Monday, March 25, 2019



One of my favorite reads of the last several years, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, documents why our reasoning faculties – which should be protecting us from making bad choices based on emotion or instinct – contain flaws that make them the source of many human errors.

The book title refers to a model developed by Kahneman and his fellow researcher Amos Tversky (both Israelis, BTW) in the 1960s that posited a human mind driven by two processes: one fast, one slow.

The slow process is effortful and gets turned on when we engage in deep contemplation or perform other activities requiring heavy cognitive work (such as solving a mathematical problem, or writing something – like this blog entry).  In contrast, our fast process takes in information from our senses and processes it very rapidly, taking charge of everyday activities like driving a car, or listening to or reading something (again, like this blog entry) spoken or written in a language you already understand.

Because our slow process is rather lazy, it tends to defer to the fast process to do as much work as possible.  This makes sense, given the sheer amount of thinking/processing that must take place to get through a single day.  But deferring to a fast process to make sense of the world comes at a cost. 

For example, the fast process performs its sense-making role by looking for patterns and then fitting those patterns into a storyline, one which takes a lot of deliberate (i.e., slow process) work to unlearn.  In many cases, this is not a bad thing.  Unlearning that a loud noise signals danger, for example, might not be such a wise idea (which may explain the evolutionary benefit – and thus origin – of this fast-process/slow process duality).

But flaws in our reasoning, notably the many biases to which all human beings are vulnerable, are a side-product of this brain structure with considerable downside.  For example, Confirmation Bias which leads us to believe information that confirms existing beliefs and reject information that does not, is just one of many cognitive biases that result from letting our fast process take the first cut at story formation.

You see this theory play out in the context of politics all the time.  For what are candidates for office doing when they try to “define” themselves and their opponents if not creating narratives they hope will get taken up by the story-loving fast process of a majority of voters?  Even those endless rows of lawn signs bearing only a candidate’s name (no policy positions, no slogans) can be seen as a means to embed that name into the non-deliberative component of a voter’s brain, hoping it will be top of mind when a majority of them walk into voting booths.

The BDS propaganda campaign is doing something similar with its endless repeating of their beloved “Israel = Apartheid” equation, regardless of how many times that and all their other accusations have been debunked.  Given that many of the constituencies they address (like college students) were not even born during the era when Apartheid South Africa stood, the BDSer’s hope is that their mantra will result in those who know nothing about either Israel or Apartheid will build a fast-process connection before any slow-process cognition (i.e., thought) can interfere.

The narratives the BDSers spin for themselves offer an even clearer set of examples of cognitive biases at work.  That’s because many of the manipulative techniques used by Israel-haters (and hyper-partisans of all stripes) are targeted not at opponents but supporters.

Spending a little time on the #BDS Twitter feed (or do some lurking on BDS sites like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada, if you can stomach it) to see what I mean.

When the BDSers score a win with a student government vote (like they did at Brown last week), that is portrayed as the latest example of their unstoppable momentum.  And when they are rejected (as they were by at Columbia the week before last) that simply shows that their eventual embrace by all is just a matter of time. 

When a handful of college professors (from a pool of tens of thousands) sign onto an academic boycott campaign, this news is treated as demonstrating wide acceptance of their position within academia.  But when hundreds of college presidents condemn such boycotts, suddenly the BDSers discover the concept of percentages, declaring that these hundreds represent just a fraction of every college president in the country (never mind that they’d be screaming from the rooftops if even one such president embraced their cause). 

As with many partisan political projects, the trick is to find an angle to fit any news (good or bad) into the storylines already established in the boycotters own heads (which they would like to insert into everyone else’s).  Thus news about financing of anti-BDS efforts is turned into a story about Sheldon Adelson (a Right-leaning macher who gets to play the role of bête noir in their narrative), ignoring the involvement of Left-leaning Israel supporters like Haim Saban in that same effort.  Yet when Hilary Clinton publically trashed the BDS “movement,” Saban is suddenly rediscovered but only to the play the role of pro-Israel moneybags pulling Hillary’s strings. 

“Look over there!” might be a proper label to slap onto a strategy that involves scouring any news story for an element – no matter how tiny or irrelevant – that might conform to the boycotters' view of the world, and then blowing up that detail and screaming that it must be considered the Alpha and Omega of the tale.  If you want to see what I mean, just check out how quickly Mondofada declares “case closed” whenever they can find a members of AIPAC or StandWithUs in the vicinity of a civic organization that has just told them to drop dead.

It’s easy to declare everyone involved in such efforts to be knowingly peddling falsehoods.  But that misses the point that the boycotters should be seen as both pushers and junkies for the dopey lies (or, better, fantasies) they are peddling. 

The BDS fantasist, after all, must continually build and reinforce their self-image as noble knights and warriors, the vanguard of a new world order, owners of the Left end of the political spectrum, battling dark forces that represent evil incarnate.  How can they continue to chant “Free Gaza” as Gaza descends into a murderous hell hole and the rest of the Middle East goes up in flames? Because the slow process that might have once had the power to revise the storyline making up their primary identity has atrophied from long disuse. 

All of us, by virtue of being human beings, routinely fall prey to Confirmation Bias and other frailties of reasoning. But under normal circumstances, competing aspects of our identity (represented by competing storylines in our own heads) allow us to occasionally engage Mr. Slow Process to impose some reality onto our view of ourselves and the world. 

Failing that, we are also surrounded by other people who are likely to have other narratives floating around in their fast processes, creating a check on any one falsehood or fantasy dominating a group or society.  But what happens when large groups of people (perhaps an entire self-declared “movement”) have decided to not just stop using its slow process entirely, but surrounds themselves only with people who have performed a similar self-lobotomy?





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