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Why slow thinking wins

Being fast means working hard and being smart — from answering calls around the clock to having the quickest wit at meetings. Slowness is for the lazy, the aloof, or even the dumb. When we talk about slowing down, we usually mean taking it easy, certainly not being more productive.

Everyone remembers the story of the tortoise and the hare, but no one seems to have learned the lesson it teaches: Slowness wins.

Turns out that the fable got it right. Research regularly suggests that so-called slow thinking requires more disciplined thought and yields more productive decision-making than quick reactions, which are less accurate or helpful. And slow thinking is — like the tortoise, slowly but surely — inching its way into new interventions in fields as disparate as criminal justice, sports, education, investing, and military studies.

Mastering this duality in human nature is at the core of slow thinking research. Its most prominent proponent, former Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the only non-economist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, describes these contrary impulses in his 2011 book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Most of the time, Kahneman argues, people rely on swiftness — but it's actually the slowness that enables better decisions to be made. "How is it that people can get beyond the most salient impulse they first have?" is how Shane Frederick, a professor at Yale's School of Management and frequent Kahneman collaborator, puts it.

Slow thinking is nothing new to sports fans, thanks to Michael Lewis's 2003 bestseller, "Moneyball," which detailed how manager Billy Beane built the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics into a competitive team using data analytics. And after Beane's deliberate approach revolutionized baseball, researchers and reformers are optimistic that the same kind of results can be seen when the concept is applied to major social problems, such as chronic violence or the high dropout rates among high schoolers.


A new study from scholars at the University of Chicago, Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania found that slow thinking interventions for young men living in Chicago's most gang-ridden neighborhoods reduced their chances of becoming involved in crime and improved their school performance by up to 44 percent.


Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance's Becoming a Man program conducted two-thirds of the cognitive interventions observed in the study, as well as those that were statistically most effective.

The White House recently gave the city of Chicago $10 million in part to expand and study Becoming a Man, which serves about 2,000 students in nearly 40 public schools. The program, which launched in 2004, targets young males in grades 7 through 12 who have been flagged by teachers and counselors for doing poorly in school and being at risk from gangs.

The violence gripping the city is a problem that's ripe for radical rethinking: There have been more than 200 murders this year, and more than 1,269 shootings.

At Bronzeville Scholastic Institute High School on Chicago's South Side, Becoming a Man counselor Adeeb Odeh recently gave his students an end-of-the-year challenge to implement what they've learned from him over the past year. Since the beginning of the school year, they've rotated through various stations with timed exercises aimed at testing their focus and patience under pressure.

In one exercise, students stacked 36 plastic cups into a pyramid in three minutes. Those who succeeded kept a steady pace through to the last cup, while fear of time pressure led others to rush and see their pyramids collapse. Another exercise required students to take turns shooting free throws into a basketball hoop while other students actively discouraged them by screaming and holding signs reading "You can't shoot!" and "Boo!"


"It's like a metaphor for real life, where you have to concentrate through distractions," says Youth Guidance spokeswoman Jannie Kirby.

Anuj Shah, a professor at the University of Chicago, who coauthored the study on Becoming a Man, notes that the students in the program learn slow thinking by becoming aware of their reflexive impulses in highly variable situations.

"Very often, we get caught up in the moment," Shah said. "The core principle [of slow thinking] is we have automatic responses that dictate our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. If you can understand your thinking, you can understand how your thinking affects your behavior."

According to Shah, one trick to becoming aware of automatic tendencies, whether it's anger or rush to assumption, is to take a moment and imagine stepping outside the situation at hand. "Put the decision into context. Think about what a camera would see and what a neutral third party would see."

Doing homework, that is, reasoning step-by-step through a problem, Frederick says, is the essence of slow thinking. "It's amazing how quickly opinions tend to soften when there's data at hand," he says. "This is the perfect way of escaping your bias. Whatever your bias, it doesn't matter — put the numbers in and it effectively neuters any bias you may have."

Frederick is perhaps best known for creating the "Cognitive Reflection Test," a simple measure for whether a person solves a problem "quickly with little conscious deliberation" or through reflective, slow thinking. Kahneman includes the test in his book.


It has three questions:

1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ____cents

2) If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? ____minutes

3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? ____days

shutterstock/globe staff illustration

What makes these otherwise simple questions so tricky is that they are tailored to tempt human intuition with specific wrong answers. Of the 3,428 people Frederick surveyed in his study, 33 percent missed all three questions, and 83 percent missed at least one of the questions. Of the various universities from which Frederick collected data, MIT had the highest percentage of students to answer all the questions correctly — only 48 percent.

Frederick said respondents typically gave the following intuitive, but incorrect, answers: 1) 10 cents, 2) 100 minutes, and 3) 24 days. The correct answer to the first question is 5 cents. The correct answer to the second question is five minutes. The correct answer to the third problem is 47 days.

Frederick often shares this test at speaking engagements for companies interested in his research — and most people still give the intuitive-but-wrong answers. "Your intuition is not as good as you think it is," he said. "I think the test shakes the confidence, and that alone may get them to spend longer and to look at things in new ways."


The benefits of slow thinking are not universally accepted. In his 2005 book, "Blink," author Malcolm Gladwell argues the best decision-makers are not those who process the most, but those who make decisions quickly.

The ability to think swiftly is arguably necessary for many situations. (The Onion article "Slow-Thinking Bystander Weighing Pros and Cons of Pulling Man Out of River" summed up one critique nicely.)

Frederick counters that slow thinking is still useful in emergencies and will always be more important than speed, in that it provides a constant check on our ultimately fallible intuition. "Stop, drop, and roll," for one, is taught to children from a young age to train them in fire safety, but these specific steps are not necessarily intuitive. CPR is also not really intuitive and requires reasoning.

Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor who also studies cognition, suggests Gladwell and slow thinking supporters could both be right. He believes fast and slow are equally beneficial and flawed, calling them "not discrete and hierarchical, but reciprocal and integrated."

But Kahan does differ with Frederick on whether bias can be fully eliminated through slow thinking — or any method. "Our biases are almost never open to observation," Kahan said. "You can be patient but still biased."

Kahan goes as far to argue that, in certain instances, thinking longer and harder can only serve to reinforce one's biases. The danger is when people can't identify what's the product of slow thinking and what's the product of fast. As Kahan put it, "People never miss evidence on their side."

Nonetheless, slow thinking is slowly spreading. Dan Lovallo, a professor at the University of Sydney and senior research fellow at the University of California Berkeley, recently used his own research to make the case in a McKinsey Quarterly report that business leaders and investors will be more successful if they think slowly and strategically, deferring to analytics and business models to overcome human biases that are "hard-wired and resistant to feedback." Biases use "associative reasoning rather than logical reasoning," Lovallo said in an e-mail. "The single best way to overcome biases is to form a reference class of similar situations. This both changes the conversation and can be used to forecast."

Slow thinking has also found its way into military MBA programs, which employ Frederick's Cognitive Reflection Test in their curriculum. A review by the Central Intelligence Agency on the organization's website calls Kahneman's book a "must read" for intelligence officers.

For now, the students at Bronzeville Scholastic in Chicago are learning to apply slow thinking for more immediate, less complex scenarios, like staying out of fights. At the end-of-the-year challenge, students had to recall their training on "warrior energy and savage energy," counselor Adeeb Odeh explained — the former being the wise, controlled energy of a slow thinker, the latter being the automatic, reactive energy of a fast thinker.

Odeh has watched this idea transform his students' behavior over the course of the school year: "I've seen students in the program in the hallway pulling their fellow students away from the start of a fight, just repeating and reminding them, 'Warrior energy, warrior energy.' "

Tara Kadioglu is a Chicago-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter @TheTaraK.



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