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How We Make Decisions for Radiation Safety – Part III

July 5, 2012

In Part II we learned that our subconscious mind is programmed to make instant decisions for our safety even when we do not have all the data, time to acquire the data, or sufficient knowledge to interpret the data. We have survived as a species as a result of instinctive and instantaneous reactions of our subconscious mind to protect us from danger. To explore this spontaneous process further, I would like to introduce readers to a recent book by Daniel Kahneman (Noble Prize in Economics), “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Farrar, Straus, and Girour,New York, 2011.

Two Systems of Thinking

Kahneman refers to earlier researchers who describe two systems for judgments characterized by fast thinking and slow thinking.

  • System 1 operates automatically and fast with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. This process is described in the January 26, 2012 Newsletter as workings of the subconscious mind.
  • System 2 is the relative slow working of our conscious mind that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. This process devotes attention to demanding mental activities that require effort

While we generally identify ourselves with System 2, the automatic System 1 is the basis for effortless origination of impressions and feelings that are the main source of explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. We are born with innate System 1 skills for perceiving our world, recognizing objects, orienting our attention, and avoiding danger. As we mature we also learn new skills, such as reading and interpreting nuances of social situations. All processes that become automatic, such as athletic or game skills, playing a musical instrument, driving a car, or knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 are System 1 functions. “System 1 is the secret author of most of our judgments and choices.”

System 1

We are born with innate skills to perceive the world around us, recognize objects and people, and orient out attention to avoid losses. As we mature we build on this innate resource through learning, impressions, and experience. Subsequently this knowledge is drawn upon by System 1 automatically without conscious intention or effort. Mental activities associated with skills derived from prolonged practice also become fast and automatic. Basically all of the actions, decisions, and functions which we perform without thinking about them are System 1 functions. As noted in the January 2012 Newsletter, System 1 or our subconscious mind is an enormous super computer which operates the machine which we call our body. This system is able to handle thousands of inputs simultaneously to regulate our hearts, breathing, digestion, healing of cells, etc, without any conscious or thinking effort.

System 2

Functions of this system have one feature in common. They require attention and these functions are disrupted when attention is diverted. In other words, System 1 can basically only do one thing at a time. The admonition to “pay attention” is appropriate for this system. We have a limited budget of attention and will fail if we try to go beyond our budget. A current example is what happens to a driver’s attention when he/she is talking on the cell phone or even worse if they are texting. We have all observed a car weaving over the lines in the road and then saw the driver engrossed in a cell phone conversation. The same inattention to surroundings applies to persons walking and talking on their cell phones. Intense focusing on one task can essentially make us blind to other stimuli that would normally attract our attention. Thus, we can become blind to the obvious and blind to our blindness. People on cell phones do not realize that their attention has drifted away from driving or walking.

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