Thinking Fast and Hard

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.

9 thoughts on “Thinking Fast and Hard

    1. I legitimately came to comment section to suggest Worm. The universe splits heroes into types, and by far the most terrifying are the Thinkers.

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      1. Thinkers in general are relevant, and in particular I believe there actually is a superhero who has the explicit ability to slow down time and think things through, in the sequel if not in the original. More generally, I think Worm is relevant because the protagonist, not to go into too many spoilers, relies very much on System 2 thinking as a force multiplier for her otherwise not-top-tier superpower.

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      2. I love the Thinker fight scenes in Worm. Winning melees isn’t the most important application of those powers, but to me it’s the most dramatic demonstration.

        If I were going to write Worm fanfic, it would just be Coil brawling.

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  1. What do you mean by System 1 and System 2? As far as I’m aware there’s no evidence that humans have two separate mental systems for fast and slow thinking. Rather I believe that model became popular due to its veneer of being scientific as well as how it compellingly describes a distinction people are introspectively aware of between fast and slow thinking. However, this distinction does not correspond to two distinct mental systems nor even a bimodal separation but rather corresponds to two extremes in a continuum between slower and more careful thought compared to faster and less careful thought. I’m asking because this post leans heavily on this System 1/System 2 distinction and would make less sense if the distinction was more amorphous, and I would be glad to be convinced by you that the distinction is more real than I thought.

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    1. Even if the two modes of thinking were on a flat spectrum, being able to do more effortful thinking would be great. Wouldn’t you like to be able to run at top speed for as long as you wanted?

      With that said, there do seem to be quite important qualitative differences between the two modes. One is often unconscious, fast, doesn’t deal with hypotheticals and doesn’t require effort. The other is almost always conscious, slow, can “decouple” and consider hypothetical alternatives, and loads heavily on working memory. For a good review of the current science on the two, check out Keith Stanovich’s recent paper.

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    2. Thank you for the paper. It’s exactly the sort of substantive response I was hoping for. I’m not done reading it so I don’t want to respond its claims yet.

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