Thoughts: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

This is another book recommended by a friend, and I admit I was a bit wary about it at first, mostly because I read Freakonomics in the recent past and something about its overly friendly hip nerdness had… not exactly rubbed me up the wrong way, but made me suspicious, perhaps? I have of course read other non-fiction books on brains and intelligence of a different kind (notably The Mismeasure of Man and Intelligence: All That Matters) but for some reason I got a Freakonomics type vibe from Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Which is all moot because I was totally on the wrong track.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is an attempt to get to grips with thought processes so instinctive that we don’t notice them, and even if we do, we can’t stop them. It’s not a book of life hacks (thank god)but the culmination of years of research, distilled into one very dense but enthusiastic book. It isn’t the easiest read, and the two appendices which are reprinted papers describing phenomena which were thoroughly (so thoroughly!) described in earlier chapters are definitely not required reading, but on the whole I’m glad I read the book.

As usual, disclaimer that I’m not in a scientific line of work, and especially not in Kahneman’s field, so there are certain kinds of errors I am not likely to pick up on (if present, and given the attention this book has received I’d expect any major flaws to have come out by now).

Thinking, Fast and Slow posits very convincingly that there are two main types of thought: a fast, instinctive one and a slower, more ponderous one. I’m not going to go into too much detail, as the book itself explains all this better than I ever could, and once I started I would find myself writing out the whole book to explain it all. The gist is that both of these systems work perfectly well a lot of the time – of course they do; we’ve all made it this far in our lives. But sometimes they can be fooled, or rather some kinds of decisions tend to bring out the same mistakes in them. Without getting too evo-psych on anyone, our brains evolved to cope with a certain environment, and that environment has changed. What’s being offered here is not a way to change the way we think from scratch, but an understanding of the errors that our thinking can fall into, and therefore a chance to try to overcome them, especially when the decisions we are making are important. The lack of easy fix almost reassured me that Kahneman was being serious. Always take easy fixes with a pinch of salt, etc.

I’m possibly making it sound dry, which is a disservice to the book – it’s dense and can be repetitive, and it took me a while to get through, but I was regularly learning things that blew my mind, even though they were perfectly common sense things. It was probably because they were so common sense that I was so amazed – I just hadn’t thought of these things I knew from these particular angles.

The book is full of example questions as well, so you can watch your brain trip over itself in real time (or be smug about your superior logical skills). Embarrassingly, I skipped some of the maths ones because I tend to read on my commute and my maths is quite rusty, but I enjoyed the rest of them when I wasn’t trying to out-think Kahneman (“x is the obvious answer so I should say y” – the thing is, it doesn’t actually matter if you do this – x being the obvious answer is the point. You can’t make your brain stop thinking x is the obvious answer). The gambling questions all taught me how boring and risk-averse I am, but also brought into sharp relief how easy it is to manipulate people into thinking a risk is safe, or how easy it is to manipulate a response simply by the way you phrase a choice, which was depressingly interesting. But what can you do? No configuration of words is neutral.

Well, for a start we can, as choice makers (as opposed to choice givers) be aware that no configuration of words is neutral, and consider a choice from the other ways it could have been phrased – would that have changed our instinctive decision?

‘What do you do about it?’ is not explicitly engaged in as a topic by this book, which is just a laying out of the results of Kahneman’s research for the most part, but at the same time it’s the whole point of the book. As earnest and not-tragically-hip as the book is, it’s aimed squarely at businessmen, as you can tell from the ‘speaking of’ sections at the end of each chapter. These sections contain a few example sentences of dialogue discussing an ‘everyday’ issue in terms of the conceptes introduced in the chapter. ‘Everyday’ scenarios being mostly business deals and mergers and whatnot.

And, sure, business deals and whatnot are everyday life for a minority of people, but I really want to talk about them in terms of how they affect ordinary people. Because they do affect us, and in ways that seem more real, and are therefore up for higher levels of manipulation and exploitation.

In the end, all you can do is be aware. Kahneman himself says that despite all the work he’s done on this, he finds himself falling into the same traps. All he can do is recognise the red flags of one of these choices or decisions and try to be prepared. Honestly, even if the science changes radically in the future, a lot of his advice is still sound. Remember that every statistic has two sides (80% of one thing is almost by definition 20% of another). Be mindful that questions asked and answered must match up – scrutinise them. Just so much of it boils down to ‘think harder before you make an important decision’. And thinking harder, whether fast or slow, can’t really be unsound advice.

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