How do you generate an intuitive opinion on a complex problem? – Chapter 9

Our minds have intuitive opinions and feelings about nearly everything, only in rare cases we face problems to which no solution comes spontaneously to mind. We dislike or fancy someone before we know much about him/her and we distrust a stranger without knowing why. We have answers to questions we don’t fully understand, based on evidence we can’t defend or explain.

How do we generate an intuitive opinion on a complex problem? If System 1 can’t find an adequate answer to a difficult question fast enough, it will seek for an easier, related question and answer that one instead. This operation is called ‘substitution’, the intended question the ‘target question’ and the easier question the ‘heuristic question’. ‘Heuristic’ is defined as the simple procedure that helps find an adequate but not perfect answer to a difficult question.

Substitution can be useful when you have to solve difficult problems. This strategy is consciously implemented by System 2. Other heuristics are the result of the mental shotgun, which are not chosen. Consider the following questions: “How satisfied are you with your current life?” “How popular will this politician be three months from now?” Before you are able to give an adequate answer, you must consider other questions. What is the definition of satisfaction? What political developments do you expect in the next three months? Taking all these questions into consideration would be impractical. Instead of providing an optimally reasoned answer, you can go for the heuristic alternative. Sometimes this works well and sometimes it results into a major error. Easily answered (heuristic) questions could be: “Am I satisfied right now?’ and “How popular is the politician currently?”

The automatic processes of intensity matching and the mental shotgun normally produce answers to simple questions that are related to the main question. The lazy system 2 tends to endorse a heuristic answer, although it could reject or modify it after retrieving more information. You probably won’t even notice how difficult the target question was, because an intuitive answer easily came to mind.

What is the mood heuristic for happiness?

A good example of substitution is the following experiment, in which participants were asked the questions: “How happy have you been lately?” “On how many dates did you go last month?” There turned out to be no correlation between the answers. Dating did not immediately came to mind when asked to rate happiness. Other participants also got both questions, but in reverse order. The outcome was totally different: the correlation was very high. Their lives did not revolve around dating (as the first experiment showed no correlation with happiness), but they experienced an emotional response when asked to think about their love life. The participants with the most dates were reminded of happy moments, while those who did not date experienced sadness. The happiness induced by the dating-question was still lingering when the happiness-question was asked. The last question requires hard thinking, but got substituted by an easy-to-answer question instead. Any emotion-inducing question that influences someone’s mood will have this effect. WYSITA. Our current mood has a big influence on the evaluation of our happiness.

What is the affect heuristic?

We tend to let our dislikes and likes shape our beliefs about the world. How convincing we find arguments is determined by our political preferences. If you favor a certain policy, you believe the benefits are greater than those of the alternatives. If you dislike things (bungee jumping or tattoos for instance), you are prone to believe they are very risky and have no benefits. Conclusions are dominant over arguments, but the mind is not completely immune to sensible reasoning and information. Emotional attitude and beliefs may alter when you learn that something is not as risky as you thought, but information about a lower risk also makes the benefits appear greater (without them being mentioned). This is a different trait of System 2. It actively searches the memory, makes assessments, compares, makes choices, is able to resist the suggestions of System 1 and is self-critical, but when it comes to attitudes, it tends to defend the emotions of System 1. The search for arguments and information is usually restricted to information that matches existing beliefs, with no intention of examining it.

A list of activities and traits of System 1:

  • Distinguishing the normal from the surprising

  • Biased to believe and confirm

  • Matching intensities across scales

  • Mental shotgun

  • Halo effect

  • Heuristics: substituting a difficult question for an easier question

  • Prospect theory: being more sensitive to changes than to states

  • Loss aversion: responds more strongly to a loss than to a gain

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