Skepticism and Detachment, Part II

by Xander Snyder

“Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct. Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.” [Thinking Fast & Slow, p. 212]

Thinking Fast and Slow, a book about decision making, describes two “systems”(1) that process information and therefore reach conclusions in different ways. System 1 is automatic, intuitive rather than logical, and uses heuristics to rapidly reach conclusions. It is influenced heavily by emotion, and attempts to find causality in events that may be random and coherence when there are few data points. This means we can feel confident in choices even if they are subject to innate biases that we are not aware of. System 2 is slower and methodical. When asked to mentally solve the problem 17 x 34, System 2 turns on. It can coldly evaluate statistics, and use logic rather than intuition to work through difficult problems. However, System 2 takes conscious effort to turn on.

System 2 is also lazy, and quickly endorses decisions made by System 1 if it means less work. System 2 is not automatic: it must be engaged, and this is unlikely if System 1 has already created a sense of subjective confidence. As the quote above describes, confidence is not a good indication of accurate judgment. This means that System 2 must frequently and intentionally primed.

Skepticism and detachment are mental models of concepts that actively prime System 2. They can therefore be used as tools to form more reasoned judgments. After reading my prior article on skepticism and detachment, some folks wrote and asked for examples of what I meant exactly by internal / external skepticism / detachment. That’s what I’ll do in this post. I’ll describe some hypothetical dialogue between two sets of two people. However, I will also describe their internal emotions and automatic thoughts stemming from those emotions (that is, work completed by System 1). Here’s a key:

·       “Text in quotes” --> spoken word

·       (Intentional thought) --> a person’s conscious, intentional thought

·       [Automatic Thought] --> what people think, automatically

·       {Emotion} --> what people feel, automatically

These occur in this order, one driven by the next:

{Emotion} --> [Automatic Thought] --> (Intentional thought) --> “Spoken word”

Editor-Erik’s note: this model is in contrast to the more classic Kantian model of human cognition, which looks like: stimulus --> thought --> emotion --> action. This newer model is more empirically supported.

Obviously, this causal order doesn’t always hold true, as plenty of people skip intentional thoughts before spoken word (remember your 3rd grade teacher?  “Think before you speak!”)

External Skepticism & Detachment:

Abby is a well-informed, active member of her college’s economic club. Betty is an intelligent, high-GPA literature major who is less familiar with economics, but hopes to learn more so she can be an effective voter. She tends to be “fiscally conservative,” based largely on family views. Imagine this conversation:

Abby: “The Fed should raise interest rates. If we keep rates this low for much longer we’ll be facing serious inflation.”

Betty: “Why?”

Abby: “Because lower interest rates means the Federal Reserve is artificially flooding the market with cash by increasing money supply.  It was OK to do when the economy tanked, but it’s been going on for too long and is putting our economy at risk of potentially dangerous inflation.”


{Feels good, positive} -->

[This person agrees with me] -->

(Lower interest rates are just an artificial way to prop the economy, in part by making credit cheaper. But easy credit is what caused the last financial crisis, so it sounds like we shouldn’t repeat the same mistake twice). --> System 2 lazily approves System 1’s assessment

“That makes sense to me.”

But what if Betty were instead skeptical of Abby? She might have thought this:


{Feels positive} -->

[This person agrees with me] -->

(I’m more likely to trust this person since they agree with me and I feel good about it. But what if I’m wrong, and by not priming System 2 I’m blindly agreeing with Abby?) --> System 2 becomes engaged

“Sure, but I’ve heard people say that interest rates and inflation have been low for a long time. Inflation would be higher if aggregate demand weren’t suppressed, right? But it’s not: inflation has remained low even as the US economy has begun to recover.”

Abby: "That’s a fair point. Continual low inflation might imply that the “natural interest rate” that induces full employment might have decreased in real terms, which means that policymakers might need to contemplate lower interest rates for a longer term, and maybe even negative interest rates. Good point Betty!”  

If Betty had just taken Abby at her word, System 2 would have endorsed System 1’s interpretation of lower interest rates as a positive policy prescription. However, since she was skeptical, Betty engaged System 2, questioned Abby, and carried the conversation forward.

External skepticism is relatively easy: it’s easier to doubt others’ positions than it is our own. This is why it is important to have a group of friends or confidants to bounce ideas around with, since they can see faults in our logic that are blind to us. These friendships or professional relationships are valuable and should be sought after. We should, however, remember to be skeptical not only of people who we disagree with, but also those who we agree with, just like Betty. Otherwise we risk living in echo chambers.

Editor-Erik’s note: If you’re having trouble finding people in your friend group that might disagree with you, I suggest casting a wide, sincere net. Unless you’ve spent your adult life running around burning bridges with people that disagree with you, I can almost guarantee there are some smart people you trust hanging out with opinions that don’t match the local groupthink--they just tend to stay quiet to save themselves the misery of being ganged up on at parties.

External detachment is a bit trickier. To detach Abby from her economic policy prescription, Betty must recognize that Abby is a sum of parts and see her personage holistically. Even if Abby disagrees with Betty about the economy she can still be a good person with informative viewpoints. What if Betty had instead leaned fiscally progressive rather than conservative? She may have disagreed with Abby’s take on lower interest rates. In this situation, external detachment becomes essential but more challenging, as to continue the conversation Betty must be willing to either set aside her disagreement with Abby on the economy or find positive, curious and polite ways to inquire further about Abby’s position. Usually, this doesn’t happen and the initial disagreement is the start of a longer, less constructive argument.


Internal Skepticism & Detachment:

Charlie and Duane are friends. Charlie works at a foreign policy think tank, and Duane is a successful media entrepreneur.

Duane: This TPP thing sounds pretty bogus. It’ll be just like NAFTA: it’ll kill jobs, and just give companies more control over our government.

Charlie: Well, there are different ways to look at this. You could think about economics, or you could think about American grand strategy in the pacific. Using trade agreements to bring other countries closer to us is a way to guide global events in our favor without using force.

{Feels anger} -->

[This person disagrees with me, what the hell?] -->

(How can Duane think such a thing? Is he really just a corporate shill? Maybe I don’t’ know him as well as I thought) --> System 2 does not question System 1’s anger

“So you just don’t care at all if corporations become sovereign over governments? Whose side are you on?”

If Charlie had instead questioned how he felt about his reaction to Duane, he may have gained the opportunity to view the TPP from a completely different perspective. How might Duane have changed his mind if he questioned himself?

{Feels anger} -->

[This person disagrees with me, what the hell?] -->

(I’m more likely to disagree with this person, since he has a different perspective than I do. But what if my interpretation of the issue is incomplete? Maybe I should be willing to reconsider my existing position and hear what Duane has to say).  --> System 2 becomes engaged

“Well, in my mind, it’s a bad trade deal. But what do you mean by grand strategy? And what type of force would we be avoiding?”

With a healthy dose of self-doubt, Duane has presented himself with the opportunity to either 1) learn about how someone else views this issue differently or 2) correct an incorrect position he previously held. Either way is a win.

Editor-Erik’s note: bonus #3 is that when you actually show some curiosity and listen to someone’s arguments, you stand a chance at changing their minds, where blowing up at them has the opposite effect--it makes them dig in.

By keeping an open mind, I changed my view on the TPP.  I was previously anti-TPP, and due to a conversation I had on the Something to Consider Forum, became pro-TPP. You can read about how I changed my mind here.

Internal skepticism is harder in practice than external skepticism. It requires intentional self-doubt, with the understanding that constant questioning will, on average, result in more accurate judgments in the long run. But that doesn’t make it feel good.

This becomes easier if we can detach our sense of self from the ideas that we hold. It is much easier for Duane to doubt his existing position if he does not wrap his identity up in the TPP debate.



System 2 should be used as a tool to carry the conversation forward, find accurate judgments as frequently as possible, and therefore choose effective policies. Doubt the confidence provided by our automatic emotional responses, and therefore doubt the usefulness of the emotion itself. Commit yourself to having the right answer rather than just feeling right. Don’t disregard that emotion, but instead see it as one element among a myriad of other factors that require constant re-evaluation. Continually justifying our perspectives and opinions as new information becomes available should be the process we experience on the way to finding the right answer. This means being both open to new data points and a willingness to feel less confident. The paradox is that by maintaining skepticism about our positions we will be more likely to be correct more frequently in the long run.


1)   “Systems” is in scare quotes because these are not actually two distinct systems, but rather models that help think about how we think.