Trevor's Reviews > Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
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Apr 19, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: behavioural-economics
Read from April 19 to May 01, 2012 — I own a copy

This is a fascinating book. Reading this book means not having to read so many others. For example, you could avoid having to read, Sway, Blink, Nudge and probably a dozen or so other books on Behavioural Economics. And the best part of it is that this is the guy (or, at least one half of the two guys) who came up with these ideas in the first place.

I was thinking that perhaps the best way to explain those other books would be to compare them to Monty Python. I want you to imagine something - say you had spent your entire life and never actually seen an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. That wouldn't mean you wouldn't know anything about Monty Python. It is impossible to have lived at any time since the late 60s and not have had some socially dysfunctional male reprise the entire Parrot sketch or Spanish Inquisition sketch at you at some stage in your life. I suspect, although there is no way to prove this now, obviously, that Osama bin Laden could do the Silly Walk like a natural. Well, if you had never seen an episode of Monty Python and your entire experience of their work was via the interpretation of men of a certain age down the pub - then finally getting to see an episode of the original would be much the same effect as reading this book. Hundreds of people have already told all this guy's best stories in their own books - but all the same it is a pleasure to hear them again by the guy that first said, 'this parrot is dead' or rather, 'framing effects make fools of us all'.

You need to read this book - but what is particularly good about it is that you come away from it knowing we really are remarkably easy to fool. It's because we think we know stuff that this comes as a constant surprise to us. Years ago I was talking to a guy who liked to bet. Everyone needs a hobby and that was his. Anyway, he told me he was playing two-up - an Australian betting game - and he realised something like tails hadn't come up frequently enough and so he started betting on tails and sure enough he made money. I told him that coins don't remember the last throw and so the odds of getting a tail was still 50%, as it had previously been. But I had no credibility - I'd already told him I never bet - so, how would I possibly know anything if I wasn't even brave enough to put my own money on the outcome? And didn't I understand the point of this story was he had already WON?

Still, when faced with a series of coin flips that run - H, H, H, H, H, T, H, H, H - it does feel like tails are 'due'. This is the sort of mistake we are all too prone to make. The thing to remember is that while there is a law of large numbers - toss a coin often enough and in the very long run there will be as many heads turn up as tails - that isn't the case in the short run - where just about anything is possible.

We (that is, we humans) are remarkably bad at mental statistics. And what makes it worse is that we are predictably bad at statistics. And this brings me to Bourdieu and him saying that Sociology is kind of martial art. He means that Sociology allows you to defend yourself from those who would manipulate you. Well, this book is the Bruce Lee book of advanced self-defence. Learning just how we fool ourselves might not make you feel terribly great about what it means to be human - but at least you will know why you hav stuffed up next time you do stuff up. I'm not sure it will stop you stuffing up - but that would be asking for an awful lot from one book.

If you want the short version of this book, he has provided the two papers that probably got him the Nobel Prize - and they are remarkably clear, easy to understand and comprehensive. But look, read this book - it will do you good.
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Quotes Trevor Liked

Daniel Kahneman
“I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman
“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman
“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow


Reading Progress

04/23/2012 page 264
63.0% 2 comments
01/31/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-22)




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message 22: by Preeti (new) - added it

Preeti Looking forward to your review on this, Trevor!


Trevor It's bloody brilliant - but so long and so comprehensive I've no idea where I'm going to start.

Thanks Preeti


message 20: by Reid (new) - added it

Reid Awesome, I have the book and haven't read the others! And I recall as a kid hearing certain Python sketches and quotes from my neighbors, so you're right about that. Bonus, I learned a new phrase- stuffed up - guess I'll be using that as I read and discover... Thanks


message 19: by Preeti (last edited May 01, 2012 07:38AM) (new) - added it

Preeti Nice review, Trevor! Will definitely have to check this one out.

Learning just how we fool ourselves might not make you feel terribly great about what it means to be human - but at least you will know why you hav stuffed up next time you do stuff up.
The only problem I see with this is that we're also prone to forgetting, so I wonder how long these lessons would stay with us (me!) even if we (I) read the book.


Trevor Preeti, that's exactly what I was thinking as I was reading it. It's fine me quoting Bourdieu and the whole sociological Kung Fu guff, but I'm just as likely to stuff up (I'd no idea that was even likely to be a new phrase by the way - we are divided by a common language...) the next time. Which is Daniel's point. He shows those optical illusions where something looks smaller than something else even though it is the same size, but points out that even when you KNOW it is the same size, it still looks smaller. He hopes that you will be able to get your (our - everyone's) lazy rational brain to stop and say "but McCandless, we know that is the same length, now, don't we?" The smartarse side of my brain does tend to be rather formal with me. But I think cognitive illusions are much more difficult to recognise than optical ones because we are always SO certain.

Thanks everyone


Helen (Helena/Nell) I am certain only of one thing: I liked reading this review...


message 16: by Richard (last edited May 02, 2012 11:37PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Richard Splendid — now I don't have to write a review. Eventually Trevor will get around to reading any important book that I've read and do a better job, so why should I jump the gun?

About that, Trevor — I finished Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined some time ago, so you're running a bit late. If anything, it is more important than this one. I'm now on Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010, which I think is a bit more troublesome, and I'm concerned you might very well skip. So I guess I'd better take notes.


Trevor I want to get to the Pinker - but the PhD has my reading strictly confined to stuff on space and stuff on categories and stuff on pedagogy. I'm reading Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things when I get the chance at the moment (it is in the categories bucket) and it is really incredibly good. He's a surprisingly clear writer - you know, for he's a linguist. I'd always thought it was the first qualification of being a linguist that you must not be able to be read in any native language.


message 14: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Nice job, as usual, Trevor.

Trevor wrote: "Well, this book is the Bruce Lee book of advanced self-defence."

On the other hand, we could learn to use it on other people. LOL!


message 13: by Prashant (new) - added it

Prashant Thanks a lot for this review Trevor!
I bought this book and your review makes me feel so good about it.

I have read much stuff in behavioral science but it's good that you mentioned, this is the mother of them all :)


Trevor Whitaker - years ago at work we had to do a personality test. It was called the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument. Essentially, what I was expecting was a kind of black box with handles and buttons I could use to dominate the brains of all those within a certain radius. I can't begin to tell you how disappointed I was when I got a laminated graph. The other day I found out that our banks - bless them - are digging through their data to identify people who are about to have kids or about to retire so they can offer them 'financial services' - which means, increase their credit limits on their credit cards. This is basically throwing drowning people an anvil. But clearly some people are learning from the lessons outlined here.

Prashant - yes, this is a very strange book, as it is very new, but still the source of so many other books. If you have read some of the other books on BE then you'll be surprised that this guy came up with so many of the really interesting experiments. I'm sure you'll enjoy this one.


Richard Trevor wrote: "I'm reading Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things when I get the chance at the moment (it is in the categories bucket) and it is really incredibly good. He's a surprisingly clear writer - you know, for he's a linguist."

Strange. I love the title Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things and I've had it on the list for a long time, but I got so irritated with Lakoff when I read his Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, both on his repetitive pedantic style, and the fact that instead of following it up with more research (cross-cultural, for example, or historical/longitudinal) he decided to become a hack for the Democratic party. Women, Fire has since somehow sunk to the 600s in my TBR shelf.

But, honestly, Pinker's will make you wet your pants with excitement.


message 10: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Trevor wrote: "The other day I found out that our banks - bless them - are digging through their data to identify people who are about to have kids or about to retire so they can offer them 'financial services' - which means, increase their credit limits on their credit cards."

{shakes head} Honestly, I wonder what it will take for them to learn better. Sigh.

Idle thought: There's some research that apparently shows that people who take economics become less compassionate after doing so. I wonder if that's the ultimate framing device: primes your mind in a certain way, you see.


Trevor That's much the effect the dangerous women book is having. For example, he mentions that thing Pinker also mentions in one of his books (The Language Instinct maybe) that although cultures have different categories for colours, they invariably have the same types of colours - if they only have only two words for colours they are hot and cold and if they have five words you can be sure black, white, green, red and blue are the words (at least, I think that's the order maybe yellow instead of green, I would need to check) Anyway, this is based on colour receptors in our eyes and in how our brains process data as it works with light frequencies. All good - but what is interesting is that we have separate receptors for blue and green, but the same receptors for green and red. So, we have words that describe blue-green, like turquoise, but only 'murky brown' to describe a colour halfway between green and red.

I've meant to read his Moral Politics, but I found his Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives so disappointing I haven't started yet.


Trevor Yes - I can't remember where I read that research, but I think it is true. It was on the game where they give you $10 and you have to split it between you and someone else. You get to decide how much you keep and how much the other person gets - but the trick is they get to reject the offer and then no one gets anything. The economic rationalist view is that any offer at all should be accepted, even one cent, as you are better off with that than with nothing. But that is not what happens. Most people virtually split it 50-50. Those who offer 20-80 are almost always rejected. The only people who are surprised by this are people with autism and people with an undergrad degree in economics.


Helen (Helena/Nell) This is very funny. I almost regret that I haven't got either . . . .


Stefanos This was my first serious encounter with Behavioral economics, and what an an encounter!Probably the most insightful and life-altering piece of knowledge since reading about natural selection, i loved it.I found and selected this in particular because of your review, so thanks (again!) Trevor!

"Reading this book means not having to read so many others"
So what would you consider a good next step/read related to the subject with complementary matterial? Dan Ariely has an introductory course on coursera and he seems like a cool guy, is Predictably Irrational worth reading?


Trevor Predictably Irrational is one of my all-time favourite books, I saw he had a course, but I just don't have time. I've actually bought it for some people twice by mistake - serves them right for not raving about it in the first place. His others aren't nearly as good, but the credit from his first goes a long way to forgiving that and they aren't crap, just not nearly as good. All the same, The Upside of Irrationality has a really interesting first chapter - which Dan Pink makes a lot of in Drive (the only Pink book you should even consider reading - the others are hopeless) and Pink probably does a better job in drawing out the implications of.

If you can get your hands on it - and it is hard to - The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making is mind blowing. He gets you to do a quiz thing at the start and then explains why you made all the mistakes you did, mmm.... but less annoying than it sounds.

A must read is also How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (which I am always certain is called how we know what just ain't so and it is never called that for some reason. He was the man who proved the 'hot hand' in sports was crap and no one believed him. A god. The last couple of chapters aren't nearly as good, but most of the first half is essential reading.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts - is also wonderful, but I think I might remember it more because of its title. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die is a brilliant book, especially to help you think through how to go about making what you have to say have some kind of impact on other people - I think every teacher should be forced to read it, but then, there are so many books teachers need to be forced to read. It is the much better version of Gladwell's Tipping Point.

The other book that I would seriously recommend - that I think about a lot and think I really learnt something very basic from - is Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. I think the big lesson here is the idea that we live our lives forwards, but actually understand them backwards (I'm nearly certain he doesn't say anything like that in the book - but that's the take away message for me anyway). We need the world to make sense so we make up stories to make it make sense. Then we believe our own bullshit. It's the road to perdition.

I feel like I've done a very good thing starting someone off on an encounter with behavioural economics - your telling me that will make me happy all day.


Stefanos Very helpful, i really appreciate your answer.A lot of reading has to be done, probably some writing as well, i was thinking something like "The error-haunted world:Trevor as a Candle in the Dark" 'll see how it goes. Thanks!


message 3: by Courtney (new) - added it

Courtney Well this has certainly caught my attention. I had several books on my 'to read' list that match your 'read this instead' list. So I think I'll start here now and perhaps check out the others at a later date.

And now for something completely different :)

I don't think I've ever read such an entertaining review! It was fun and enjoyable and felt like a story of its own. I'm intrigued to check out more on your list and your reviews.

Cheers :)


message 2: by Ola (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ola Loobeensky Hahaha, the part about the Monty Python is awesome!


Stephen Wallace I loved the book and recommend everyone read it. Any more psychology books you would recommend that would build on it?


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