Scientism: Rationality vs Instinct

Dual-core thinking

This morning I had the pleasure of hearing Rory Sutherland deliver a talk on the subject of Influence, at the School of Life in Conway Hall. It was a fascinating lecture, not least for his description of Daniel Kahneman’s proposed ‘dual-core’ 2-system thinking (expounded in his book, ‘Thinking fast and slow‘). In contrast to the triune brain theory (a neuroanatomical model proposed back in the 1960s), Kahneman’s model focusses on our cognitive processes themselves, and suggests that we employ two different systems to make sense of the world. System 1 is fast, intuitive and automatic, and generally operates below the level of our conscious awareness. System 2 however is more analytical, deliberate, rational and slow, and is the mode that we engage in whilst reasoning about the world. Together, they form the backbone of our decision-making processes, and with greater knowledge about how each system works comes the ability to make better decisions.

Going quantum

Sutherland’s argument was that we’ve ostracised system 1 thinking (our intuition/instinct) to such an extent that we’re practically stumbling around in the dark, trying to quantify that which can’t be numerically expressed. Imagine for example your tube journey to work. With system 2 thinking (and a bit of prep), you could conceivably work out how many minutes you had to wait for your train, how many fellow commuters were on your carriage, and the average speed at which you were travelling from start to end. All well and good. But you’d find it a heck of a lot harder to quantify how irritating it was to be shoved up against the door giving the next guy an armpit-plant whilst listening to that tinny crap blaring from his headphones. Numbers can be numerically expressed. But Experience? You get my point.

An irrational appeal

In the West, our prevailing culture is one of rationalisation and scientism. Where once we worshipped Gods (and you can take your pick, here), we now glorify logic to such an extent that even our board meetings can’t run unless we’ve got an excel spreadsheet to hand. But here’s the catch: appealing to the rational mind doesn’t always work. And as we discover more about the brain and its complexities, we’re finding hints at why this might be. But until we reach a scientifically sound explanation for our more irrational, inexplicable thoughts and urges, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to convince anyone to close a deal simply because ‘it feels right’. For now, it seems, our best bet is just to act on our instincts and stick to post-rationalisation. After all, that’s what the directors of the best ad agencies have been doing for their creatives for years.

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Nathalie Nahai

Nathalie Nahai

Best-selling author of "Webs of Influence" (Pearson). International speaker, consultant, columnist at Marketing Week.
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