Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Should We Think For Ourselves?

Thinking is hard.

I’ve just read two articles (here and here) that point out that fake news is a problem of readership rather than of technology. Astute readers who are armed with reasonably good thinking skills should be able to spot (or at least suspect) fake news items. So why don’t we? Perhaps we no longer wish to think for ourselves. Indeed, perhaps we never did.

When we say, “Thinking is hard”, we’re referring to conscious, logical thinking. We draw a problem into our conscious minds and consider its meaning, subtleties, and ramifications. In today’s neuro-vocabulary, we call this System 2 thinking.  It’s hard work.

But we do much of our thinking below the level of consciousness in what is now known as System 1. Systems 1 is so easy, we don’t even realize that it’s going on. It’s fast and efficient and uses far fewer calories than System 2. System 1 is often right but, when it’s wrong, it’s wrong in predictable ways. System 1 is akin to making an agreement with a friend – it’s informal and easy. System 2 is more like concluding a formal contract that is vetted by a roomful of lawyers. 

It’s easy to fool System 1. In fact, it happens all the time. Many of the jokes we tell are funny because they prey on the unconscious assumptions of System 1. If we examined the structure of the joke in System 2, we might well spot the assumption or double meaning well before the punch line. It wouldn’t be funny.

Fake news is like a joke – it depends on System 1 to work effectively. If we call the news into our conscious minds – aka System 2 – we’re much more likely to spot the flaw. We’re most likely to spot the flaw if System 2 is well prepared. So, what is a well-prepared System 2? In my opinion, it’s aware of: 

How are schools doing at turning out good thinkers who can spot fake news? Based on my sample of students: not so well. Over the last decade, I’ve taught approximately 500 students in my critical thinking classes. All of them have at least a bachelor’s degree. Almost all of them have said things like: “Gosh, I’ve never thought of this before.” We teach people how to play soccer, or chess, or piano. Perhaps we should also teach them how to think.

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