On Knowing

This post is part of the continuing “On” series: others include On OwnershipOn CapitalismOn FreedomOn Constitutionalism and On Privilege.

Once, while working at a military medical clinic, I noticed that all of the doctors, and none of the medics, were runners. While almost everyone knows that cardiovascular exercise is the most effective single thing a person can do for their health, some people, (the doctors in this case) really know it. This type of knowing could explain why some people act on knowledge and others do not. The difference in the depth of their levels of knowledge may explain why one group, the doctors, act on their knowledge, and the other, the medics, did not.

Daniel Kahnemanʻs book Thinking Fast and Slow makes that case that there are two kinds of thinking, which he pedantically terms “system 1” (the fast one) and “system 2” (the slow one). In the New York Times review of the book, Jim Holt describes system 1 as using metaphor and available data (which may or may not be relevant) to create “a quick and dirty draft of reality.” In contrast:

System 2, in Kahneman’s scheme, is our slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world. System 1, by contrast, is our fast, automatic, intuitive and largely unconscious mode. It is System 1 that detects hostility in a voice and effortlessly completes the phrase “bread and. . . . ” It is System 2 that swings into action when we have to fill out a tax form or park a car in a narrow space. (As Kahneman and others have found, there is an easy way to tell how engaged a person’s System 2 is during a task: just look into his or her eyes and note how dilated the pupils are.)

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So this post could be called “Knowing, Shallow and Deep,” or “Knowing, Profound and Superficial.” One sure sign, in my experience, that people have a shallow understanding when youʻve explained something is that they say “Got it.” This is not to say that slow knowing is always better. As Malcolm Gladwell famously pointed out, decisions on topics about which a person has a wealth of experience can be made in the Blink of an eye – and be as sound or better than drawn-out ponderous decisions.

While knowledge is often denigrated at the expense of action, this is where knowledge and action intersect. It creates what the nonprofit (my former employer) Political Research Associates called “informed action.” When I want to really understand something (like a language) to the point at which it affects my behavior, I will read or listen to it multiple times, up to a hundred times. (I have no shortage of time in my daily commute!) Literature on leadership tends to argue that effective leaders make decisions quickly while “losers” make them slowly, but books like Quiet, about the benefits of introversion support Kahnemanʻs findings on introspection. So it seems the answer, as usual, depends on the context.

 

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Filed under academia, Education, intellect

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