Two Minds and a Flame War

I’m fascinated by the human mind. The mind, such as there is a thing we can refer to with that word, is where all the interesting things about humankind go on. It’s also poorly understood, even by the legions of bright people who have studied and reflected upon it for thousands of years.

Vagueness aside, you’ll notice that we’ve got a Pretty Good intuitive grasp of thoughts and sensations, such that we can communicate reasonably well most of the time. The fact that you can read my words and (hopefully) understand what I want to convey attests to that. Sometimes, Pretty Good is good enough.

Knowing how people operate is a crucial skill in any instance that involves other people. Case in point, fitness training and nutrition. These fields are applied science, and on paper at least we should be able to craft perfect workout programs and diets — at least, you’d think that according to much of the internet.

Often, though — likely more than not — these perfection-seeking schemes fail. Why can’t people just do what we know is right? Why do all these pig-headed people disagree with my perfectly-designed workout? Why do people not eat according to these scientifically-derived principles that ensure success?

It’s human nature. I don’t mean anything so trivial as the ever-popular “people are stupid” meme; “stupid”, in the exasperated lament of the frustrated, really means “doesn’t agree with my presumptions”. You might jump to the conclusion that everyone around you is irrational and you, of course, are the only bright light of reason.

This betrays an unacknowledged failing of rationality. Reason, contrary to increasingly popular belief, is not a cold tool of rational calculation that can subsume the irrational, emotional self. Reason, to paraphrase David Hume, is a slave of the passions.

I’ve recently read two books which explore the premise of emotionally-driven rationality. The first, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman (review here), explores some 50 years of research into what Kahneman calls the “two systems” of thought. We don’t literally have two brains, nor anything that we could even identify as separate reasoning processes, but psychological research has nevertheless found that we have two distinctive “modes” of thought.

The first, called System 1, is fast, intuitive, and makes quick associations. System 1 is a storyteller and a pattern-matcher; it’s how you see a snake on the ground and then, only after you’ve jumped and taken a second glance, notice that it’s really a twig. System 1 makes connections, preferring what Kahneman calls “causal stories”, and weighting information by how easily it comes to mind.

Then we have System 2. This is a relatively new feature of the brain, exclusive to humans and perhaps in lesser degree, other primates and cetaceans. System 2 is where math, science, and language come from, and it’s what we’d consider our bona-fide reasoning. The only problem is, System 2 isn’t refined and it’s not all that powerful.

System 1 has had millions of years, give or take a few orders of magnitude, to evolve its way into a powerful form. It does its job well, pushing us and pulling us with emotional intutions (or “gut feelings”) that drive much of our behavior. System 2, as it exists now, might have a million years behind it. It’s still working out the kinks, so to speak, and it relies heavily on System 1’s unconscious processing to do what it does (to see more on how disturbingly involved your emotions are in rational thinking, see Antonio Damasio’s research into psychopaths).

Johathan Haidt uses a wonderful metaphor for the two systems. He likens System 1 to an elephant, large, massive, and not all that bright. System 2 rides the elephant as a tiny man with the reins, and he does all the talking. If you come across this pair, you’ll think the rider’s in charge — but that’s a three-ton elephant. It’s going where it wants.

Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind” (review here), begins his book by reinforcing Kahneman’s findings. We are capable of rationality, but this isn’t the same as saying we’re rational beings. We are instead driven by the unconscious emotional processing of our elephants — System 1 — which, in broad scope, determines how we think. The rider, representing System 2, steps up and works out justifications for these unconsciously-made decisions. The elephant moves, and the rider explains why he’d always meant to do that.

This doesn’t mean we can’t ever reason our way to a decision, or whisper in the elephant’s ear to coax it in a different direction, but on the whole we go where the elephant wants. As Haidt says, strategic reasoning is intuitive. Partly this is because System 2 is costly. Think about how you feel physically exhausted after studying for three hours. System 2 actually does cost physical energy and, as more research shows, it’s eerily similar to physical exertion — we can actually measure cognitive effort with HRV and pupil dilation as well as glucose usage, a model which jives with Baumeister’s findings about willpower as well.

Thinking is literally difficult, and the effort of thinking can exhaust our mental resources. This is why most of us default to System 1 and the “cognitive ease” it provides.

Haidt’s book focuses on moral psychology, the way we arrive at our ideas of right and wrong. According to mainstream moral psych, we come with a range of built-in moral intuitions that create that visceral sensation of right and wrong, and some of us are more sensitive to these than others. Haidt notes that a good chunk of our beliefs are socially-driven, no doubt thanks to that “cognitive ease” factor again — the information that is immediate and ever-present, like the beliefs of parents and peers, is what we “know” to be true.

This leaves us at a curious impasse: yes, we are capable of rationality, but we’re also cliqueish, biased, and outright lazy thinkers who are never as rational as we think (think again before deciding how “stupid” everyone else is). More frightening, this applies to the educated and the intelligent as much as anyone — Kahneman suggests that a more robust System 2 only leads to better stories and justifications, not any better guarantee of factual correctness.

This has clear relevance to all of us who talk about determining effective ways of physical training and eating food. It’s easy to say “read the science”. Yet there are profound, and rarely acknowledged, issues with this approach.

Ever since reading Kahneman’s book, these questions have been at the forefront of my mind. Where is the line between fact and nonsense? It’s us, the readers and interpreters, that are the first and last step in translating the abstract findings of science into a meaningful story, and it’s in our brains that objective reality is skewed.

It’s all the rage these days to hate on “Bros” and their “stupid” training and diet practices. In fairness, some of this is deserved. People lift and exercise and eat according to feelings, blatantly pseudo-scientific ideas, and ideas that don’t even make sense when you say them out loud. But plenty of “stupid” methods really aren’t, certainly not with the kind of certainty we’d like, and most arguments of this nature are actually two fighting elephants.

The problem to me isn’t the fact that science is used as a tool, but rather the reverence for, and certainty given to, the findings of published research with no further context. There’s an awful lot of confidence there for an awfully shaky set of assumptions, especially given the realities of exercise science and nutritional research. This is not to say that the research is useless — far from it — but more often than not it becomes fodder for a rider looking to justify the elephant’s intuitive choice. Constructing a story out of Pubmed abstracts is not a particularly compelling case.

Personally speaking I’m less confident than ever that looking at published research can provide all the answers; and likewise, I’m much less willing to be so vocal in pushing arguments which have so much inherent uncertainty (and when I can’t be sure of eliminating my own biases).

[On to Part II.]

Written by Matt


11 thoughts on “Two Minds and a Flame War”

  1. The internet does lend itself to a whoppingly large amount of wankery over a practice which is pretty simple in application. Look at the inputs (food; activity), look at the results (body weight; fitness level). Adjust as needed to get the desired results, and the adjustments go toward the point of non linearity. Research points us towards what results may occur, and are even likely to occur, but the inputs don't and never will have a direct relationship with the outputs. So why argue over a few extra grams of carbs vs protein, or a few seconds more or less of time under tension, or a few pounds more or less of volume? There's a simpler way: find out what works through trial and error, and keep what works and drop what doesn't. Apply this over time and you don't need to wank about on the internet buried in the NIH database to find out if what works. Discover it through the process of application.

    1. Yes, but therein lies the rub, to some extent. Some people don't have the time or knowledge base to throw everything they have into tweaking their diet and training routines. They have jobs and lives outside the gym, and would rather hire someone to parse what information is available to give them the best and most likely route to success. It's no different than any other industry – I'm not going to take the time to figure out how to do my taxes or write code for my website – I'll hire someone, who I trust knows the "best" way (or at the very least, a way far better than mine) to do those things. It's not a perfect analogy, I know, and there are probably better examples I should have used. And I think one other problem, which Matt kind of alluded to, is the fact that many of the details being bandied about will affect only a very small (mostly elite) segment of the population – those who are competing at the top of their chosen sport.

  2. I argued for a long time that the motivations for believing in most principles, for most people, has nothing to do with logic. It did hit me at some point however, that I too was a stupid elephant. Now I don't dispute any such clamour, and I lay claim to no transcendental level of knowledge derived from science or some form of logic. What's immediately evident, however, is that it's impossible to proceed under such a framework. To abolish the illusions of being the lone incandescent bulb is fair enough, but to proceed as though such a fact renders claims of objectivity inert is by definition impossible.

    Morality is the most prominent example of arguments founded on nothing more than intuition. Willard Quine writes about this in advocating taking a more scientific approach (towards philosophy, in this case). We're confronted with a tautology when we assert that any position is not rationalised on a different foundation to the bros and the stupid peeps, and that our position is therefore as good as theirs. The best way to proceed is to refine our rationality, and to acknowledge how primitive it actually is. If we cultivate a rationale that abides to a set of rules then we can do things more correctly. Any term other than 'more correctly' would be extremely dubious given the subjectivist acknowledgements that precede it. These rules can go something like this: if you drop a bouncy ball, it bounces.

    Naturally that's fair enough for hard sciences, but the softer it gets the more the ball morphs and the ground's texture changes. I take it that sports science has such a soft ground, and no procedural method will ever be found for no such thing exists, and any claim to it has its path scrutinised and is inevitably obliterated. This is the point at which faith becomes fundamental to belief and scientific understanding. It's for these reasons that Kuhn thought of all scientific endeavours as irrational; this is a good point of course but in lieu of an elephant and a small man you have to raise questions as to what it really means to distinguish something as irrational.

    Most interestingly of all is the way this ties in with our sense of selfhood and ideas of free will and agency as mirages. The problem with determinism is that it requires something to be determined, it requires a thing inside you that is under the sway of subconscious influence. I can't say I've ever seen a deterministic thinker ever actually engage with what this thing is supposed to be: is it the looking bit of you? The thinking part? Are these really synonymous parts of a holistic 'you' that you are alleged to control? This very thing it seems, is rather elusive; mainly because it is the pursuit of a phantom. The most fascinating insight from neuroscience is the prospect of an entirely false and conceptually erroneous account of human agency, it is also a firm chop to the pedestal of believing that being sentient is something special or 'peculiar'. That applies to intelligent people just as much as the bros.

    1. Thanks for this post Drew. In upcoming posts in this loose series, I'll be laying out some of my thoughts on the concepts you raise. I try not to get too far into either morality or analytic philosophy because even I have limits of tormenting my readers, but I think discussing some details of epistemology, as shaped by cognitive sciences and neuropsych, can be interesting.

  3. Nice post, Matt.

    The system 1 thinking and the biases is one big reason why an evidence-based approach evolved. And research is all about quantifying the uncertainty.

    Another good one is "Irrationality" by Stuart Sutherland

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