The Worth of a Referendum  – Slow and Fast Thinking.
Posted on January 2nd, 2017

R Chandrasoma

The Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Kahneman has identified two kinds of thinking as basic to knowledge-acquisition and decision-making – the Slow and tthe Fast.  Slow thinking is rational and tortuous – it involves cognitive operations that depend on a close survey of facts and logic that is  not easy to come by.

In contrast fast thinking is quick and instinctive and is the preferred option in most instances of decision-making. Thus, if an ordinary citizen is asked if he favours the reintroduction of Capital Punishment as a deterrant to heinous crimes that are supposedly on the rise in modern liberal societies, he is – very likely – to give fulsome support for such a measure. He is in the ‘Fast Thinking Mode’ where reflective analysis of the relevant facts is overwhelmed by drives and instincts that seem ineluctable. According to Kahneman much of our decision-making – even on important issues – is of this kind.

We are impulsive and quick in decision-making as the necessary bequethat of our animal past – where quick decisions must be made under conditions of rank uncertainty if a life is to be saved.

Consider a very different scenario – making a political choice or voting at a referendum. Nobody will dispute the fact that decision making in this instance is difficult indeed – of the kind that entails what Kahneman calls ‘slow thinking’ – where mental resources are fully utilized to achieve a resolution based on facts and logic as opposed to fancy and whim. A person attempting  to follow a mathematical proof has to think slow.

A matter of great socio-political importance is the issue of choice-making in such things as parliamentary elections and referendums where complex issues involving multifactorial logic and deep social intuitions are ‘put to the people’ in the mythic expectaton that the ‘people’ – abstracted from the living actuality – are the final choice-makers. This high principle of democracy is false and dangerous because the voter chooses impulsively – his thinking is Type I as defined by Kahneman.

There is no clear algortithm for the resolution of deep and complex political problems and the vast majority resort to Fast Thinking’ where shibboleths and personal fancies replace logic and science. As Kahneman points out, this is not due error and prejudice but the natural consequence of the way we think when a choice is forced.

The recent vote on ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over the much-favoured Hillary Clinton are ‘eye-openers’ in this regard – where fast and short-circuited thinking triumped over a sober consideration of the facts. In Sri Lanka – as in other parts of the world – the myth that  the ‘people are right’ is considered an unchallengable truism.

That would be acceptable if people in general think rationally and are not overwhelmed by the facts and complex issues invlved. The sad truth is that most people  are Fast Thinkers and jump to conclusions under conditions of genuine uncertainty. There are ominous implications if we accept that this major lapse in thinking is a deep reflection of the nature of our mental life.

A referendum is to be held on the proposed New Constitution. Few will have the skills and drives to master this legal document – their thinking will be Type I. – fast and intuitive.  Of what use, then. is this Referendum as an aid to the assessment of  the Public Utility of the proposed Basic Law of the Land?   Is it not better for a qualified and patriotic elite – adept at Type II thinking – to do the needful?

2 Responses to “The Worth of a Referendum  – Slow and Fast Thinking.”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Fully agree if we have a qualified and patriotic elite in our country. Most of our so called elite are Kalu Suddas devoid of any love for country, culture and the like.

    In such absence only alternative is to educate the masses on the implications of the Constitutional Changes in a way and form that is more easily understood. The dialogue and discussions so far on the Constitution are more legalese and difficult to understand and not so much on the consequences, implications and what will happen to the Motherland, her peoples and the culture in the days afterwards. Majority of our people have become so myopic they live from day to day and the furthest they think about is their family and what is within their fences. They understand the gravity of their actions only when the enemy is at the gates to kill their sons and take away their daughters literally!

    This is the unfortunate situation Sri Lanka is in today. In January 2015 these very same people ‘killed the bird that gave them golden feathers to have it all at one go’ and voted for a ‘pie in the sky’ called Yaha Palanaya and now they are suffering its consequences!

    Voting – Yes to the New Constitution is far worse for there is no reset button to rectify the hara kiri that is about to happen!!

  2. S.Gonsal Says:

    Yet to hear ONE BUGGER even initiating a talk about killing Palaath Sabhas Bulshit.

    Smell of Jubilliation of Victory has hit the Modayas as they cannot recognise the smells now. Anaother step of destroying our motherland is unavoidable.

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