Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thinking fast and thinking slow

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writing in the New York Times on the evolutionary origins of religion:
To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form. A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow. The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained
I was thinking along these lines last week when I was reading Cheryl Strayed's Lost, a first-person account of an attractive young woman's three-month solo hike along California and Oregon's Pacific Crest Trail. It is a woman's book. Not in the sense that it is romantic or soft or sentimental. It is, in fact, tough, brave and unsentimental, tougher and braver than I could ever be. It's a woman's book because only a woman could have written it. And, I suspect, only a woman can appreciate it fully.

But any man who reads the book will profit, by being forced to reflect upon his maleness.

As you might expect, it is mostly males that Strayed encountered along the trail. A few were harmless horndogs. Two were sexually-aggressive louts. Most related to Strayed with helpful kindliness and respect.

Sinners and saints. Egotists and altruists. There is probably some of both in all of us, to one degree or another. Strayed encountered guys who think fast and guys who think slow, and by and large it was slow-thinking men who made it possible for this young woman to safely complete her journey. Of course, it is slow-thinkers who are most likely to put themselves through the ordeal of long-distance hiking. The two potential rapists Strayed met on the trail were hunters, not hikers.