Why Don’t People Listen to Your Reasoning?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Christian apologists try to convince other people that Christianity is true (all Christians are supposed to be doing this, by the way). We have excellent arguments and we have powerful evidence from philosophy, science, and history to support those arguments. That is why Christian apologetics is in a golden age. Yet, more often than not, these arguments fall on deaf ears. Why?

Meet Daniel Kahneman. He is a world-renowned, Nobel-prize-winning psychologist who wrote a book called Thinking Fast and Slow. The book argues that there are two systems operating in your mind: system 1 and system 2. Kahneman describes the two systems as follows:

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

Here are some of the activities attributed to system 1:

  • Detect that one object is more distant than another.
  • Orient to the source of a sudden sound.
  • Complete the phrase “bread and…”
  • Make a “disgust face” when shown a horrible picture.
  • Detect hostility in a voice.
  • Answer to 2 + 2 = ?
  • Read words on large billboards.
  • Drive a car on an empty road.
  • Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master).
  • Understand simple sentences.
  • Recognize that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles an occupational stereotype.

Here are some activities attributed to system 2:

  • Brace for the starter gun in a race.
  • Focus attention on the clowns in the circus.
  • Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.
  • Look for a woman with white hair.
  • Search memory to identify a surprising sound.
  • Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you.
  • Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation.
  • Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text.
  • Tell someone your phone number.
  • Park in a narrow space (for most people except garage attendants).
  • Compare two washing machines for overall value.
  • Fill out a tax form.
  • Check the validity of a complex logical argument.

Before I proceed, I want to point out that most apologists are trying to interact with system 2 and not system 1. All of our arguments generally require the person we are communicating with to activate their system 2.

So what’s the problem? System 2 requires effort and system 1 does not. More specifically, Kahneman notes that “it is now a well-established proposition that both self-control and cognitive effort are forms of mental work.”

Kahneman cites the work of Roy Baumeister and his team:

The most surprising discovery made by Baumeister’s group shows, as he puts it, that the idea of mental energy is more than a mere metaphor. The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose. When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops. The effect is analogous to a runner who draws down glucose stored in her muscles during a sprint.

Listening to and trying to understand an argument that is new to you requires significant self-control and cognitive effort. This effort actually depletes your energy. It actually makes you tired.

Here is a big takeaway: human beings will tend to use system 1 whenever we possibly can in order to avoid mental effort. We use system 2 far less than we’d like to believe. Kahneman describes this in the following way:

A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Big deal. I already know that thinking is hard and people are lazy.” But there is so much more to the interplay of system 1 and system 2. Kahneman spends the next 38 chapters in the book detailing experimental research into their interaction.

He looks into what happens when a person is confronted with new concepts, when they are asked to make quick decisions about topics with which they aren’t familiar. He also digs into the kinds of decisions system 1 is actually good at making, which is important since system 1 is the mind’s default way of thinking.

I hope you can see why a Christian apologist would want to gain an understanding of these concepts. Kahneman’s research (and the research of other behavioral economists and psychologists) is providing us with a bountiful set of new concepts and data that can help us make our case. We want non-believers to know the truth, and that is what this research can help us do.

  • nfq

    So, are you advocating that Christian apologists use an approach that appeals *more* to base emotions, visceral responses, etc. and requires less cerebral engagement with logical arguments?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Currently reading this myself. It’s an excellent book.

  • No. What would possibly give you that idea?

  • It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. Lots of stuff to think about.

  • nfq

    I’m sorry to have misunderstood. Your title was “Why don’t people listen to your reasoning?” and the content of this post seemed to say that the answer to that question is, because people are more inclined towards thinking in “system 1” than “system 2.” “System 1” seems to have more instinctive/emotional responses and “system 2” involves more mental focus and complex reasoning. So, I inferred that the idea was, if you want people to listen to your apologetics, you should engage them with system 1 instead of system 2.

  • The point of the post was to introduce people to the concept of System 1 and System 2. The post that I published today starts to look at the implications of these 2 systems.

    I am definitely not advocating that apologists appeal only to System 1. What I am advocating is that apologists be forewarned that the reactions they get from their arguments will often be from System 1, and not System 2. It takes a while to get people over their biases, memories, and associations so that they will actually listen to what you have to say.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Yes, that’s what I got from the article. It seemed pretty clear what you meant. The more anyone understands how other people think, the better it is for mutual understanding.