In ‘Thinking Fast and slow’ Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman identifies two modes of thinking. System one is the intuitive, cave-man thinking, which evolved over millions of years. It works fast, based on experience and survival instincts. It’s deeply ingrained. It’s biology. Being scared of the dark is system 1. System two is the kind of cognitive, intelligent discourse, which we use to deliberate and debate. It’s slow but sometimes clever. We think we use this all the time, but actually we mostly use it to post-rationalise decisions and opinions we made in System 1 mode. Writing essays is System 2. Mental maths is probably System 1.
Lots of examples and experiments illustrate this. Economics and marketing are full of cases where System 1 looks and feels like system 2. Our supposed utility-maximising behaviour doesn’t really maximise utility at all. It’s also supported by modern neuroscience (e.g. brain scanning). Sophisticated deliberation and language activity is located in the frontal lobes while gut-feel responses are seen at the top of the spinal column – some call it the reptilian brain because it’s to do with lower order transactions we share with lower mammals.
There are some nice analogies. Rory Sutherland (former President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) likens it to a man riding an elephant. The man (System 2) thinks he’s in control, but actually the elephant (System 1) decides where he wants to go. System 1 is like the screen of a PC – what we see on the surface – while System 2 is the working memory behind it.
Kahneman explains how most of our immediate opinions are gut-feel system 1, not considered thought system 2. “If we think we have reasons for what we believe, that’s often a mistake.” He explains.
The politics of immigration are a perfect example of System 1 masquerading as System 2. Everyone has their opinion but it almost certainly came before the facts. Hence the YouGov poll in the spring, in which people said they’re worried about benefits tourism (people think 25% of immigrants are claimants), even though benefit tourism is almost non-existent (real figure 3%). Who knows any of these data? Virtually nobody – but we still hold the opinions.
UKIP takes most of its support from the right of the Tory party and disproportionately from working class conservatives. Why? Probably because they are the people who feel threatened by an influx of competitors for jobs (threatened feels like a System 1 response).
I spoke the other day to some friends who are planning to vote UKIP in the Euro elections. They started off talking about jobs and houses and the health service. They said we simply can’t support the number of people coming into the country. But when asked, they didn’t actually know any of these numbers – not even whether it was in the thousands or in the millions. Separately, also recounted how they feel uncomfortable if they get on a bus where large numbers of people are speaking foreign languages. Now we’re getting somewhere (no pun intended). Nigel Farage effectively did the same thing at the weekend, when he let slip that he’d be unhappy if Romanians moved in next door. Doh.
It’s not about the numbers. It’s not about facts at all. Unfortunately that means supporting the far right is a bit nearer to (let’s call it “low level”) racism than we’d like to admit. I imagine lots of similar conversations were going on in Germany in the late 1920s