Gotham Diary:
Early Winter
31 October 2011

On Saturday, when the snow fell, I never left the apartment, but when I went out on Sunday — just to Fairway — everyone was bundled up in winter gear. The weather was cold but very clear; it was the people in the street who were drab and gloomy. All that puffy black, grey, and dirty white. All those unspeakable sneakers — but at least the snow put a stop to flip-flops.

By the way, that’s the tree. The tree that I wanted to photograph while its leaves turned. That is not, obviously the picture of the tree that I had in mind.


There were plenty of things that had to be done over the weekend, but all I wanted to do was curl up with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. At last, the mother lode of — damn it, I promised not to use this word — Wrongology. A year ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of Kahneman; now he’s nothing less than Moses and Freud combined, the man who really knows how bent the human mind is and who commands you to believe what he has to say. Literally!

You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you.

The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.

The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.

Not that Kahneman himself doesn’t appear to be genial, even modest, about his accomplishments. For a book so amply studded with mental puzzles, Thinking, Fast and Slow  is a delightful read.

At some point down the road, a historian of science will tackle this bundle of interesting questions: Why did research into cognitive illusion appeal to social and psychological researchers during the Cold War? What was the relation between cognitive research and the development and deployment of the personal computer — if any? What about the World Wide Web made it the ideal, or at any rate initial, platform for the general dissemination of cognitive research? (In other words, why are we all talking about the invisible gorilla and the oreo test as glibly as educated readers used to talk about egos and ids?) 


What could be more glib than “System 1” and “System 2”? System 1 is Kahneman’s label for automatic cognition — being aware of things without knowing that we’re aware. System 2 is deliberative cognition — “thinking.” I’d be happier without mention of “systems”; I’ve come to the conclusion that systems can be spoken of only when a precise and verifiable diagram of their operation is at hand, lying on the table as we speak. Otherwise, you’re likely to fall victim to the Kant-Hegel Effect, which tempts people to believe that anything that can be plausibly stated must be true. Hegel’s systems have a lot to answer for; they’ve very understandably provoked a virulent anti-intellectualism wherever they have been adopted by politicians. (In Russia, it was Communism. In the United States, it was “checks and balances.”)

True about me, must I? “The attentive System 2 is who we think we are.” Maybe I was too young when I read Freud for the first time. I have grown up knowing that I am System 1, not System 2. I am a creature of surreptitious heuristics and irrational proclivities. It has never occurred to me for one instant to accept as sound the propostion that “man is a rational animal,” and it’s because I laugh this idea to scorn that I have a problem taking Greek philosophy seriously. (“Problem” is putting it mildly.) It’s true that I’m very conceited about regarding myself, habitually, as an unreliable narrator. But the whole point of writing, for me, is to grill this unreliable narrator, to hold him upside down, as it were, and to shake him until the small change of truth falls out of his pockets. It’s the writer in me that is System 2.

Except — of course it isn’t. The difference between writers and other people is that, for writers, writing is a System 1 activity. Every once in a while, I do have to stop and think about the next sentence. I may be tripped up by the realization that the implications of what I’ve just written are perhaps a bit broader than I thought; perhaps they lead in a direction other than the one I meant to follow (either into dissipation or actual opposition). For the most part, though, words and phrases pour through my fingers unbidden. If I had to work at this — !


“This was a eureka moment: I realized that the tasks we had chosen for study were exceptionally effortful. An imagee came to mind: mental life — today I would speak of the life of System 2 — is normally conducted at the pace of a comfortable walk, sometimes interrupted by episodes of jogging and on rare occasions by a frantic sprint.” The amount of time that it took me to locate this incredibly astute passage suggests that I ought to buy an e-book edition, so that I can find the bits that haunt me days after I’ve read them. I am now reconciled to the probability that I will die without ever having known how to take notes while reading a book. Either I underline perfectly obvious statements that I’ve internalized from earlier experience, or my capricious sense of words is caught by a turn of phrase that does not signify very much in the text itself. Then the caprice passes, and I’m left with a perfectly unintelligible marker.

But only this morning did this incapacity to take notes make sense: if I am reading a book to learn about something, how will I know what’s important until I’ve read the whole thing?