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Not rational

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The classic economic theory embedded in western democracies assumes that human beings will almost always behave rationally in the end and make logical choices that will keep society balanced. Daniel Kahneman is the psychologist who, in 2002, won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that this is simply not true.


Kahneman points out the impossibility of human rationality. We would have to know too much in order to be consistent in all our beliefs; the absence of consistency means we are trapped in inconsistency, which means we cannot behave rationally.


In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman brought a core idea from academic psychology into mainstream culture: the notion that human behavior at any given moment is an interplay between two forms or systems of thinking. The so-called System One thinking is fast, intuitive, and completely unreflected — things we do automatically or have learned so that we do them, as it feels, without thinking; for example, walking, talking, reacting emotionally, knowing the answer to two plus two, driving a car.


System Two is the brain’s slower, more deliberative and analytical mode. It doesn’t do two plus two, but it picks up 17 times 24. It gets involved in difficult life decisions, in self-control, and sometimes, in checking and correcting intuition.


The main thing about System One, Kahneman says, is that it can’t be turned off. The main thing about System Two, even though we might imagine it to be the “real,” conscious us, is that it’s lazy. It’s very capable of endorsing and rationalizing what our fast thinking is telling us to do and say.


And so, as often as not, our thinking is a combination of “reacting, not thinking” followed by “yeah, that’s probably right.”


Whether it feels obvious or threatening, the fact remains: humans are not rational creatures. Once we can acknowledge that, we can get on with figuring out how to make this work.


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