Fast vs Slow Thinking: Emphasis on the Latter Makes All the Difference

Imagine driving along a scenic ocean highway or through snow-capped mountains on easy-to- navigate, well-paved, light-traffic roads. This can be a most relaxing experience – something enjoyed without a lot of “heavy” thinking.

Conversely, you could be in the same car during rush hour, on a busy road, with traffic lights stopping you at every block. Perhaps there are numerous potholes to avoid, and heavy sleet and rain making it difficult to see. Cars are entering and exiting every moment, with impatient drivers shifting lanes, in a congested, urban area such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington D.C. The intense, concentrated thinking this type of driving requires is exhausting and stressful.

These two ways of thinking are the subject of Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In his book, he talks about two systems.

There’s fast thinking (System 1), which is what we use in fight-or-flight situations as well as in our everyday actions involving quick, automatic, more effortful thinking. We use fast thinking the majority of the time, though in its rush to ignore doubt and resist ambiguity it’s stereotypic, emotional, and can lead us to incorrect conclusions.

Then there’s slow thinking (System 2), which handles more complex issues. While System 1 is fast, intuitive and emotional, System 2 is slower, more deliberative, more logical. But slow thinking burns a lot more calories. It’s so much easier to think “fast and furious,” which is why we’re wired to do most things quickly. Slow thinking requires logic, calculation, and much more thoroughness. Thus it takes a lot more effort and requires us to consciously shift into it.

The great reward of slow thinking? We guard against mental glitches that often get us into serious trouble.

We see these two ways of thinking in a lot of areas when it comes to our finances.

Fast thinking, according to Kahneman, doesn’t permit doubt. This may, in some way, explain why 44% of people in a 1,200-person survey felt they were extremely or very financially literate – but only 6% of them scored an A when they took a financial literacy test. On the face of it, that’s pretty surprising, though when you think about it, we routinely think we’re better at things than we really are. Perfect example: Do you watch “American Idol?” There’s a lot of talent on that show, but frankly some vocal participants should perhaps reserve their singing voices for the shower. Still, they thought themselves good enough to perform in front of millions of people. Our awareness of our abilities is not always accurate. In fact, sometimes it’s wildly inaccurate.

So we may think we have a good sense of our finances, but perhaps haven’t given them the careful, constructive thought they deserve while on our daily fast-thinking treadmill. Slow thinking is imperative to attain financial self-awareness – the other side of the financial literacy coin.

“We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness”

– Daniel Kahneman

Financial self-awareness measures how well you understand your financial situation. There’s no shortcut to attaining it, as it requires reflection and examining your spending habits, delving into the structure of your assets and allocation plan, understanding your liabilities, and questioning whether you need to make changes.

Reflecting, examining, delving, understanding, questioning – none is a fast-thinking action. Perhaps just mentioning these words makes you squirm. But this is where the idea that “anything worth doing is worth doing well” comes in.

We all know that a shortcut isn’t always a shortcut. Our fast thinking may seem like it’s saving us time, but it can lead to problems and surprises down the road. Fast thinking tells us “We’ve got this! No need to think about it!” — but it’s focused on the short term, not considering what lies ahead. In some cases, that works. In others, it’s disastrous.  The saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” But fast thinking doesn’t consider the details.

So, while mental shortcuts may be great for avoiding traffic congestion, speeding up a tedious manual process, or playing Candyland with your child or grandchild – oh yes! the instant excitement when they draw a cinnamon bun shortcut card! – they’re not great for something as critical as your finances.

Slow thinking reigns supreme when it comes to your money. And guess what! It’s not only in the self- awareness and literacy realms where it’s important. You need slow thinking to actually enjoy your money!

Even if you’ve off-loaded your financial management, you still need to think about how you’re integrating money into your life.

Perhaps you have a nice estate, yet you’re well aware that you need to be prudent about growing your estate appropriately for sustainability. You also want to take the time to enjoy life and be genuinely happy. You’ve worked hard to get where you are — you deserve to be able to appreciate it. In order to do so, you have to be present and you need to continue to build and maintain relationships with those around you.

We know the old adage that “money can’t buy happiness.” It’s true, but we do have the ability to control our levels of happiness. Slow thinking not only helps us stay present and build our relationships, but it also reminds and encourages us to be grateful. By taking the time to acknowledge the good we have in our lives, and moments of joy we gain valuable insight and perspective. By slowing down to do this, our levels of happiness increase.

You can use slow thinking to get in sync with your money, be grateful for your wealth, and find greater harmony in life.

I know this may be easier said than done – especially in today’s world where we’re surrounded by smart devices constantly pushing us toward a fast-thinking way of life. We skim headlines on our phones and read fewer newspapers. We click “like” on a friend’s photo, but rarely pick up a pen to handwrite a letter. We text everyone and make fewer phone calls.

We’re more efficient, but actually less in touch with each other, even as we’re surrounded by social media and global news stories.

Our brains, already wired for fast thinking, experience increasingly shortened attention spans. We’re in a constant fast-thinking mode, and we feel unable to slow down. The result? Slow thinking is harder and harder to achieve.

But that effort is so worth it! Slow thinking brings calmness and clarity. Think about that pile of junk mail and clutter sitting somewhere in your house. Fast thinking created that pile – you didn’t want to deal with it at the time, so you set it aside. Now that pile has grown and is an eyesore, and you’ve got a nagging feeling there might be something important in there. But you’ve been avoiding it because it’s going to take time to sort through.

Well, today’s the day. You set some time aside – certain to be less than your mind built it up to be – and you open all the envelopes and decide what to keep, what to toss, what needs to be addressed. Now that pile is gone! Maybe you even take a few extra minutes to remove your name from mailing lists, helping you avoid more junk mail in the future. Now everything looks neater; you’ve reduced the work you’ll have to do in the future. You actually feel better!

Calmness and clarity —it’s something we’d all like more of in our lives. There’s something to be said for turning on your slow brain, tuning into the world around you, and dropping out of the digital age from time to time.

To do this, we first need to turn off our smart devices, stop relying on Alexa for every little thing, quit checking our phones every 10 minutes, and start recognizing what all this technology is doing to our brains. We’ve formed unhealthy habits.  We’ve trained our brains to be distracted. Our brains are being rewired to function in a frenetic, haphazard manner because we’ve fed them junk food. We’ve become too addicted to our smart devices.  We’re  now stuck in fast thinking and can’t easily shift to slow thinking.

What to do?

Well, just like any bad diet, the answer is to replace junk food with health food. Take some time to meditate, go for a walk, write in a journal, enjoy a hobby, or just sit and talk with someone. It’s amazing what you can gain from changing your routine, slowing down, and telling your mind to stop moving a million miles an hour.

In his 2019 book “The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes,” British science writer David Robson examined the flawed mental habits of people with “greater intelligence, education and professional expertise” — and how they can learn to “think more wisely.” Among his solid tips: Slow down! Listen to your inner self, reflect on past mistakes, don’t rush to judgment, and seek evidence and advice. The idea is to foster humility, open- mindedness and emotional balance, all of which “take control of the mind’s powerful thinking engine.”

“Aesop’s Fables” would have us believe that in a culture full of hares, the tortoises always win. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Well, hold that thought. I’ll come back to racing fables in a moment.

In our offices at Coyle, we see the benefits of slow thinking play out daily. When we meet with our clients, we always type up an agenda to follow, but we start our meetings asking “How’s life?” or “What’s going on in your life right now?” Yes, we’re there to talk about their money, but first we want to know about those very important issues involved with where they’ve been, where they are right now, and where they’re going.

This sometimes leads the conversation along a quite different path than what’s on the agenda. That’s not only okay, but frequently becomes the most important conversation we could have with them.

You see, several times a year, clients answer our questions by bringing up issues that have been bothering them: sometimes about family relationships, other times an estate problem, or perhaps some issue revealing how they think about money. Oftentimes, these are things they’ve struggled with for years, but never got clarity on.  We’ll have a conversation, later realizing an hour has gone by where we’ve done a lot of slow thinking. They will say, “This was the best meeting!” – and we’ll point out that we never even discussed the specifics of their money, nor any of the agenda items.

What’s happened is, a huge weight has been lifted off their shoulders. They finally have the clarity and calmness to move forward and make the best decisions about their finances. No amount of internet surfing, questioning Alexa, or reading Facebook headlines could have combined to reach that result.

Decades ago, when Kevin Coyle and I were being mentored by Ed, Kevin’s Dad, Ed periodically would say to me: “Gary, slow down to speed up.”  As a young 30-something, it didn’t quite resonate with me.

It does now.

Slow down to speed up…..it’s good for body, mind and soul.

Now, a final word about Aesop’s hares and tortoises. Whether tackling one’s daily tasks or addressing one’s finances, modern life comes at us full throttle. Speed is often unavoidable. Which, in turn, magnifies the need for slow, wise, evidence-based thinking.

And that, in turn, requires a more ironic awareness that modern life doesn’t always track nicely with tortoise-and-hare-fable outcomes, that surprises still occur, and that life’s wisest journey requires constant vigilance and thoughtful anticipation to stay prepared for the unforeseen.

A father was telling his son a bedtime story. “Once upon a time, there was a tortoise and a hare. The hare bragged that he was the fastest of all creatures. The tortoise challenged the hare to a race. The hare ran as fast as he could….”

“Sorry, Dad, but I’ve heard this story. The hare later naps and the tortoise passes him.”

“Oh no, the hare crossed the finish line first.” “What?”

“Sure. You don’t think the hare was stupid enough to rest in the middle of a race, do you?”

“So the moral is, be as swift as the hare.”

“No, because then an eagle went after the hare. Because the hare was tired from the race, it was easily caught.”

“What?”

“Yes, so the tortoise relaxed, as the hare’s swaggering had ended.”

“So the real moral is, be as slow as the tortoise?”

“No, because the eagle saw him relax, swooped back and caught him, too.”

“What?”

“Yes. Now, what’s the final moral here?” “    Be the eagle?

“Exactly. Good night!”

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