Thinking, Fast and Slow about Online Public Engagement

Friday, November 6, 2015
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I was pouring through some course material on a behavioural economics earlier this week and got to thinking about how to apply the lessons from Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow to the world of online public engagement. I would suggest reading Kahneman's book in full, but If you haven't you can watch the video below for an overview of his thesis.


TL;DR Thinking, Fast and Slow 

Kahneman's core thesis is that the human mind is made up of two different (metaphorical) systems: System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow). System 1 operates automatically, intuitively, involuntary, and effortlessly — like when we drive, recognize facial expressions, or remember our name. System 2 requires conscious effort, deliberating, solving problems, reasoning, computing, focusing, concentrating, considering other data, and not jumping to quick conclusions — like when evaluate a trade-off (cost benefit analysis) or fill out a complicated form. Kahneman says that these two systems often come into conflict with one another, essentially:
  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious 
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious 
The problem is not that people have two systems of thinking, but that they often rely on one system in situations when they should be using the other.

Where Thinking Fast and Slow meets Online Public Engagement 

So, here's the rub. The majority of the popular communications technologies (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) are designed for speed/ ease of share and as a result are likely to prime users to use their automatic (system 1) rather than reflective (system 2) muscles. This is perfectly fine given that their business models are based on usage, however what it also means is that the majority of online communications technologies are simply unsuited for meaningful (deliberative) public engagement, if in fact that is what we are after. The corollary of which is that there is likely a future market for slower online engagement technologies that prime people to use their more reflective systems. It also means that there will be demand for people who can structure online engagements in ways that nudge citizens to more conscious and deliberative participation in governance.

On slower technologies 

I think it is reasonable to expect to see a resurgence and/or second more refined wave of public crowdsourcing platforms. I also think – given what I've articulated above – that it is reasonable to expect that the success of this second wave hinges not only on a more mature technological solution but also on the ability of those deploying it to carefully calibrate it around specific problems, purposefully include relevant stakeholders, and deliberately design the process to unlock slower and more reasoned public engagement.