Review of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


This book, published in 2011, was recommended to me by my son when he came to stay for Christmas. I’ll give you due warning – if you are looking for an easy, lightweight read then leave this one on the pile and come back to it when you are ready to give your grey matter a thorough workout.

Experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman has won a Nobel prize for his work on Prospect theory – but that is only part of the work he has done in a long career examining how the human mind operates. I found the font downright unfriendly as it’s far fainter and close packed than my middle-aged eyes want to tackle, but I soon discovered that this was a deliberate ploy. Kahneman has noticed that we respond to problem solving in largely two ways that he calls System 1 and System 2. Our System 1 is the normal default setting that mostly responds to the multitude of decisions that confronts us in our daily lives – it is quick, often providing an answer in less than a second; instinctive – System 1 will take clues, often inappropriately, from our surroundings and is also influenced by our emotional state. While Kahneman is at pains to emphasise System 1 works very well in a large number of situations, every single one of us make some major mistakes that can have life-changing consequences by relying too much on our System 1 reflexes.

System 2 is the type of thinking we employ when we come up against a problem that we identify as too difficult for our System 1 to process. System 2 is slower, more measured and less prone to be affected emotionally, although we should all be aware that our thinking fast and slwosurroundings have far greater impact on our mindset than we realise. Kahneman discusses a set of experiments where the participants sat in a room and answered questions about how willing they were to help friends and/or people they didn’t know. When dollar signs were displayed across the screensavers on the computers, participants were noticeably less generous – even though they didn’t consciously notice the screensavers. But Kahneman also characterises our System 2 mental processing as being lazy – it is reluctant to engage. One of the things that nudges it to work is when the font is difficult to read…

Much of his most productive experiments were conducted with his collaborator and friend, Amos Tversky, now dead. Kahneman is more than generous with attributing a great deal of the credit for his achievements to his partner – and you get the sense that this book is, in part, a tribute to Tversky.

Kahneman’s prose, is very clear and if he uses any kind of jargon connected with his studies, he is at pains to fully explain exactly what he means. And the unfriendly font and measured writing style delivers some head-swivelling discoveries. For instance, when questioning patients who had just undergone a painful medical procedure, their recollection didn’t hinge on the duration of the procedure at all. Patients judged their experience on the peak pain levels (which they were asked to evaluate on a scale 1-10 every 60 seconds) and how much they were suffering when the procedure came to an end. So one patient who endured the procedure for twenty-five minutes felt more positive than another whose surgery lasted eight minutes, because that patient’s pain level right at the end was still significant. Ah, you’re thinking – that was because the second patient was in greater pain during the shorter operation. No – both patients reported the same pain levels… And this isn’t a one off finding – when recalling similar episodes, the duration is something that most people don’t recall effectively and so don’t factor in when recalling their experiences. Although, I’m hoping that particular experiment won’t be repeated any time soon, as those patients enduring the longer procedure had their operation deliberately extended.

So does the book measure up to the back cover hype? The answer is – yes it does. And if you are thinking of dabbling in the stock market, making any large purchases, or have a crucial decision to make regarding your health, then read this book first. In fact, I think I’m going to have to get my own copy, just in case…

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