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Understanding Persuasion in Terms of "System 1" and "System 2" Thinking

Robert Dimuro

Posted on March 3, 2019 18:11

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How we develop our intuitions is crucial to understanding how we inform our beliefs, attitudes, and decisions.

Last week, I discussed Scott Adams’s interpretation of standard climate change arguments as being anti-persuasive to important subsets of the population. This week, I wish to focus on persuasion at the level of intuition as studied by well-known psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman’s theory rests on the premise that people’s thought processes are cognitively irrational.

Kahneman adopts the terms “System 1” and “System 2” to describe how people think. System 1 involves intuitions that require little to no conscious effort to recognize - most of which are instinctive or learned at very young ages. Recognizing the emotions on people’s faces and judging the relative distance of objects are examples of System 1 thought. System 2 involves the more focused efforts of reasoning, formulating beliefs, and analyzing facts and data. Deciding which shampoo to buy and preparing a speech are examples of System 2 thought.

Although System 1 may imply the thinking of a primitive or developing mind, it’s arguably more influential on thought than System 2 for people of all ages and cognitive abilities. This is because System 1 involves facts and concepts that become drilled into us over the course of our lives, making them intuitive. We derive these facts and concepts by invoking System 2 - the analytic and reasoned thought made possible by previous intuitions. This oscillating relationship between Systems 1 and 2 is key to understanding how our thoughts, decisions, and actions are influenced.

President Trump always tries to invoke System 1 responses in people whenever possible. This is because, for the majority of voters, catering to their intuitions is much more persuasive than catering to their ability to analyze facts and figures. Virtually every issue on which Trump campaigned illustrates this fact.

A great example is how Trump promoted his immigration policies. Instead of using the standard political jargon of “securing the border” and highlighting immigration rates and statistics, Trump touted the construction of a big and beautiful wall to curb illegal immigration. Also unlike his opponents, Trump frequently used individual anecdotes to make his case, such as the murders of Kate Steinle and Jamiel Shaw II by illegal immigrants. Tragic stories and visual cues are more intuitive and, therefore, more persuasive than statistics that represent entire population groups.

Systems 1 and 2 also explain why climate change arguments aren’t persuasive and don’t elicit widespread panic. Since climate change deals with projections that are based on complicated analyses of data sets, it requires a System-2 level of comprehension. In contrast, the threat of a meteoroid hurtling towards Earth would spark immediate panic and mitigating action, as System 1 is sufficient in understanding the destruction that a meteoroid impact would cause.

As we can see, the way society operates is consistently described by Systems 1 and 2. I believe this intuition is key to understanding the cognitive machinery of our minds and how we can be persuaded to make important decisions that affect the course of civilization.

Robert Dimuro

Posted on March 3, 2019 18:11

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