System 1 vs System 2
In his book “Thinking, Fast & Slow”, Daniel Kahneman proposes two systems to describe mind processes. In his own words, System 1 is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach. System 2 refers to the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates. But the first often dictates the second.
I’ll focus on the aspects of System 1 that come from our evolved nature, rather than from learning and experience. Being part of System 1, the brain operations related to these aspects aren’t deliberate and conscious. They could be considered no more than a mere set of “blind” algorithms or programmed biases. But it doesn’t follow that they’re ineffective or irrational (even though their logic may often elude us), or questionable because the brain executes them “without consulting with us”. This set of biases is, on the contrary, an incredibly sophisticated and complex program that we could equate with intelligence — perhaps stretching a little the common concept we have of it, which seems to exclude automatic mental processes.
The ultimate goal of our evolved brain program is simply to ensure our survival and reproduction (the more surviving children, the better). Many facets of how this goal is accomplished are not obvious to us, so we are not aware of them and they do not coincide with our conscious motivations. As a result, we often fail to appreciate the hidden logic behind many of our actions. For example, we may concoct supposedly rational explanations as to why we adhere to a given doctrine or stick with a certain group, while possibly the only reason — invisible to us — is that such behavior has tended to serve rather well the propagation of the genes that may thus predispose us.
Let’s consider car-buying: if we keep in mind natural selection’s primary goal, there can be far more to it than, say, our bank account and fuel efficiency (which would typically be the concern of System 2). For a young male, for example, it may make perfect evolutionary sense to spend on a fancy model way more than he can reasonably afford, if by doing so he’s likely to improve his prospects of attracting highly desirable mates (of course he’s not thinking of the propagation of his genes when he gets excited about the car — although in this particular case there may be some alignment between his conscious thinking and his less conscious predispositions, if he happens to consider how cool he’ll appear in it to the opposite sex).