I teach two classes at the University of Denver: Applied Critical Thinking and Persuasion Methods and Techniques. Sometimes I use the same teaching example for both classes. Take the dying grandmother gambit, for instance
In this persuasive gambit, the speaker plays on our heartstrings by telling a very sad story about a dying grandmother (or some other close relative). The speaker aims to gain our agreement and encourages us to act. Notice that thinking is not required. In fact, it’s discouraged. The story often goes like this:
My grandmother was the salt of the earth. She worked hard her entire life. She raised good kids and played by the rules. She never complained; she just worked harder. She worked her fingers to the bone but she was always the picture of health … until her dying days when our government simply abandoned her. As her health failed, she moved into a nursing home. She wanted to stay. She thought she had earned it. But the government did X (or didn’t do Y). As a result, my dying grandmother was abandoned to her fate. She was kicked to the curb like an old soda can. In her last days, she was a tiny, wrinkled prune. She couldn’t hear or see. She just curled up in her bed and waited to die. But our faceless bureaucrats couldn’t have cared less. My grandmother never complained. That was not her way. But she cried. Oh lord, did she cry. I can still see the big salty tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. Sometimes her gown was soaked with tears. How much did the government care? Not a whit. It would have been so easy for the government to change its policy. They could have cancelled X (or done Y). But no, they let her die. Folks, I don’t want your grandparents to die this way. So I’ve dedicated my candidacy to changing the government policy. If I can save just one grandma from the same fate, I’ll consider my job done.
So, do I tell my classes this is a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on which class I’m teaching.
In my critical thinking class I point out the weakness of the evidence. It doesn’t make sense to decide government policy on a sample of one. Perhaps the grandmother represents a broader population. Or perhaps not. We have no way of knowing how representative her story is.
Further, we didn’t meet the dear old lady. We didn’t directly and dispassionately observe her conditions. We didn’t speak to her caretakers. Or to those faceless bureaucrats. We only heard the story and we heard it from a person who stands to benefit from our reaction. She may well have embroidered or embellished the story.
Further, the speaker is playing on the vividness fallacy. We remember vivid things, especially things that result in loss, or death, or dismemberment. Because we remember them, we overestimate their probability. We think they’re far more likely to happen than they really are. If we invoke our critical thinking skills, we may recognize this. But the speaker aims to drown our thinking in a flood of emotions.
In my critical thinking class, I point out the hazards of succumbing to the story. In my persuasion class, on the other hand, I suggest that it’s a very good way to influence people.
The dying grandmother is a vivid and emotional story. It flies below our System 2 radar and aims directly at our System 1. It aims to influence us emotionally, not conceptually. It’s influential because it’s a good story. A story can do what data can never do. It can engage us and enrage us.
Further, the dying grandmother puts a very effective face on the issue. The issue is no longer about numbers. It’s about flesh and blood. We would be very hardhearted to ignore it. So we don’t ignore it. Instead, our emotions pull us closer to the speaker’s position.
So is the dying grandmother gambit good or bad? It’s neither. It just is. We need to recognize when someone manipulates our emotions. Then we need to put on our critical thinking caps.
When faced with a difficult question, we often substitute a simpler question and answer that instead. Here are three examples:
In each case, we substitute a proxy for the original question. We assume that the proxy measures the same thing that the original question aimed to measure. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong. Most often, we don’t think about the fact that we’re using a proxy. System 1 does the thinking for us. But we can, in fact, bring the proxy to System 2 and evaluate whether it’s effective or not. If we think about it, we can use System 2 to spot errors in System 1. But we have to think about it.
As it happens, System 1 uses proxies in some situations that we might never think about. Here’s an example: How much food should you eat?
(The following is based on a study from the University of Sydney. The research article is here. Less technical summaries are here and here).
We tend to think of food in terms of quantity. System 1 also considers food as a source of energy. System 1 is trying to answer two questions: 1) How much energy does my body need? 2) How much food does that translate to?
Our bodies have learned that sweet food delivers more energy than non-sweet food and can use this to translate from energy needs to food requirements. Let’s say that the equation looks something like this:
1 calorie* of energy is generated by 10 grams of sweet food
Let’s also assume that our body has determined that we need 10 calories of energy. A simple calculation indicates that we need to eat 100 grams of sweet food. Once we’ve eaten 100 grams, System 1 can issue a directive to stop eating.
Now let’s change the scenario by introducing artificial sweeteners that add sweetness without adding many calories. The new translation table might look like this:
1 calorie of energy is generated by 30 grams of artificially sweetened food
If we still need 10 calories of energy, we will need to eat 300 grams of artificially sweetened food. System 1 issues a directive to stop only after we’ve eaten the requisite amount.
System 1 can’t tell the difference between artificially and naturally sweetened foods. It has only one translation table. If we eat a lot of artificially sweetened food, System 1 will learn the new translation table. If we then switch back to naturally sweetened foods, System 1 will still use the new translation table. It will still tell us to eat 300 grams of food to get 10 calories of energy.
We would never know that our brain makes energy/quantity assumptions if not for studies like this one. It’s not intuitively obvious that we need to invoke System 2 to examine the relationship between artificial sweeteners and food intake. But like crime rates or cars or shampoos, we often answer different questions than we think we’re answering. To think more clearly, we need to examine our proxies more carefully.
*It’s actually a kilocalorie of energy but we Americans refer to it as a calorie.
I don’t consider myself a curmudgeon. But every now and then my System 1 takes off on a rant that is entirely irrational. It’s also subconscious so I don’t even know it’s happening.
My System 1 wants to create a continuous story of how I interact with the world. Sometimes the story unfolds rationally. I use solid evidence to create a story that flows logically from premise to conclusion.
Sometimes, however, there’s no solid evidence available. Does that stop my System 1 from concocting a story? Of course not. I simply make up a story out of whole cloth. The story may well be consistent in its internal details but may also be entirely fictional. I use it to satisfy my need for a comforting explanation of the world around me. In this regard, it’s no different from a child’s bedtime story.
Though I refer to it as System 1, it’s actually my left brain interpreter that does the work. According to Wikipedia, “…the left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. … In reconciling the past and the present, the left brain interpreter may confer a sense of comfort to a person, by providing a feeling of consistency and continuity in the world. This may in turn produce feelings of security that the person knows how “things will turn out” in the future.”
Apparently, our desire for “feelings of security” is deep and strong. So strong, in fact, that our left brain interpreter may create a “contrived” story even in the absence of facts, data, and evidence. While the interpreter often interprets things logically, it “…may also enhance the opinion of a person about themselves and produce strong biases which prevent the person from seeing themselves in the light of reality.”
How often does the interpreter create completely contrived stories? More often than you might think. In fact, my left brain interpreter took off on a flight of fancy just the other day.
Suellen and I were driving to an event at the University of Denver. We were running a few minutes late. We were on a four-lane boulevard where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. But most people drive at 40 mph because the road is broad and straight. We got stuck behind a Prius that was driving at precisely the speed limit. Here’s how my left brain interpreted the event:
Damn tree-hugger in a Prius! Thinks he’s superior to the rest of us because he’s saving the planet. He wants to keep the rest of us in line too, so he’s driving the speed limit to make sure that we behave ourselves. What a jerk! Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know it’s rush hour? What gives him the right to drive slowly?
That’s a pretty good rant. But it has nothing to do with reality. I didn’t know anything about the driver but I still created a story to connect the dots. The story followed a simple arc: he’s a jerk and I’m an innocent victim. It’s simple. It’s internally consistent. It enhances my opinion about myself. And it’s completely fictional.
How did I know that I was ranting? Because I interrupted my own train of thought. When I thought about my thinking – and brought the story into my conscious mind – I realized it was ridiculous. It wasn’t his fault that I was running late. And who, after all, was trying to break the law? Not him but me.
I was certainly thinking like a curmudgeon. I suspect that we all do from time to time. I stopped being a curmudgeon only when I realized that I needed to think about my thinking. Curmudgeons may well think primarily with their left brain interpreter. Whatever story the interpreter concocts becomes their version of reality. They don’t think about their thinking.
When we’re with someone who is lost in thought, we might say, “A penny for your thoughts.” It’s a useful phrase that often starts a meaningful conversation. We might make it more useful by altering the wording. To avoid being a curmudgeon, we need to think about our thinking. Perhaps we should simply say, “A penny for my thoughts.”
I speak Spanish reasonably well but I find it very tiring … which suggests that I probably think more clearly and ethically in Spanish than in English.
Like so many things, it’s all related to our two different modes of thinking: System1 and System 2. System 1 is fast and efficient and operates below the level of consciousness. It makes a great majority of our decisions, typically without any input from our conscious selves. We literally make decisions without knowing that we’re making decisions.
System 2 is all about conscious thought. We bring information into System 2, think it through, and make reasoned decisions. System 2 uses a lot of calories; it’s hard work. As Daniel Kahneman says, “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it but they’d prefer not to.”
English, of course, is my native language. (American English, that is). It’s second nature to me. It’s easy and fluid. I can think in English without thinking about it. In other words, English is the language of my System 1. At this point in my life, it’s the only language in my System 1 and will probably remain so.
To speak Spanish, on the other hand, I have to invoke System 2. I have to think about my word choice, pronunciation, phrasing, and so on. It’s hard work and wears me out. I can do it but I would have to live in Spain for a while for it to become easy and fluid. (That’s not such a bad idea, is it?)
You may remember that System 1 makes decisions using heuristics or simple rules of thumb. System 1 simplifies everything and makes snap judgments. Most of the time, those judgments are pretty good but, when they’re wrong, they’re wrong in consistent ways. System 1, in other words, is the source of biases that we all have.
To overcome these biases, we have to bring the decision into System 2 and consider it rationally. That takes time, effort, and energy and, oftentimes, we don’t do it. It’s easy to conclude that someone is a jerk. It’s more difficult to invoke System 2 to imagine what that person’s life is like.
So how does language affect all this? I can only speak Spanish in my rational, logical, conscious System 2. When I’m thinking in Spanish, all my rational neurons are firing. I tend to think more carefully, more thoughtfully, and more ethically. It’s tiring.
When I think in English, on the other hand, I could invoke my System 2 but I certainly don’t have to. I can easily use heuristics in English but not in Spanish. I can jump to conclusions in English but not in Spanish.
The seminal article on this topic was published in 2012 by three professors from the University of Chicago. They write, “Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using…. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases.”
So, it’s true: I’m a better person in Spanish.
Can you solve a moderately difficult arithmetic problem (say, 3 + 6 – 2 + 5) in your head? Sure, you can. You just need to think about it for a moment.
Could you do the same problem in your head if a researcher were flashing an incredibly annoying bright light in your eye? The light is so bright and flashes so quickly that it’s impossible to focus your attention. Yet, you can still solve the problem. How can that be?
The short answer is that your subconscious (aka System 1 in this website) does the work. It can process arithmetic problems or word puzzles that you’re not consciously aware of.
Professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem figured this out with an ingenious experiment. They presented the bright flashing light to one eye and arithmetic or word problems to the other eye. The light was so distracting that subjects didn’t realize that a problem was entering their brain. Yet, they were able to solve it just fine, without realizing that they were doing so. (Here’s the original research article; here’s a less technical summary from the BBC).
The subjects weren’t able to “think about it for a moment”. They couldn’t engage their conscious (System 2) thinking. So, how did they do it? It had to be their subconscious, or System 1.
This finding starts to challenge our long-held beliefs about the differences between our conscious and subconscious processes. We believed that certain skills – like arithmetic and word puzzles – require higher order processing. We need to engage System 2 and focus our attention. But this experiment, and many others like it, demonstrates that System 1 can do a lot more than we expected on its own. (For another example of how your brain can absorb information subconsciously, click here).
Ran Hassin, one of the authors of the flashing light study, went on to create a “Yes It Can” (YIC) model of the subconscious. Hassin asks the simple question, “Which high level cognitive functions can the unconscious perform, and which are uniquely conscious?” After reviewing numerous experiments, he argues, “…that unconscious processes can perform the same fundamental, high-level functions that conscious processes can perform.” (Click here for the article).
Let’s assume for a moment that Hassin is right – our subconscious mind can perform essentially the same functions as our conscious mind. Why, then, do we need consciousness?
Hassin points out that, “Good sprint runners can run 100 meters in less than ten seconds, but more often than not they choose not to.” Similarly, we might be able to use our subconscious for many tasks but – for one reason or another – we choose not to.
When I learned to drive, for instance, I was very conscious of the car itself, the dials on the dashboard, speed, road conditions, and so on. Today, driving is second nature to me. I can drive for miles without being consciously aware of it. It’s often called highway hypnosis.
My subconscious drives the car just fine until something out of the ordinary happens. When something novel (and perhaps dangerous) occurs, I instantly revert to conscious mode. According to Hassin’s argument, my subconscious might be able to handle the novel situation on its own. But, for one reason or another, my conscious mind can handle it better.
Perhaps the main role of consciousness, then, is to practice and master novel skills or to react to novel situations. As our skills improve, our subconscious takes over much of the task. Our conscious mind can move on to new things.
Perhaps our conscious mind continually hungers for novelty. We get bored when there is nothing new for our consciousness to work on. This could even explain the hedonic treadmill. New things engage us and make us happy. Old things fade into the (subconscious) wallpaper.
Consciousness, then, may be a fundamental force driving us toward creativity and innovation. Seen in this light, creativity is not simply a “good thing.” Rather it’s a “necessary thing.” We should pay more attention.