How Do We React When We Encounter Something New? (Not Rationally)

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Have you ever noticed the reactions you get when you present a new concept to someone, a new argument, a new piece of unexpected data? Unless the person with whom you are speaking is already familiar with what you are saying, you often get some kind of emotional or irrational response that indicates the person is not really getting what you’re saying.

Why is this? I see this happen in-person and on-line all the time. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains what happens in these circumstances in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. The first responder to our environment is our System 1 (see previous blog post to see explanation of System 1 and System 2). So what does System 1 do?

Kahneman gives an example of a typical System 1 reaction by presenting the reader with the following words side by side: bananas vomit. Take a minute and note your reaction to those words. Then read on.

The events that took place as a result of your seeing the words happened by a process called associative activation: ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain. The essential feature of this complex set of mental events is its coherence.

Each element is connected, and each supports and strengthens the others. The word evokes memories, which evoke emotions, which in turn evoke facial expressions and other reactions, such as a general tensing up and an avoidance tendency. The facial expression and the avoidance motion intensify the feelings to which they are linked, and the feelings in turn reinforce compatible ideas. All this happens quickly and all at once, yielding a self-reinforcing pattern of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses that is both diverse and integrated— it has been called associatively coherent.

Kahneman continues:

In a second or so you accomplished, automatically and unconsciously, a remarkable feat. Starting from a completely unexpected event, your System 1 made as much sense as possible of the situation— two simple words, oddly juxtaposed— by linking the words in a causal story; it evaluated the possible threat (mild to moderate) and created a context for future developments by preparing you for events that had just become more likely; it also created a context for the current event by evaluating how surprising it was. . . .

An odd feature of what happened is that your System 1 treated the mere conjunction of two words as representations of reality. Your body reacted in an attenuated replica of a reaction to the real thing, and the emotional response and physical recoil were part of the interpretation of the event. As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain. The mechanism that causes these mental events has been known for a long time: it is the association of ideas.

Kahneman then explains what he means by “ideas” in the mind. An idea can be

concrete or abstract, and it can be expressed in many ways: as a verb, as a noun, as an adjective, or as a clenched fist. Psychologists think of ideas as nodes in a vast network, called associative memory, in which each idea is linked to many others. There are different types of links: causes are linked to their effects (virus → cold); things to their properties (lime → green); things to the categories to which they belong (banana → fruit).

Psychologists and philosophers used to believe that ideas followed one after another in your mind, chronologically. Kahneman says that this view no longer holds:

In the current view of how associative memory works, a great deal happens at once. An idea that has been activated does not merely evoke one other idea. It activates many ideas, which in turn activate others. Furthermore, only a few of the activated ideas will register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent, hidden from our conscious selves. The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.

Whenever a person is confronted with new data, System 1 takes over and delivers the first response. This response is largely unconscious and automatic, and it is based on all of the ideas in your mind that are unconsciously associated with the new data you’ve just been presented. Thus the strange reactions we often get when we present new ideas to someone.

At first, they are not able to think completely rationally and carefully about what you’re saying. They are just reacting based on their life experiences. Kahneman is not saying that we can never think clearly and rationally. System 2 can be brought to bear on any situation, but until it is, you are having to deal with a whole list of associations in the other person of which you are completely ignorant (unless you know that person really well).

  • charles ware

    Early in my career as an engineer, I read a book called What is Total Quality Control? The Japanese Way by the late Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa. In it he said that if you present an idea to your boss, there is a 99.9% probability that the answer will be “no”. I have found this to be true, but I have often wondered why? It seems as though people have a world view of how things are supposed to work. When confronted with anything that contradicts this world view, it is far too easy to come up with an excuse to dismiss it: some sort of rationalization.