Thinking, Fast and Slow

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I'd had this 2011 book on my to-be-read list for years, but it kept going on "course reserve" lists at the University Near Here library. I finally broke down and ordered the Kindle version from Amazon. It's very good. The author, Daniel Kahneman, won the 2002 Nobel Economics Prize for his research into how humans make decisions, and that research, and more, is reported here. It is a wonderfully written and accessible book; it's clear that Kahneman really wants to tell you interesting stuff, and he wants you to understand it.

It's the kind of book that makes you think Big Thoughts. Like: Darwinists tell us, and they're probably right, that our brains are the product of eons of evolution; for nearly that entire time, that meant the basics: figuring out how to reproduce, get food, try to avoid becoming food, defend against the elements, etc. But somehow that brain, developed for brute survival, has in a relative eyeblink in time, allowed us to plumb the secrets of the universe, develop all sorts of gadgets, construct art, language, Major League Baseball …

How could that possibly have happened? It's enough to make one believe in Intelligent Design!

But, as Kahneman demonstrates convincingly, our "intelligence" is quirky enough to argue against that thesis too. If God designed our brains to act this way, He's open to a lot of criticism. They work OK, but not that OK.

Anyway: the book discusses (as you might guess from the title) two distinct modes of thinking. Kahneman nearly anthropomorphizes these modes, calling them "System 1" and "System 2". (He's careful to note that this is a shorthand for what's actually going on.)

System 1 is the fast thinker. It's responsible for most of the activities we carry out "without thinking" (although it is thinking). It is impulsive, liable to reach conclusions on the basis of incomplete information, therefore gullible, and does a decent job most of the time. Its operations are mostly subconscious.

But it's overmatched on any issue that requires deliberation, calculation, or other higher reasoning, for which it calls in "slow" System 2. Problem is, System 2 is—Kahneman's own word—lazy. (I think this implies that the brain areas involved in System 2 thought gobble up a lot more energy; evolution-wise, it makes sense to use System 2 only when absolutely needed.)

Now, if you're a researcher into how this all works, as Kahneman is, your methods involve mostly trickery: lead System 1 into error, see under what conditions System 2 is invoked, see when System 2 rolls over, goes back to sleep, tells System 1 to just deal with it already. It turns out to be absurdly easy to lead our brains into fallacy, bias, and irrational choices. Kahneman tells these tales with a lot of sly humor—which makes sense, because such mental errors seem to be the source of a lot of comedy as well. Some of Kahneman's humor is refreshingly self-deprecating; he's not shy about discussing the episodes in which he was led into fallacy.

He details a large variety of those biases and how they manifest themselves in everyday life. Another "big idea": most entrepreneurship and innovation is, strictly speaking, based in fallacious optimism about how things could turn out. Most entrepreneurs crash and burn, most innovations aren't necessary, many new businesses fail, etc. But the ones that do prevail, against the odds, drive economic prosperity.

So we may be rich, not in spite of our flawed mental processes, but because of our flawed mental processes. Hm.

Now it's not all wonderful. Kahneman veers into the political in his final chapters, arguing that Research Shows the untenability of the "Chicago School" economics as explicated by (say) fellow Nobelist Milton Friedman. Instead he seems to advocate "libertarian paternalism" like "Nudge" authors Sunstein and Thaler. I remain skeptical.


Last Modified 2017-01-08 8:24 AM EST