Thinking fast can be smart, like the time my riding mower got stuck on a log. I rocked back and forth stirring-up a yellow jackets nest under the cutting deck. As the rear tires spun, drones curved out like cruise missiles. I wish someone had clocked my 40-yard dash.
Thinking fast also can be foolish. My first evening in a college dorm I decided in just a few seconds that one of my hall mates and I would never get along. He became my roommate the next three years and a friend for life.
Are you in your right mind?
Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes our two brains. One is instinctive and emotional, and the other is more deliberative. If the first one sounds like the fight-or-flight stress response, then you are partly correct. Some thinking is just reactive. But according to Kahneman, we also construct ways to think fast.
For instance, we group people into camps—sheep or goats—especially in conflict. Twenty years ago I joined a church staff, unaware of their division. Soon after, much of the congregation divided over personal loyalties. People were upset and confused. Human beings don’t like moral ambiguity. Choosing a side was a way to find clarity. They were thinking fast.
Three words can make us more discerning. To think more slowly like that we must ask, “Help me understand?”
Help me understand what you value
About six months after the earthquake in Haiti, a team made plans to send a huge shipping crate of grain ahead of their visit. They reached out to consult a man who had been there many times. He hated their idea. He said, “That poor country doesn’t need any more of our wealthy good intentions.”
Most people on the team thought he was a heartless know-it-all. Three little words could have cleared it up. “Help me understand?” They would have discovered the value under his opinion. He knew the frustration of Haitian farmers with no market for their crops because so many good intentions flooded the market. He valued development, not just relief. We should look for the value under the opinion and take the conversation there.
Help me understand your authority
Now and then I hear someone say, “He always errs on the side of grace.” At first that just seems generous. But grace and truth must stick together. If truth is missing, then it’s not grace. It might only be indifference.
Some Christian leaders “err on the side of grace” when it comes to division. They just want everyone to get along and they become indifferent towards important issues that need their leadership. More importantly, that indifference might reflect a particular view of God. It’s a vague, impersonal view called Deism, as opposed to the personal God revealed in scripture. Some people like to keep God at a vague distance. It let’s each person be their own the authority, indifferent to a moral universe, or even logic.
Every opinion is based on some kind of authority. When you find yourself disagreeing with someone over an important issue, stay curious. Find the basis of their thinking. In the process, you may help someone discover what they really believe.
Help me understand your means
During the civil rights movement, MLK Jr. organized “sit-ins” at diners with signs on their doors reading, “Whites only.” The Jim Crow South needed to be confronted. MLK found a way to do it non-violently. In fact, he helped the country see a picture of a preferred future by the very means of their confrontation. The ends were clearly a part of the means. In other words, the goal of “a more perfect union” was evident in the very method of the message.
Manipulation. Misrepresentation. Win-lose arguments. When someone seems to be saying, “the ends justify the means,” it may be time to ask, “help me understand how the means can get us to that end?
Why are we thinking so fast?
Recently I read 100+ responses to the following question: “Describe our times in one word.” The dominant feeling was about division. Author David Brooks says much of our country is living under siege. Why? Our fast thinking (Are you a sheep or a goat?) reflects something called “contempt.”
John Gottman, marriage expert, knows a lot about contempt. He can predict with 90% accuracy whether a couple will be married six months later after meeting with them once. Mainly he looks for evidence of contempt. Contempt is when someone uses a legitimate complaint not only to injure (criticize) but also to shame.
In his Trinity Forum speech, Arthur Brooks explains how combining anger and disgust forms contempt. Disgust is a way to think fast about a harmful pathogen—about a thing. There are disgusting things about human behaviors and attitudes. But the combination with anger drives us to ignore the vital distinction between a person and a thing. That’s contempt. It motivates social media traffic day after day and cable news each night.
“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”― Daniel Kahneman
Contempt sells. That’s why reporting has been reduced to “Us vs. Them.” My human nature can’t be part of the problem. Only theirs. After that repeated suggestion again and again, you’d think every issue had only two places to stand. Wouldn’t it be refreshing in a debate to see someone ask his opponent, “I understand your opinion but what value does it defend, because we might agree about that part, even if we don’t agree about how to defend it?”
I think I’ll stop dreaming now and try it myself this week—once I swallow my pride.