The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message of these examples is not encouraging. Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent. Biases cannot always be avoided, because System 2 may have no clue to the error. Even when cues to likely errors are available, errors can be prevented only by the enhanced monitoring and effortful activity of System 2. As a way to live your life, however, continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is certainly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions. The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.
You have been invited to think of the two systems as agents within the mind, with their individual personalities, abilities, and limitations. I will often use sentences in which the systems are the subjects, such as, “System 2 calculates products.”
The use of such language is considered a sin in the professional circles in which I travel, because it seems to explain the thoughts and actions of a person by the thoughts and actions of little people inside the person’s head. Grammatically the sentence about System 2 is similar to “The butler steals the petty cash.” My colleagues would point out that the butler’s action actually explains the disappearance of the cash, and they rightly question whether the sentence about System 2 explains how products are calculated. My answer is that the brief active sentence that attributes calculation to System 2 is intended as a description, not an explanation. It is meaningful only because of what you already know about System 2. It is shorthand for the following: “Mental arithmetic is a voluntary activity that requires effort, should not be performed while making a left turn, and is associated with dilated pupils and an accelerated heart rate.”
Similarly, the statement that “highway driving under routine conditions is left to System 1” means that steering the car around a bend is automatic and almost effortless. It also implies that an experienced driver can drive on an empty highway while conducting a conversation. Finally, “System 2 prevented James from reacting foolishly to the insult” means that James would have been more aggressive in his response if his capacity for effortful control had been disrupted (for example, if he had been drunk).
System 1 and System 2 are so central to the story I tell in this book that I must make it absolutely clear that they are fictitious characters. Systems 1 and 2 are not systems in the standard sense of entities with interacting aspects or parts. And there is no one part of the brain that either of the systems would call home. You may well ask: What is the point of introducing fictitious characters with ugly names into a serious book? The answer is that the characters are useful because of some quirks of our minds, yours and mine. A sentence is understood more easily if it describes what an agent (System 2) does than if it describes what something is, what properties it has. In other words, “System 2” is a better subject for a sentence than “mental arithmetic.” The mind—especially System 1—appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities. You quickly formed a bad opinion of the thieving butler, you expect more bad behavior from him, and you will remember him for a while. This is also my hope for the language of systems.