task, as we can see in such debates as whether raising the minimum wage will actually help the poor or whether curbside recycling protects the planet.

Encountering a diversity of political views can also help students recognize our built-in tendency to treat political difference as a matter of good versus bad intentions. Reading the best that all sides have to offer on controversial issues can help students see that there are good-hearted, smart people who see the world differently. Good teachers can use that opportunity to re-focus students on the theoretical and empirical issues at stake, rather than the background or affiliations of the authors. That’s how to engage good, slow thinking about how the world works and discard bad, fast thinking about appearances and motivations.

Exposure to ways in which classical liberals think about the incentives created by government regulation can cause students to reconsider their instinctive intellectual responses. A proposal to mandate that children under age two, who can now fly on a parent’s lap, be required to be in a car seat on an airplane seems like a great way to prevent those children from getting hurt or killed. Or so says System 1’s love of good intentions. 

But System 2 recognizes that this will force airlines to charge for the seat, and the higher cost of flying will lead some families to drive rather than fly. Of course, driving is much less safe for kids. People who oppose regulations don’t lack concern about safety. Rather they may well understand that achieving that goal involves a more complicated set of incentives that require some “slow thinking” to really understand. Exposing students to these other perspectives becomes a way to engage this more productive slow thinking.

Higher education itself could use a collective System 2 check on its own automatic reactions as to what constitutes a good liberal education, and more slow thinking about Kahneman’s book would be a useful start. The human brain is just as much a product of evolution as the rest of our bodies, and the job of good liberal educators is to help students understand our evolved reactions and fast thinking and give them the tools to slow that thinking down and recognize those biases, as well as acting to correct them.