Thinking Fast and Slow about Animals

There’s a frequently overlooked, but essential, connection between our quest to understand animal minds and the quest to understand human minds. A quick perusal of the existing literature on both topics yields fascinating respective findings. When it comes to animals we’re learning that they not only possess what most would agree is self-awareness, but they deploy that awareness to make situational decisions that are easily deemed rational. When it comes to humans, by contrast, we’re learning that, after living through the age of reason, our behavior has become far more erratically irrational than previously assumed (see Dan Arieli’s Predictably Irrational as an example). Turns out we decide against our own interests all the time. Which makes me wonder: what happens when these two lines of inquiry are joined?

That’s hard to say as, to my knowledge, nobody’s really tried to analyze the implications of increasingly human irrationality and animal rationality. Still, it’s more than a little fun to think that humans, perhaps as a result of our relatively comfortable place in the food web, are slowly falling off the rails of rationality while wild animals, perhaps as a result of our frequent intrusion into their habitats, are being driven to hone rational habits in order to prosper under rapidly altering environmental conditions. In other words, phones, cars, computers, flat screen TVs, tweats, texts, alarm clocks, fast food, and electric toothbrushes have made life so soft for humans that we can coast blissfully through fogs of confusion while global warming, edge habitats, deforestation, fertilizer run-off, and the interstate highway system have selected for wild animals that can make sharper choices in a world being trashed by human ingenuity.

In his recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, argues that humans tend to avoid judicious and drawn out contemplation of serious questions because we’ve been rewarded by evolution for thinking fast and acting quickly. The connection between quick thought and swift action might explain why Americans often think of themselves as a nation of “doers” and, in turn, skeptical of intellectual and contemplative approaches to life. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that humans (and eventually, Americans) might eventually realize that fast thought has so many shallow pitfalls that it’s time to indulge not only in slow food, but maybe some slow thought. What might happen when we think slowly and conscientiously about animals?

Now there’s an exciting question. I deeply believe that if most people were fully aware of the emotional, intellectual, and social lives of animals, they’d screech their omnivorous worldview to a halt, look animals in the face, and, to begin with, offer a sincere apology. Maybe we’ll get there, and maybe, just maybe, an unexpected aspect of evolution will be our guide.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to Thinking Fast and Slow about Animals

  1. Anne B says:

    James, you appear to be arguing that human behavior has changed over time. I thought that the research behind Ariely’s book shows that there is new evidence for and understanding of irrationality, not that there is more irrationality now than there was at some previous point in history. Am I misunderstanding?

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