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Fast and Slow Thinking: Emotional vs. Rational

Since the 15th century slow thinking (reason) has increasingly dominated our understanding of our political motivation. George Lakoff contrasts this with cognitive science research indicating conscious reasoning was only 2% of our thinking while the other 98% was composed of other than conscious elements that significantly contribute to an individual’s behaviour (Lakoff, 2008). He describes MRI studies of the brain which show when a decision is made, the emotional centers of the brain are active prior to the rational centers (Lakoff, 2008). This led researchers to conclude, once a decision is made in the emotional region, the rational region is then activated to provide a rational justification for the decision. Consequently, Lakoff contends progressives should shed their “18th century rationalist view of communication and ethics” and understand the concept of rational motivation devoid of emotion is flawed.

Pentland advances some of the ideas of Lakoff. He distinguishes the two systems of thought embraced in the cognitive science research of Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman (Kahneman, 2011 ) and Herb Simon. We as a species first evolved our fast thinking which is largely unconscious, driving our habits, beliefs, intuitions, emotions and motivation. A more recent capability of humankind is our conscious reasoning, referred to as slow thinking. A theory of fast and slow thinking is a superior explanation over Lakoff's emotion and reason because it is much more inclusive than what we would normally think of as emotion. Fast and slow thinking is also much more descriptive of the process than the similar unconscious/conscious distinction advanced by Carl Jung.

Each mode of thinking contributes unique functionality. Fast thinking enables us to carry out complex tasks like driving a car while we are relatively unconscious of the thought process and decisions involved. Studies show that in complex situations involving trade-offs between objectives, sensitivity to fast thinking intuitions usually outperform slow thinking rational processes. In emergency situations we decide and act appropriately even before our conscious slow thinking is even aware of a problem as in making a sudden stop when driving a vehicle. Much of the work of sorting the contents of our mind, associating one idea to another, is done by our fast thinking process. Once the fast brain has done all this parallel processing it presents a product for slow thinking.

Slow thinking on the other hand has evolved to help us to step out of our habitual patterns and innovate new responses. It gives us the ability to go beyond the bounds of here and now. Language and slow thinking are tightly coupled. Through language the belief structure delineated through slow thinking can be communicated to all parts of the world and from one generation to the next. It is what enables us to build on the shoulders of the intellectual giants who have gone before us.

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