Two Systems? and Summer Shut-Down

* David E. Melnikoff and John A. Bargh, ‘The Mythical Number Two’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 280-93.

Around this time of the year, I usually think ‘I need to have fewer things on my things-to-do list!’, and pause the blog for a while. I then restart when I have read enough interesting articles that the inspiration starts to overflow. A month or so? Maybe two?
      Next week I will be attending the ‘Cognitive Futures in the Humanities’ conference in Kent. I’ll be on ‘we’ business (still rolling on this track). The programme can be found hereabouts. I am sure this will mean I pick up lots of good ideas and reading suggestions. And of course I’ll be catching up on several months of Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Before signing off, I will say a brief something about the Melnikoff and Bargh essay cited above. There’s a link here with the topic of my previous, brief post. There the worry from the psychologists was that their terminology overlapped too much with everyday usage. Here the worry is also about simplification and popularisation, in the form of ‘two types of psychological processes: one that is intentional, controllable, conscious, and inefficient, and another that is unintentional, uncontrollable, unconscious, and efficient’.
      The argument is that the ‘two systems’ approach lacks empirical support; it’s a ‘convenient and seductive’ approach’, they say. One target, for example, is a dual-system theory of memory. They cite by Shanks and Berry that doubts the distinction between implicit and explicit memory that was at the heart of about half of my book Memory and Intertextuality in Renaissance Literature (2016). (Don’t worry: I am sure I hedged my bets about the absolute final rectitude of the science I was citing there; I usually do. It’s a gift and a curse.) Another target is the ‘fast and slow thinking’ described by Daniel Kahneman. The big worry is that two-systems approaches are taken as definitive by organisations outside psychology (‘like the World Bank and Institute of Medicine’) and turned into practical policies.
      Here’s their key analogy, which I found both helpful and not helpful:

We say that there are two types of cars, convertibles and hard-tops. No debate there. But now we say: there are two types of cars, automatic and manual transmission. Yes, those are certainly two different types of cars. And still further: there are two types of cars, gasoline and electric motors. Or: foreign and domestic. The point is that all of these are different types of cars. But we all know that there are not just two types of cars overall: convertibles that all have manual transmission, gasoline engines, and are manufactured overseas; and hardtops that all have automatic transmission, electric engines, and are made in our own country. All around us we see counterexamples, automobiles that are some other combination of these basic features.

I suppose, yes, that this gets across that when this two-systems model draws in different qualities of cognition to divide whole minds into two types, there are risks involved. However, in cars at least, the localised binaries can tell us things. There are hybrid cars of course, and being electric or not doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a car is environmentally excellent. But still there are times and ways that discerning this kind from that kind can enable some insights. That’s probably true of minds too; but as on previous occasions I’m thinking in quite a literary-critical way here, welcoming dynamic, provisional tensions that offer a new way of seeing the world — but not things that necessarily aim to converge on a true big picture.


I’ll leave you with a song. Not really day-appropriate at the time of posting. But very good, I think. I actually couldn’t see how this collaboration (two of my favourite artists working with a special song) would work well, and didn’t listen to it for a while. But then I did, and it’s an understated treat.

‘Are there multiple memory systems? Tests of models of implicit and explicit memory’, Q. J. Exp. Psychol., 65, 1449–1474.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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