Thinking Fast and Hard

Cross-posted from Pu­tanu­monit.

Note: Yes, I know about Worm. No, I haven’t read past the first quar­ter or so.


A cool su­per­power to have would be the abil­ity to slow sub­jec­tive time and get a lot of think­ing done.

In ev­ery su­per­hero movie, no mat­ter how fast the pro­tag­o­nists fly or how hard they punch, they always end up within one step of dis­aster be­cause their plan­ning skills are dogshit. The villain loses not be­cause he can’t punch as hard, but be­cause of stead­fast re­fusal to think things through. Out­side of some genre fic­tion, it’s very rare to see a villain that de­serves the ep­i­thet schem­ing.

Also, the hero wins be­cause he’s hand­some. When ev­ery­one is fly­ing by in­tu­ition, look­ism wins the day.

The scariest comic su­pervillain would be named Mur­phyjitsu. Her su­per­power would be the abil­ity to go through the fol­low­ing check­list:

  1. Do I have a plan?

  2. Imag­ine that my plan failed. Am I ut­terly shocked?

  3. If not, what is the most likely failure mode? How do I pre­vent it?

  4. If I’ve iter­ated enough that the plan seems very likely to work, re­mem­ber to no­tice any con­fus­ing and un­ex­pected ev­i­dence that might cause me to re­think it.

Mur­phyjitsu would spend her for­ma­tive years on the harsh streets of Distopo­lis, build­ing a burn­ing re­sent­ment for hu­man­ity and prac­tic­ing cal­ibra­tion by track­ing the suc­cess rate of all her pre­dic­tions and plots.

Sarah Con­stantin notes that de­liber­ate and effort­ful think­ing (aka Sys­tem 2) is as mys­te­ri­ous as it is pow­er­ful. We un­der­es­ti­mate its power only be­cause of how rarely it is used. We un­der­es­ti­mate its mys­te­ri­ous­ness only be­cause it takes de­liber­ate effort to no­tice how lit­tle we un­der­stand it.

Sys­tem 2 is a scarce re­source, a sort of su­per­power of the hu­man mind that it only breaks out in emer­gen­cies. The Global Workspace model of con­scious­ness posits that the brain con­tains a mul­ti­tude of mod­ules each do­ing its own pro­cess­ing while com­pet­ing for the spotlight of con­scious at­ten­tion. My hy­poth­e­sis is that a main func­tion of con­scious­ness is to al­lo­cate Sys­tem 2 re­sources to sub­pro­cesses that need it.

Un­ex­pected stim­uli grab your at­ten­tion, to check whether deal­ing with them re­quires any think­ing. For ex­am­ple, we are perfectly ca­pa­ble of han­dling any num­ber of strangers with un­con­scious Sys­tem 1 pro­cess­ing, as can be demon­strated by a stroll through a busy city. But when a stranger walks into a room we perk up – even though we de­ter­mined many things about them in­stinc­tu­ally (size, gen­der, mood, whether they’re a threat or not…) deal­ing with some­one in close quar­ters may call for a more de­tailed plan.

The best part of hav­ing the su­per­power of (ob­jec­tively) fast and (sub­jec­tively) sus­tained de­liber­ate think­ing is that it’s com­pletely se­cret. No need for capes and masks and se­cret iden­tities. From the out­side, it would just look like I’m a rea­son­able and suc­cess­ful per­son, per­haps a lucky one. I would make great jokes, perfectly worded. I would have great opinions, perfectly an­ti­ci­pat­ing all ob­jec­tions. A few dis­cern­ing minds may be­gin to sus­pect: The con­ver­sa­tion shifted to this topic just two min­utes ago, how did he already come up with 5 great takes? Iron­i­cally, ev­ery­one would chalk my su­per­power up to amaz­ing in­tu­ition.

Writ­ing is the clos­est I get to fulfilling this fan­tasy. You are read­ing this para­graph mere sec­onds af­ter the last one, but you’ll never know how long it took me to come up with it. Did I write in flow, typ­ing at the speed of thought? Did I cross it out and re­work it over the course of hours or days? I of­ten feel dis­ap­pointed when talk­ing to writ­ers I ad­mire, their out­put at the live speed of con­ver­sa­tion is in­evitably less im­pres­sive than what they pro­duce by sus­tained effort.

Think­ing fast and hard beats shoot­ing lasers from your eyes or spi­der­webs from your butt. If you don’t think so, you haven’t thought hard enough about it.