A Holmesian dual process model

Dual system approaches are all the rage in psychology. The idea is that our brains use two separate processes to come to decisions. I don’t think anyone literally thinks there are just two separate systems as such, the brain is massively complex with lots of different stuff happening, but it may be a handy way of looking at how we think. The most common distinction is between a more intuitive (fast) system and a more calculative (slow) system. (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is along these lines, and often people talk of system 1 and system 2).

Maria Konnikova has an alternative version. She is a writer for the New Yorker and successfully straddles the academic and the popular. Her books are interesting and have multiple references to academic ideas, helping to popularize ideas. (Something that academics are often pretty appalling at).  Her dual process model is a little different in that it is forced onto characters from Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is somewhat the more thoughtful system, he is clever and observant. On the other hand John Watson is rather more plodding, that said he comes to snap judgments and often simply isn’t that bright. He hasn’t organized his brain attic very well. He can’t reference things quickly and even if relevant information is in there he can’t find it.

I must confess that I was left feeling a bit sorry for Watson. In traditional dual process models both systems have something going for them. The fast system is, well fast. As long as you need a decision that is “good enough” that is the system to use (and use it we do most of the time). The slow system is more effortful; it may be better for big decisions but it isn’t the go to system for most tasks.

Holmes on the other hand is pretty much better than Watson at everything, he is even quicker (because of better attic organization). Be like Sherlock might be Konnikova’s message. I, personally, think that we should try and defend Watson more; he seems a bit more human and a bit more realistic to aspire to.

As with her other book — The Confidence Game — Mastermind is packed with interesting anecdotes.  She kicks off with Arthur Conan Doyle fighting for justice for a wrongly convicted man in the real world. And soon after Conan Doyle’s efforts “…England saw the creation of the first court of appeals, to deal with future miscarriages in a more systematic fashion.” (Konnikova, 2013, page 11). This is fascinating stuff — (although I’d like to know more on whether Conan Doyle really caused that change). Academics have much to learn about how to share our ideas.

On a separate note I’m fascinated by how much multitasking has become the villain of popular books. (It sounds plausible to me though I haven’t looked into the research on how bad multi-tasking is.) The message is: attend to the moment and don’t try and do too much at the same time if you want to be like Holmes. This is probably good advice but don’t be too upset if you only end up at Watson, he doesn’t seem so bad to me.

Read: Maria Konnikova (2013), Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Penguin Books