Michael's Reviews > Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
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's review
Jun 01, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction, science-and-technology
Read in May, 2012


My favorite professor of philosophy in college once derided the academic study of psychology as, “organizing the obvious.” He said this over a cup of bitter coffee at a tall table in the café of the student union with only a few of his most admiring students listening in. This professor, a tall, youngish bachelor with sandy hair swept across his forehead struck most of us as intriguingly European, though from what we could tell he grew up in suburban Chicago and earned his degrees in this country. Something about his hard-to-pronounce last name and his tasteful and innocuous dress, a clean leather jacket, rimless spectacles and jeans without a hint of American frump or self-conscious stylishness seemed foreign to the students of the state college I attended in the Poconos. He was one of the few professors who lived up to the enthusiastic student’s illusory image of a college professor. He sat with us for coffee and talked about ancient texts as if we could uncover something new by shouting out our unstudied responses in class and subjecting them to stringent logical tests.

But this was not what made me register for every philosophy class he taught, despite my status as an English major. Instead, the true allure of those lectures and classroom discussions was exactly what set philosophy apart from psychology, at least in this professor’s blunt statement in the café that day. Philosophy was markedly not “organizing the obvious.” It was a method of trying to answer problematic questions that might affect one’s political, moral and social outlook. In his class, the paradox of the mound, a seemingly inconsequential examination of when a pile becomes a mound and when a mound becomes a hill (can these meaningful distinctions be attributed to the addition or subtraction of a single grain of sand?) turned into an analysis of the language we use when discussing abortion. There were still no clear answers at the end of most of these arguments, but the process was by no means obvious. You had to think hard, make notes, build logical equations. For a young man who wanted to resist the gut-check emotionality of most moral systems, this process was life-affirming.

Not long after college I moved to Manhattan and, squeezed in by a tiny apartment, left all of my books to my old roommates in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This included a half shelf of philosophy texts. In New York, I learned to laugh off most references to philosophy and poetry, my two undergraduate pursuits. They both seemed impractical in the same way. Morality, it turns out, might be more intuitive than logical, and many of the subjects of philosophy and poetry are taken for granted by the rest of the world. Talking about them in mixed company is like telling someone the process and history of salt mining when all they’ve asked is for you to pass the shaker. You are just a royal bore.

Talking or writing about psychology, on the other hand, can bring in the big bucks and plenty of attention and even admiration from the average person. Pop social scientists have been taking advantage of the human need to understand why we are the way we are, for a long time, but recently a slew of them, helmed by Malcolm Gladwell, have been convincing legions of casual readers and consumers of media they have it all figured out. We all now know it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be a world-class performer in any discipline. We all now know to second-guess some of our stereotypes and gut reactions. Groundbreaking stuff here, folks.

People buy books entirely dedicated to these self-evident ideas. In droves.

Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is more of the same. Kahneman, an early purveyor of behavioral economics, tries to disguise many of his findings as novel. But most of the ideas put forth by his discipline, namely that people are not always rational actors who collect large amounts of relevant data for each of their economic decisions, are only surprising to overzealous students of Economics 101.

Kahneman, like his peers, creates a new nomenclature for his “groundbreaking” scheme. System 1 is the fast thinker, your intuition. It is a subconscious function of decision-making. System 2 is the slow thinker, the deliberative one. Kahneman stresses again and again throughout Thinking, Fast and Slow that he is making up names for non-existent entities. System 1 and System 2 are functions. Kahneman makes a noun out of a verb, a time-tested way of organizing the obvious and making it look like a brilliant, creative discovery.

I couldn’t help getting duped, on occasion, by Kahneman’s enthusiasm.

The idea of Suggestive Priming helps us understand the influence of advertising, politicians, and everyday occurrences on our thoughts and moods. Obviously. The Halo Effect and other arbitrary influences on our behavior and opinions, excuses the masses for irrational, stupid political action and belief. Okay. The Availability Paradox – the more evidence you gather to support something, the less certain it seems – does not bode well for the justice system. Right. Though it might be distasteful to humanists, it’s obvious a formula or algorithm would process and analyze relevant data better, statistically, than a human who is swayed by emotion. This was much more interestingly shown in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

While none of Kahneman’s research qualifies as groundbreaking, some is intriguing.

Regression to the Mean is a particularly interesting concept as it describes phenomena in the real world not just mistakes of intuition. The first truly surprising finding presented is the Illusion of Understanding in which a more coherent narrative is formed with less available details in a person’s mind. Entrepreneurial delusions and overconfidence contradict Kahneman’s earlier theory of strict statistical regression to the mean. The economic ideas of Prospect Theory and the Endowment Effect help us understand our gut instincts, but don’t help us know if they are useful in economic decision-making. Duration Neglect supports the benefits of euthanasia and serves as a powerful argument against the prolongation of the lives of suffering terminal patients.

Though some of the many ideas discussed in Thinking, Fast and Slow might influence everyday decisions, Kahneman’s observations lack impact, because he is always so quaintly pleased with himself and neglects concrete, verifiable examples. His book is full of those verbs turned into nouns, capitalized functions: System 1, System 2, Suggestive Priming, the Halo Effect, the Availability Paradox, Regression to the Mean, Prospect Theory, the Endowment Effect, Duration Neglect, and many, many others. Kahneman and his fellow pop social scientists are making the rules up as they go, like bored children inventing a new game to suit their needs.

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