Fast reflective processes: A view from Kasnäs


Have you ever heard of Kasnäs? If you are a Fin, certainly yes, as it is a wonderful place to be at the Finish coast, a two-hour drive from Helsinki. This is where the meeting of the INSOSCI consortium was organized by our Finish members. These were highly inspiring and productive days! Keynote speakers were also invited, and one of them, Renout Wiers of the University of Amsterdam, gave me much food for thought. Professor Wiers is a renowned expert on addiction, especially among young adults. Addiction is one of the INSOSCI topics dealt with by the Finish partners, and is one of the key testing grounds for any theory about rationality.

Most theories about addiction build on a dual process model that is very much like Kahneman’s two systems view, and which is also often adopted by neuroeconomists such as Camerer. It is the horse and rider metaphor, basically: There is one type of processes that is impulsive, spontaneous, without conscious control (the horse), and there is the reflective system that enables executive control (the rider). The problem with addiction is that the first type of process gets out of control too often, finally becoming highjacked by the drug, which in the longer even undermines the reflective system and its control capacity. However, as I learned from Professor Wiers, this simple picture may be wrong. And the emerging picture is much closer to the ideas that I developed in previous blog posts, especially about Mead and memory. Why?

Behind the duality of process stands a duality of evaluation. There is a stimulus, and this is immediately valued by the ‘intuitive process’, and may result into an action, unless reflection kicks in and may exert control, which implies a re-evaluation of the stimulus. This is similar to the Kahneman distinction between experienced utility and decision utility. However, thinking in this way immediately reveals the problem. Experienced utility is the flow of immediate utilities generated from actions. Is this the intuitive system? If so, it would assume the role of the ultimate arbiter of rationality, because Kahneman argues that memory distorts that experienced utility, building decision utility on a shaky ground (such as the peak-end rule). But is decision utility originating in the reflective process? It seems, yes, because it involves memory and explicit choice. It seems to me that the distinction between the two utilities and the two systems is not congruent, creating a seere theoretical tension in Kahneman’s approach.

Professor Wiers drew my attention to an extremely interesting paper by Cunningham and Zelazo that leads us to question this separation between intuitive and reflective valuation. The point is simple, and it comes close to Mead’s thinking. Empirical research on brain imagining supports the idea that incoming stimuli are processed in increasingly complex evaluative feedback loops that kick in very fast, and which involve the brain areas normally assigned to the reflective system (i.e. parts of the cortex). We are talking about speeds high enough such that recursive evaluations may happen even eight times per second! In other words, an incoming stimulus may directly act on limbic areas in the first place, triggering an incipient action, but reflection sets in immediately. So, for example, we might think of a short eye movement triggered by the stimulus, but within a very short time that incipient action potential may have been changed by high speed re-evaluative processes that operate via the reflective system. This results into a reprocessing of the stimulus before any kind of original action potential could be realized at all, while also transforming that action potential. That means, in the end what appears to be a spontaneous action, happening with a second after the stimulus arrived, is in fact already contextualized by the reflective system. All that happens without us being aware of that. This is fast reflection without consciousness! this explodes the idea that there are ‘fast’ intuitive processes and ‘slow’ reflective processes, and that irrationality happens because of the former overwhelming the latter, just because they are fast.

In terms of Kahneman’s distinction of utilities, that would suggest that decision utility is constructed via those evaluative feedback loops, and presupposes certain operations of working memory. Now, would that imply that the resulting evaluation is distorting the original valuation, seen as experienced utility? I think that this does not make any sense. The fact is that there is no such thing as ‘experienced utility’ that is not processed by the reflective feedback loops, thus involving memory. Certainly, there are certain ranges of stimuli that might match with that view, such as a brutal guy knocking my nose, and pain is overwhelming me. But an experienced fighter might have trained her systems in a way that this stimulus would be processed very differently in her than in me, still leading to a very fast response, without conscious reflection, but based on fast reflection in terms of reprocessing the stimulus. Certainly, we cannot claim that experienced utility is a universal standard for all human action, especially as a measuring rod for the scientist to identify rational behaviour, because fast reflective re-evaluation is a continuous construction of decision utility.

So, it seems to me that there is just decision utility, and that this can be as fast as we can imagine, and that it is reflective. This was exactly Meads point, about the relationship between ‘I’, ‘me’ and memory. If course, this is mere speculation, but I would suggest that the evaluative feedback loops described by Cunningham and Zelazo are the processes that construct our ‘I’ as ‘me’, working through very short-term memory processes. We cannot say that the original stimulus would be the ‘I’ in terms of our self, but we could say that it triggered our creative potentials. Yet, those potentials only become manifest as being reflected in our evaluative process. We only know our ‘I’ as ‘me’.

As we discussed at Kasnäs, this has important implications for interventions in the case of addiction. The king’s way would be to somehow influence reflective processes that ultimately reach into those high speed reflective evaluations that set in when a stimulus arrives. Conscious reflection does not help in this moment. This is a kind of therapeutic ‘me-engineering’. However, without recognizing the creative potential of the ‘I’, hence the autonomy of the subject, this cannot succeed.


Cunningham, William A., and Philip David Zelazo. “Attitudes and Evaluations: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11, no. 3 (March 2007): 97–104. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2006.12.005.

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