Reflection: The Face You Make When You’re Thinking Sloooooooowly

For long-time listeners of Mixed Mental Arts (the podcast formerly known as The Bryan Callen Show), there are two books you’ve probably heard us talk about more than any others. Here they are…

At its core, Thinking, Fast and Slow is about exactly that. Human brains have two systems. There’s a fast thinking system or reactive system and a slow thinking or reflective system. Although science can seem super abstract and intimidating, you have to remember something: science describes reality. Anything scientists say is meant to describe the world you live in. So, let’s see fast and slow thinking in your everyday life.

You’re having a fight with someone. It might be a physical fight, a lover’s quarrel or an intellectual fight (aka debate). There’s no time to reflect. You’ve got to think fast.

In a verbal fight (which there are a lot of on the internet right now), lots and lots of people are thinking fast. They’re just saying whatever they can like monkeys throwing poo at each other.

Thanks to naive realism the Monkey Poo that people throw at each other makes sense. The two sides in any conflict don’t think they’re throwing narratives that are twisted to make them look like the good guys. They think they’re throwing TRUTH.

Of course, on an interpersonal level, we all know that’s not the case. It takes very little self-awareness to realize that in romantic or family arguments people tell stories that make them look justified in their behavior. In subtle little ways as an argument between two people escalates, the stories twist to become very different versions of events that have wandered far from what was originally going on.

“You ALWAYS leave the toilet seat up!”

Your mother HATES me and can’t stand to see me succeed as a mother.”

You don’t have to believe me. You can just watch the behavior of people around you and most importantly YOUR OWN behavior. It’s when you see that YOUR BRAIN does these things that your life really starts to change. You have accepted your elephant.

Your elephant is your brain’s fast thinking system. It is reactive. It stampedes. It wanders off towards things it finds attractive. Oh…are those cookies over there. I’ll just go take a look at them. Not going to eat any. Just going to take a look. Oh, I’ll have a few. Sure. Why not? I deserve a treat. If you’ve done this, this doesn’t make you a “weak-willed person.” It makes you human. Ben Franklin describes doing exactly this with cod even though he was a vegetarian at the time. Your elephant is big, lumbering and powerful and will take you to places you don’t necessarily WANT to go.

However, you also have a slow thinking system. You have a tiny, little rider. And that rider can nudge the elephant and gradually train it to stay on the path and have better habits. That’s how you change your own life. And that slow thinking system is called reflection. It’s what usually kicks in after a fight is over.

“I mean…I guess they don’t ALWAYS leave the toilet seat up.”

“My mother does seem to undermine her a lot. I’d hate it if her mother did that to me. Wow! She has a point.”

And reflection has a face. A face that has recurred throughout history.

The ability to reflect is not unique to humans. So, what is? The ability to share and accumulate the discoveries we have made in reflection.

We are not alone. Reflection is amazing stuff. Humanity could do it a lot more. But it’s worth remembering that any virtue can made into a vice. You can spend SO MUCH time reflecting that you become an egghead in your Ivory Tower lost in thought and not caring for how your ideas can practically help people. Or as Jonathan Swift put it in Gulliver’s Travels hundreds of years ago, you can become a Laputan who stares at the heavens while the Balnibarbi on the ground starve.

A great society emerges not from thinking slowly only. It emerges from Thinking, Fast AND Slow. In an argument, you need to switch to thinking slow. And since humanity has a lot of those going on right now, we could use a lot more slow thinking. You can promote that idea by wearing one of the awesome t-shirts from Unicorn (@matt_madonna) and Unikitty (@nicoleleepage).


Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *