Why Do We Answer Questions We Weren’t Asked?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, has introduced us to the two processes going on inside our minds: System 1 and System 2. We’ve already looked at the fact that System 1 kicks in first when we are approached by a situation with which we aren’t familiar. System 1 has lots of shortcuts it likes to take instead of dealing completely rationally and thoughtfully with what is being presented (that’s System 2’s job, after all).

One of these shortcuts is that System 1, instead of answering the question that is being posed, will substitute an easier question and answer that instead. Kahneman explains:

The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it. Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.

How can this be? How can we have answers ready for everything that comes our way, without even giving the questions much thought?

I propose a simple account of how we generate intuitive opinions on complex matters. If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution. I also adopt the following terms:

The target question is the assessment you intend to produce.

The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answer instead.

The technical definition of heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.

Kahneman is arguing that when we are presented with a complex or abstract question, instead of slowly thinking about it, our minds immediately offer up a solution by answering a simpler and different version of the question. The table below gives some examples.

Target Question Heuristic Question
How much would you contribute to save an endangered species? How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?
How happy are you with your life these days? What is my mood right now?
How popular is the president right now? How popular will the president be six months from now?
How should financial advisers who prey on the elderly be punished? How much anger do I feel when I think of financial predators?
This woman is running for the primary. How far will she go in politics? Does this woman look like a political winner?

Kahneman points out that

System 2 has the opportunity to reject this intuitive answer, or to modify it by incorporating other information. However, a lazy System 2 often follows the path of least effort and endorses a heuristic answer without much scrutiny of whether it is truly appropriate. You will not be stumped, you will not have to work very hard, and you may not even notice that you did not answer the question you were asked. Furthermore, you may not realize that the target question was difficult, because an intuitive answer to it came readily to mind.

As a Christian sharing the gospel and sharing evidences and arguments that  show Christianity is true, I have to be aware that substitution is going on. Here is another table that illustrates what I’m talking about.

Target Question Heuristic Question
Do you believe Christianity is true? Do I like the Christians I know?
Are you convicted by your sins? Am I basically a good person?
What do you think of the historical evidence of the resurrection? Do I think that miracles can ever occur?
Would you consider following Christ? Do I want to be associated with the Christians I know?

It sometimes takes great effort to convince your friend to actually answer the questions you’re posing to him. Be aware of what is going on and keep bringing your friend back to the real question, not the question he simply substitutes because it’s easier for him to answer.

  • sean

    I think this is a great post. I often have trouble noticing when others do this to me (and though I like to think myself innocent, I know that because I don’t notice it in others I probably miss it in my own answers) and I appreciate you bringing up this idea. Something interesting I note is that some questions seem engineered to get System 1 to respond a particular way, something we can see even in your examples, with preying on the elderly example. I cam upon the ideas of systems 1 and 2 in my own life experiences, but until now I’d never considered the idea that people look to exploit these systems, intentionally or not. I see it a lot in really zealous Christianity and in decrying faith (on the other side). I see a lot of issues with system one. Aside from ease and speed, are you aware that it has any advantages in coming to correct answers?

  • Insightful. Thanks for linking a practical apologetic application for this theory.

  • System 1 does a lot things really well, and in fact we would likely get injured or die pretty quickly without System 1 looking out for us. The problem comes when we rely on System 1 to do things it just wasn’t meant to do.

    The book goes into System 1 in detail, but one thing I remember that System 1 does well is pattern recognition. If you see something or do something over and over again, System 1 will internalize that and make you able to do it faster and faster without thinking.

    For example, I can spot logical fallacies a lot quicker than I used to, just because of all the practice I’ve had. I certainly don’t spot all of them, but many more than I used to, and I think this is due to System 1.

  • Some people absolutely know how to take advantage of System 1 and do it all the time. Think used car salesmen, or people who call you on the phone and ask for money, or advertisers, or politicians.

    One purpose of Kahneman’s book is to warn the rest of us how we’re being taken advantage of.

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