Sound Decisions: On Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

by Thomas Brett


“Instinct puts us in the moment, intellect is slower.” – Robert Fripp

“The proof that you truly understand a pattern of behavior is that you know how to reverse it.” – Daniel Kahneman

Sometimes while working on writing new music I’ve noticed how I oscillate between two frames of mind. One frame feels spontaneous and intuitive. Within this frame I work quickly to put sounds together guided by what feels like nothing other than the task at hand. Typical thoughts: “Oh, that sounds cool! Do more of that! Do it again!” (And again!) When I’m in this frame the work feels easy and unencumbered; I’m confident in knowing what sounds “right” and proceed accordingly. The other frame of mind feels more encumbered. Within this frame I’m deliberate and cautious, working slowly and always wanting to “weigh the options” and get a bird’s-eye view of how everything works and connects. Within this frame I want to know where we’re going before we get there rather than just being thrilled by the ride itself.

I worked for many years with a vague awareness of these two frames of mind. But all that changed recently when I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a comprehensive dissection of our patterns of intuitive and deliberate thinking and the tendencies of each. Kahneman is a an Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate with expertise on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. According to Kahneman, human thinking can be characterized in terms of two types. To help the reader get a sense of their differences, Kahneman refers to these types of thinking as System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is the intuitive type. It is by definition impulsive, jumping to conclusions based in limited evidence. System 1 generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; and when “endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions” (105). System 2, on the other hand, is the deliberate type. It is by definition cautious and capable of reasoning (48), and also somewhat lazy in that it needs to be kick-started into action. No matter what we think we may believe about how we think, Systems 1 and 2 are always engaged to various degrees, as well as in conflict–battling it out for our attention and engagement.

But most of the time, it’s System 1 that steals the show due to its quick reaction time and sureness in its judgements. Consider a musical example. Let’s say you hear a particular chord progression and you just can’t help feeling a particular feeling comprised of a series of emotional associations. It’s as if the music made you feel a particular way, and darn it, this is what the music means. It’s obvious! Your emotional reaction to the chord progression is what Kahneman might call “associative activation” and pure System 1 at work: “ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain” (51). This cascade of associations is just one of the many reasons why System 1’s workings can feel so right and intuitive. By contrast, to get a sense of System 2 at work consider being asked to multiply 24 times 17. System 1 is of little use here (and anyway, it’s doubtful much in the way of particular emotions will cascade out of this task). You need to slow down and deliberately work through the problem to solve it. This slow-moving deliberateness is the strength of System 2.

The main theme of Thinking, Fast and Slow is that we should be very skeptical of our intuitions and not let ourselves believe whatever comes to our minds (153). This is difficult to do because “following our intuitions is more natural, and somehow more pleasant, than acting against them” (194). Moreover, intuition is unreliable because it’s susceptible to all manner if influence, including what psychologists call “priming”–an idea presented to us in a subtle or not so subtle way that influences our actions. There are dozens of case studies in Thinking, Fast and Slow that illustrate the shortcomings of System 1 intuitive thinking, including discussions of narrative fallacy (how creating a flawed story about ourselves in the past shapes the illusion that we understand our future), how we exaggerate the coherence of what we hear, focusing illusions (our tendency to overstate the impact of certain circumstances on which we focus our attention), cognitive illusions (such as the illusion of the “hot hand” in basketball), the dangers of confidence and optimism (!), the strengths of using algorithms to guide decision-making, the limitations of the “insider’s view”, the folly of risk-management and forecasting, theory-induced blindness, the power of loss aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, how memories can be wrong, how to spot cognitive minefields–and on and on. In this exceptionally rigorous book the detailed case studies are many and the evidence solid. As rational beings, we are hard-wired for error, “prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence” of what we experience (114). To make matters even more sobering, it’s difficult for us to truly change ourselves, to re-set how we see the world and our place in it. We have, says Kahneman in a phrase that sums up well our predicament, an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance” (201).

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So what has this to do with me making music? Well, as I sit at the computer working on a project, Kahneman’s book has me imagining the dialog between my Systems 1 and 2 and how my System 2 thought processes have been helpful to the project’s progress. I began over a year ago, working willy-nilly on five different tracks that were related in that they all use audio samples of the same earlier work of mine. There were some convincing moments on each of the five pieces-in-progress, but the material was all over the place. 

What I now think of as System 2 demanded some overriding order, so I started to boil the pieces down to just a few sounds and made sure each piece had exactly the same sound palette. While this decision to boil the pieces down felt arbitrary–for how could I ever decide on the sounds when there are so many interesting ones out there?–it also seemed, practically speaking, necessary. And shockingly to me, the boiling down process took several months of arguing with what I now think of as System 1 which always just wanted to get down with playing and having fun. (“System 2, Why do we have to be so organized?”) But System 2 insisted on the constraints, knowing that without them System 1 would flounder and I’d get frustrated–like an archer without a target. Finally, with the sound palette and an overall direction in place courtesy of System 2, I could get back to playing, attending to the (fun) details of building patterns, linking parts, editing, and assembling structures until they sound right.

There remain some uncertainties about this work-in-progress, especially concerning the qualities that can make the music hum when they’re in place but drag when they’re missing. In other words, I’m not sure the music will work until . . . it does or doesn’t. But what I learned from Thinking, Fast and Slow is that questioning one’s intuitions with slow, big picture deliberation (quick–24 times 17!) can ultimately be energizing. It certainly helped me get around what felt like a block with no clear cause besides the unreasonable expectation that intuition is the solution to all musical problems. At the computer, I still work in spurts of what feels like System 1 intuitive forward momentum, and I still don’t quite know where I’m going or how exactly I have come to know what I know. But that’s okay, because I proceed with a confidence born from realizing that uncertainty is part of the musical game and I can still make sound decisions in the face of it.