Monday, July 29, 2019

Thinking, Fast and Slow: a very short review

Suppose you were to (somehow? I don't know how to do this) compile a list of all the books written by all the Nobel Prize winners.

And then, exclude the ones written by the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, because of course they write a lot of books!

And then, exclude the ones written by the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, because they write a lot of books, too.

I think at that point you're left with a pretty short list of books.

Of those, you'll find the occasional book written by a Nobel Prize winner in the hard sciences, such as James Watson's The Double Helix, or Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar, but mostly what you'll find are books written by winners of the Nobel Economics Prize.

Because those economists write a lot of books, too.

And I confess that I haven't read most of those books.

But, occasionally, the Nobel Prize in Economics is awarded to somebody who isn't, strictly speaking, an economist, and Daniel Kahneman is one such. Kahneman, who had a long career as a Professor of Psychology at Princeton, takes the opportunity, with Thinking, Fast and Slow, to describe his conclusions about something that might sound trivial, but is actually quite sophisticated: how do we think?

Not, that is, how we think at some sort of physical level, with neurons and transmitters and the like, but how do we make decisions, how do we come to conclusions, how do we form judgments?

Kahneman's fundamental insight is that there are two different mechanisms at play: fast thinking, which is spontaneous and intuitive; and slow thinking, which is deliberate and effortful. In a rather awkward turn of phrase, he calls these System 1 and System 2:

I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.
  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
The labels of System 1 and System 2 are widely used in psychology, but I go further than most in this book, which you can read as a psychodrama with two characters.

When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps. I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

And the rest of the book, indeed, in quite readable prose and with very evocative and illuminating examples, explains these notions in considerable detail.

I think you can summarize Kahneman's book pretty reasonably as: usually, you let yourself be driven by hunches and knee-jerk reactions; yet usually, your hunches and intuitions are pretty reliable, especially in areas where you have lots of experience; sometimes, though your best guess is really bad, and you need to be aware that this can happen so that you can guard against it.

I know: that sounds pretty dry. But overall, this isn't a dry book. It's a surprisingly interesting and compelling book!

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