Human Behavior

Looking at Fast and Slow Thinking on Facebook

I saw the following question on Facebook:

“I’m getting married, and my husband and I are looking at what our married name should be. My last name is Lipsky. It was changed by my ancestors from the original ‘Lipszyc’ when they immigrated to the US in the early 1900s. I’m starting to really connect with my heritage. Should I keep the current name or switch back to the previous name?”

Quick! What’s your answer? Now slow down and think about it again. Did your answer change?

The question is complicated, touching on themes of identity, heritage, and personal choice. Whether the poster kept her name or changed it to one that her family had before coming to Ellis Island, involves questions of personal identity, honoring ancestral roots, and navigating practical implications in contemporary society.

The poll results showed a clear preference, with 70% of respondents suggesting she should change her name. I was curious about why everyone thought this way, so I started looking at the comments. But I found something weird. The majority of comments favored the other option, keeping her name the same.

How could this happen? It has to do with something that psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky figured out. They discovered that the brain has two modes of thinking. System 1 and System 2 are concepts introduced by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky to describe two different modes of thinking. Kanemann published a bestselling book about it called Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 is fast, automatic, and intuitive, operating with little conscious effort. It’s the system we use when making quick decisions, like recognizing a face or reacting to a sudden sound. On the other hand, System 2 is slow, deliberate, and analytical. It requires more effort and is used for complex problem-solving and logical reasoning, such as solving a math problem or planning a vacation. Understanding these systems helps explain why people can make impulsive decisions in some situations while being more thoughtful in others.

When they voted in the poll, they were using System 1. They engaged the part of their brain that makes quick, impulsive decisions, so they focused on the emotional appeal of reconnecting with heritage. This immediate, gut reaction led many to support the idea of changing the name to honor the ancestral roots, without considering the practical consequences or complexities involved. Other emotional factors, such as a sense of nostalgia, pride in one’s ancestry, and the desire for a unique, culturally significant name, also influenced their responses. These feelings resonated deeply, prompting a favorable reaction towards changing the name, driven more by sentiment than by rational analysis.

When they left comments, they were using System 2. They engaged the part of their brain that makes more thoughtful decisions, so they focused on the practical implications and long-term consequences. Commenters considered factors such as the administrative hassle of changing legal documents, the potential confusion in social and professional contexts, and the ease of pronunciation and recognition of the current name. They also noted that adopting a less familiar, more complex name would mean spending every single conversation with new people explaining the name and how to pronounce it. This more deliberate and analytical thinking led them to weigh the benefits and drawbacks carefully, resulting in a preference for maintaining the current name for its practicality and continuity.

If you really wanted to go into System 2, you could also take it one step further and think about what a last name really represents. Historically, last names in Eastern Europe were often created for practical reasons rather than holding any particular deep meaning. Many Jewish surnames, for instance, were mandated by laws in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as the 1787 decree by Emperor Joseph II, which required Jews in the Habsburg Empire to adopt hereditary surnames. These names were often arbitrary or derived from local administrative decisions, professions, or places of origin. For example, “Lipszyc” is likely derived from the town of Leipzig in Germany, and it didn’t carry any significant personal meaning before it was created.

Understanding this, the name “Lipszyc” was originally a practical designation rather than a deeply meaningful or significant identifier. It was likely chosen to fulfill bureaucratic requirements rather than reflect any profound family heritage. Therefore, while reconnecting with one’s roots can be important, it’s also valuable to recognize that the current name, “Lipsky,” has become an integral part of the family’s history and identity through adaptation and survival in a new country.

Additionally, if she truly wanted to delve into the historical traditions of her family’s naming conventions, she would be adopting the practice of using “Ben” (or “Bat” for a daughter) to indicate lineage. This practice, which dates back to ancient times, involved using the father’s first name as part of one’s own name, such as “Ben Avraham” or “Bat Sarah,” meaning “son of Avraham” or “daughter of Sarah.” This method, deeply rooted in Jewish heritage, reflects a direct lineage rather than a fixed surname. So it doesn’t really matter much if the new couple chooses “Lipszyc” or “Lipsky.” It’s more about personal and family choice in the modern context rather than a deep historical necessity.

But going back to the discrepancy in polling. The question of whether to change a surname is a perfect example of how voting (System 1) and comments (System 2) often come up with different results. The initial poll results, driven by System 1 thinking, favored reconnecting with heritage, reflecting quick, emotional responses. However, the comments, influenced by System 2 thinking, revealed practical concerns that can’t be overlooked.