There are certain books which hit hard, make you think and wonder and possibly rearrange the way you think. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Nobel economics laureate, psychologist Daniel Kahneman is one such book which startle you and keeps your mind whirring long after you’ve put the book down. It is lucid, profound, surprisingly witty and extremely helpful, especially in the way we see ourselves and the world around us.
The book is built on the premise of human irrationality. Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky (who passed away in 1996) discovered these aspects of psychology, by conducting a wide variety of experiments. Through the book, Kahneman talks about the predictable ways that errors of judgement occurs and goes on to provide a full catalogue of the biases, shortcuts and cognitive illusions to which humans regularly succumb. It builds a solid framework for how, or why, the mind reasons as it does. While the concepts outlined in this book may seem simple, they have far-reaching implications.
Most of us believe that we make decisions that are “free” from judgements and are basically rational. Well, Kahneman in his book thrashes this concept and makes the human brain look less like a model of rationality and more like an easily distracted, flighty child.
The title of the book refers to Kahneman’s two-tier model of cognition which he describes as System 1 and System 2. While “System 1” is quick, intuitive and responsible for the quirks and mistakes, “System 2”, by contrast, is slow, deliberative and less prone to error. System 2 kicks in when we are faced with particularly complex problems, but much of the time it is all too happy to let the impulsive System 1 get its way, which is also what causes errors in judgements.
So why do we need System 1? In situations that require quick thinking, rapid decision making and action, System 1 operates automatically, intuitively, involuntary, and effortlessly—like when we drive, read an angry facial expression, or recall our age. And it many situations it works well. However, when faced with complex problems such as how to choose where to invest money, or fill out a complicated form, these two systems often conflict with one another. The plot of his book is how to, “recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”
Unfortunately, System 2 is slothful, and tires easily (a process called “ego depletion”) – so it usually accepts what System 1 tells it. Since System 1 works with very little information, it only jumps to hasty conclusions but is hopelessly bad at the kind of statistical thinking often required for good decisions. It is also subject to irrational biases & interference effects some of which are defined in this book as the halo effect, the “Florida effect”, framing effects, anchoring effects, the confirmation bias, and so on.
A concept that was particularly interesting was the ideomotor effect which refers to the things outside of our conscious awareness which can influence how we think. These subtle influences also affect behaviour. For example, “people reading about the elderly will unconsciously walk slower. And people who are asked to walk slower will more easily recognize words related to old age. People asked to smile find jokes funnier; people asked to frown find disturbing pictures more disturbing.” Other concepts include the “focusing illusion”, which can be summed up in one sentence as, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it” or the “halo effect” which he describes as “the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person—including things you have not observed.”
Kahneman provides interesting examples to prove his point. For example, to test the “anchoring effect”, highly experienced judges were given a description of a shoplifting offence. They were then “anchored” to different numbers by being asked to roll a pair of dice that had been secretly loaded to produce only two totals – three or nine. Finally, they were asked whether the prison sentence for the shoplifting offence should be greater or fewer, in months, than the total showing on the dice.
Normally the judges would have made extremely similar judgments, but those who had just rolled nine proposed an average of eight months while those who had rolled three proposed an average of only five months. All were unaware of the anchoring effect which refers to how our behavior is influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Some might be put off by the length of the book. However, once you start reading it, it grabs your attention and keeps you going “Aha!” after every two pages. It is definitely a must read not only for people who love psychology, but who want to understand how the decision making process can be improved.
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