Thinking, Fast and Slow

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

I heard about Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economic Science for his work in psychology, on NPR a few weeks ago. It’s an easy book to follow—depth-wise—but a bit overwhelming—breath-wise. Meaning…I understood most of it but had to take many breaks to process what I understood. Consequently, I’m going to highlight some particularly interesting tidbits (or maybe the ones I understood the best) and encourage you to read the entire work.

Kahneman’s book revolves around Keith Stanovich and Richard West’s discovery that our brains operate between “System 1” and “System 2.” In a nut shell, System 1 deals with intuition, knee-jerk reactions, and impulsive responses while System 2 deals with reasoning, cognition, and problem-solving. Additionally, System 2 divides its operations into two minds: “slow thinking and demanding computation” and “rationality” (not intelligence). Stanovich stresses that the reflective mind is “lazy.” So whenever we get a chance to use our System 1, we do so because it’s effortless. (48-49) Listening to your System 1 only, try to solve this problem: A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost.” You probably answered “10 cents.” But if that were true, the total would be $1.20. So much for relying on your intuition. The answer, now that you’re rapidly employing your System 2, you discover is 5 cents. Of course! (44) Unfortunately, we live our lives trying to rely on our System 1s without knowing the source of our intuition. (64) Additionally, mood affects our System 1’s effectiveness: bad moods reduce our ability to intuit and good moods release our creativity but may impair our cognition. (69) This leaves us with a less than successful approach to life. Moreover, System 1 never stores alternatives or options. That’s for System 2, which is the domain of doubt and conflicting interpretations. (81) Finally, WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) refers to jumping to conclusions. With limited or erroneous data, our System 1s feel perfectly comfortable concluding and judging. (86)

Let’s turn our attention to how the mind “perceives” cause and effect. Most of us subscribe to what Hume “proved,” which is that we “infer physical causality from repeated observations of correlations among events.” (76) It turns out that it’s more likely that we infer cause-and-effect relationships from impressions, which don’t involve observations or reasoning. I’ve read this before. Kahneman distinguishes between “freely willed action” and “physical causality.” The point is that we separate the physical from the non-physical in our minds. Paul Bloom (The Atlantic 2005) believes that this explains why our System 1s are hot-wired at birth toward religious beliefs. (77) So next time that you’re sure of a cause and effect relationship, ask yourself why that’s so. How many times have you witnessed the c/e replicated? Or have you ever witnessed it?

We all jump to conclusions, but why? It seems that we’re influenced by “empty persuasive messages” when we’re weak and weary. Further, we have trouble unbelieving what we later find out are untruths. I remember a dean once advised me not to record brainstorming sessions on the blackboard because students couldn’t unlearn it very easily. Same principle. This leads to “confirmation bias.” Did you ever realize that you were so intent to validate your hypothesis that you uncritically accepted opinions, exaggerations, and suggestions? Did you ever ignore your suspicions that your conclusions were unreasonable rather than test them experimentally? You’re not just susceptible to advertisements, for example, you’re eager for them. That’s because your System 2 lazily sits back while System 1 gleefully grabs data (even nonsense) and pronounces it true. (81) Take a minute to reflect how easily your biases have developed in this way.

The “halo effect,” which is [t]he tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person—including things you have not observed”–explained one of my flaws. (82) I admit that I tend toward exaggerated language and positions. Sometimes I catch myself saying, “I hate______.” And it’s often not something even remotely worthy of such venom. Like, black butterflies. Needless to say, this shapes how I process and record my world. (I wonder though, if I tend toward negativity, if there could be a better term than “halo.”)

People of the Lie and The Gift of Fear explain how humans can instinctually sense which strangers to fear and avoid. Kahneman weighs in, as well, reflecting on Alex Todorov’s research: “…we are endowed with an ability to evaluate in a single glance at a stranger’s face, two potentially crucial facts about that person: how dominant (and therefore potentially threatening) he is, and how trustworthy he is, whether his intentions are more likely to be friendly or hostile.” (90) Sounds good if it’s a reliable approach, but of course, it’s not. After all, we learned that from the Middle Ages’ predilection toward physiognomy, which claimed that, for example, beady eyes reveals a sinister nature or a broad forehead reveals intelligence. Think Chaucer’s pilgrims’ descriptions in The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately, this has continued because it’s a brain thing. So even in modernity, people vote according to the size, shape, and features of the candidates’ faces. (91) And where has that gotten us? More pervasively, we imagine frightening thoughts and images with incredible ease, which quickly and strongly intensifies our fears. (139) I’m going to employ that information as my excuse for avoiding the flying monkeys scene in The Wizard of Oz movie until, in my forties, I was stuck in the middle of a long post office queue with the TV playing. I’m still not watching some of Silence of the Lambs.

Our ability to over-compute details is what Kahneman calls the “mental shotgun.” Just like a shotgun’s spray, our System 2s can’t be controlled or limited. He enlightens with this example: VOTE-NOTE VOTE-GOAT. If asked which pair rhymes, you would answer that both do. But you probably would take longer to answer for the second pair because you also processed the spelling differentiation. (95) Although it wasn’t necessary to do that in order to correctly answer the question, you really couldn’t help to consider it. Here’s another example: Press a button when you recognize which statement is false: “Some roads are snakes.” PAUSE…BUZZ “Some jobs are snakes.” BUZZ “Some jobs are jails.” PAUSE…BUZZ. Why does it take you longer to confirm that the first and third sentences are false? Because those sentences could be metaphorically true. (96) You see how we process more than we need to?

We prefer to believe that we live in a coherent world. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism but we believe that what repeats does so because of some logical causality. For our sanity’s sake, we favor design, predictability, and intention—even when none exists. In such a case, our System 1 takes over and causes us to frequently err through miscalculating our world, declaring randomness to be systematic. Like it or not, small samples don’t guarantee statistically sound results and the world often operates through chance. (118) No wheel of fortune.

The “anchoring effect” is one of my favorite discoveries reading Kahneman’s work. “It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number that people considered—hence the image of an anchor.” (119) Example: You are asked to flip a wheel of fortune that is fixed to land on 10 or 65. If it lands on 10, you will answer lower to a subsequent question even if it’s completely unrelated than you would have if it had landed on 65.

  1. Landed on 10. Asked how old Gandhi was when he died. Answered 68.
  2. Landed on 65. Asked how old Gandhi was when he died. Answered 104.

Try it out on people. Give them a number to anchor to and they reach toward it with their next decision. Are you thinking of the last time you bid on something or approached a sale? Remember when large corporations succeeded to create a $1 million ceiling for lawsuits? Guess what happened thereafter? Juries approach the $1 million much more frequently. And although that still might benefit big corporations, it’s destroyed some smaller ones. Final thought: “However, you should assume that any number that is on the table has had an anchoring effect on you, and if the stakes are high you should mobilize yourself (your System 2) to combat the effect.” (128) Good to know that we’re not at the mercy of anchoring effects and, more importantly, our System 1s.

Here’s another cool insight. We have 2 selves—a remembering self and an experiencing self. (389) We much prefer to privilege our remembering self. For example, as a teenager, you underwent a root canal that lasted 40 minutes with intense pain during the last 5 minutes. In your thirties, you undergo your second root canal, which lasted 30 minutes with intense pain for 15 minutes toward the middle, but ending with 5 minutes of pain relieved. Now, you need a third root canal. Asked which procedure you’d like to repeat, you’ll likely pick the second because your memory relies on the final moments. Yes, even though you endured 10 more minutes of pain. Your remembering self rules over your experiencing self. Still doubtful? If you were promised a free, luxurious, and fun-loving trip but not able to remember one detail or view one photo of it, would you go? Most people say that they wouldn’t.

Do you want to easily and cheaply influence someone? It’ll cost you only a dime. Researchers asked interviewees to copy a piece of paper at a nearby photo copier. Then they asked them to rate their overall happiness. Those who picked up a planted dime laying on the copier, typically gave higher happiness ratings than those who didn’t find a dime. Luck and mood clearly effected their self-perceptions of their happiness. (399) Now I know why some professors give food to students who are about to evaluate their courses.

Like it or not, we are physically prone toward being satisfied and dissatisfied throughout our life. That is, our happiness and unhappiness temperaments are as genetically constructed as our height or intelligence. (401) This explains why the same set of circumstances can destroy one person’s mood but unaffect another’s. Some of us (me, for example) need to work much harder than others for that gleam in our eyes, that chuckle in our voice, and that smile on our lips. For some people, being happy takes work.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed my catalog of insights from Thinking, Fast and Slow. You might also listening to the NPR show.


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