Post-Election System 2 Thinking

Written by: Sekhar Chivukula

Primary Source: News from the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education

photo of two MSU students talking

The post-election situation for many people, including many students on our campus, presents a conundrum: a complex situation which for many feels like, and in some cases has been, a real threat.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow the Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two “systems” that the human brain uses in understanding our environment and making decisions. The first, “system 1,” responds quickly, instinctively, and emotionally. From an evolutionary point of view, this system allowed humans to respond quickly to threats – such as the threat from a predator. Since this system needs to make “snap judgements,” it necessarily cannot take into account and weigh all situational factors – if there is a chance that a predator is present, better safe than sorry!

By contrast, “system 2” is slower, more deliberate, and more logical. While even system 2 is subject to several kinds of cognitive bias, the explanation of many of which were elucidated by Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky[1], system 2 allows for the reflection, analysis, and reasoned action necessary in dealing with a complex situation.

The post-election situation for many people, including many students on our campus, presents a conundrum: a complex situation which for many feels like, and in some cases has been, a real threat. The hurtful rhetoric of the campaign implied, directly or indirectly, a devaluing of the race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, assault survivor status, ability, or religion of many individuals. Worse, the incidents of bigotry, bias, and hate across the country after the election, and even on our own campus, have led to legitimate concerns about individual safety.

It is not surprising, therefore, that system 1 thinking has often been dominant. People who feel immediately under threat will react quickly because they feel they must.

However, a long-term solution to the complex issues facing our society which have been uncovered by the election require the analytical thinking of system 2. System 2 thinking does not eliminate emotion (as shown vividly by Kahneman), and utilizing system 2 thinking does not mean that issues such as social justice and equality – issues that raise strong emotions – are not relevant. Rather, the system 2 critical thinking, which is at the core of a liberal arts education, is crucial in crafting long-term solutions to the problems of our society.

Our challenge is to apply system 2 thinking in moving forward as a campus, a state, and a nation, while also providing for the emotional support and safety of all our students and residents. A university education, an MSU education, provide the necessary tools.


[1] Work that formed the basis of the field of behavioral economics, hence Kahneman’s Nobel prize in economics.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email sekhar@msu.edu.

 

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Sekhar Chivukula
R. Sekhar Chivukula is a Professor of Physics, and the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University
Sekhar Chivukula

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