Finding Faith In Fluency

What makes someone confident? Belief. The belief that they can do what it is they’re being asked to, belief that the answer they’ve calculated is correct, or, belief that the answer that just popped into their head is correct.

That last one is the odd one out. Intuition is mischievous, trusting it is dangerous, let alone having confidence in it.

Thinking Fast and SlowThere is no simple way for System 2 to distinguish between a skilled and a heuristic response. Its only recourse is to slow down and attempt to construct an answer on its own, which it is reluctant to do because it is indolent. — Thinking Fast and Slow

The System 2 that Daniel Kahneman points out is his label for our conscious self. The System 1 is intuition, it’s what goes on behind the scenes, and which sends us answers to questions both easy and difficult in the blink of an eye.

In Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, we discover that we accept our intuitive responses too often and too easily. System 2 is slow and cumbersome, while it has a greater ability to use complex abstract thought to solve bigger problems, it’s lazy, and won’t if it has another option.

System 1 is that other option — it’s fast and energy efficient, but it is this way through its insistence on heuristics, mental shortcuts, and the substitution of one question for another.

One big reason we like our intuitions is that thinking too hard doesn’t feel great, but having an answer pop up out of nowhere feels awesome. It feels fluent, easy, and we take that as a signal of truth.

The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. — Thinking Fast and Slow

Safety In Success

Intuition is essentially a rapid-fire prediction — one that should be based on past experience, but can occasionally sneak through on ignorance and overconfidence.

Positive feelings accompany the correct prediction of the environment, it basically says that we know what’s happening and are not in any danger. When we can do this intuitively — like we can navigate our own home or the commute to work — we can get by with System 1, all we need is the habitual intuitive actions we’ve done so often before.

This feeling is what leads to confidence. The circumstances are within our understanding, or so we think.

When something happens that we cannot predict or don’t understand, our System 2 is called upon. Think of reading this sentence — you can do it fluently, the words don’t cause you any trouble, as you go through your mind is constantly predicting what letters and words it’s likely to see next, and it’s remarkably accurate. If there were suddenly a bncuh of slpelnig mstikaes, tehn taht fleucny wuold sfufer.

A lack of fluency requires more conscious effort, and that effort comes with more critical thinking.

The Pervasiveness of Fluency

Fluency shows up everywhere. In one study, overhearing someone on their phone was more distracting than hearing two people converse. With only one side of the conversation being heard our mind is left to ponder what the other side is saying, it does this because it needs coherency, the story needs to make sense.

The same issue can be seen in the stories we tell ourselves:

We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true. — Thinking Fast and Slow

This includes our own memories, which are notably inaccurate and shift significantly depending on how we tell our own stories. Each time we recall them we essential recreate them.

Create a Mind[…] there are no images, videos, or sound recordings stored in the brain. Our memories are stored as sequences of patterns. — How to Create a Mind

With no irregularities or items that elicit concern, we have no reason to distrust the memory. Even though the recollection may be inaccurate, the fluency that comes to mind says otherwise.

You may not know that you are optimistic about a project because something about its leader reminds you of your beloved sister, or that you dislike a person who looks vaguely like your dentist. If asked for an explanation, however, you will search your memory for presentable reasons and will certainly find some. Moreover, you will believe the story you make up. — Thinking Fast and Slow

In another study that’s mentioned in Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink, the differing ease of pronunciation of stock names influences whether people trust them:

Screen shot 2015-07-13 at 11.07.25 AMAccording to Aktiendepot, a stock with a simpler, fluent name will tend to rise above its disfluently named counterparts for the same reason that a fluently named person might attract law-firm promotions: stock purchasing is inherently risky, and fluency inspires a sense of comfort and familiarity that tempers the inescapable fact that even low-risk stocks sometimes go bust. — Drunk Tank Pink

In yet another domain, how we go about learning is influenced by fluency, which is a big concern in education.

Make It StickThe illusion of mastery is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what we know. — Make it Stick

As noted above, reading text does not often prove to be a difficult task, we are usually experts in our native tongue by a relatively young age. Yet, we can associate the ease of reading the text with having learned the underlying ideas.

Mastering the lecture or the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them. — Make it Stick

The fluency in reading the text often lacks the disfluency needed to draw the attention of our cumbersome analytical thought, which might otherwise have something to say about the meaning and reasoning within the text.

We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. — Make it Stick

Gaining Confidence

So how do you know when to trust someone else given their confidence, or to trust yourself given the ease of coming to an answer?

Perhaps there’s no easy way to do this, but Daniel Kahneman notes that there are two necessary criteria for judging the likelihood of accurate projections:

  1. The conditions are predictable. In other words the stock market is out. Whatever field this prediction is based in needs to be sufficiently non-random, chaotic circumstances are clearly unreliable and so are the intuitions that follow.
  2. The person has reasonable experience. In order to predict a predictable environment, the person needs to have the experience that results in understanding the patterns within it. The more complex it is, the greater time it takes to learn all of the parts and make accurate decisions — and even longer for these decisions to become intuitive.

So the next time someone gives you a quick answer with confidence, evaluate their situation and experience before taking it to the bank; and when an answer comes easily to your mind, put yourself through the same test.

In the meantime, perhaps we should contemplate what this means for some “professionals”…

Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality — but it is not what people and organizations want. — Thinking Fast and Slow

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