[Review] Thinking, Fast and Slow

In the past year I have read two books that completely transformed how I understand reality. The first, The Information by James Gleick, which I reviewed here, helped me truly understand for the first time just what is information, that pervasive abstraction that overwhelms us all.

Thinking, Fast and Slow gave me the same clarity to understand cognition. It is essentially a compendium of a lifetime of research by Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman into how cognition works (and, just as often, doesn’t). If you’re not yet willing to commit to what is a lengthy and fairly dense book, I’d recommend starting out with this conversation with Kahneman from the London School of Economics podcast, which in my case was intriguing enough to convince me to read the entire book.

The book is divided into three sections and makes three main arguments:

  • We’re lazy. We can think of our brain as divided between two “systems,” or types of cognition. As Kahneman distinguishes them, “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.” What’s 2+2? You can answer that question effortlessly using System 1. But what’s 17 X 23? To answer that you would need to use System 2. You could do it, but it would take effort, and you would only take that effort if there is a strong incentive to do so. Our nature is laziness. We avoid using System 2 as much as possible. As a result, “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Kahneman’s somewhat depressing advice to writers and marketers: “the recipients of your message want to stay away from anything that reminds them of effort.”
  • We make poor choices. The second section focuses on how we make choices, and the cognitive biases that prevent us from deciding effectively. It’s a highly readable summary of his decades of work developing Prospect Theory, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. We tend to make decisions based on how well they fit into the narrative that we have constructed rather than the ultimate outcome. In hindsight, we take responsibility for decisions that lead to positive outcomes and shirk responsibility for those decisions that lead to negative outcomes. The second section, though it reads slowly, is the most relevant to my work. I’ve witnessed the hindsight bias in action plenty. At our annual review of all our grants and investments, we are quick to take credit for those investments that went well, but when a project went off course it’s always due to some external factor that we allegedly couldn’t have predicted nor prevented.
  • There are two kinds of happiness, two kinds of selves. Kahneman writes: “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” Another way to put it is that there is contentment, when we reflect back over our life and are either disappointed or content, and there is joy, those individual moments of happiness that make us smile and laugh. You can probably think of friends who are always content but rarely joyous, and vise-versa. Spending time with children, Kahneman finds, doesn’t cause all that much joy, but adds a lot to one’s contentment. For me, one of the most interesting discoveries about happiness is the role of “duration neglect.” The majority of respondents say they would rather live 45 extremely happy years and then die than live 45 extremely happy years followed by 5 years of moderately happy years and then die. The end of the movie is the most important part. Another interesting — and obvious — finding is that attention is one of the greatest factors of pleasure. Americans take less pleasure in eating than the French, and that’s because Americans are more prone to combine eating with other activities.

At times, especially in the second section of the book on decision making, Kahneman is repetitive and is compelled to cite more research than necessary. At several points in the book I sighed out loud: yeah, I get it, let’s move on, I wanted to tell him. Also, it’s clear that he has his own biases. Like me, he’s skeptical of self-proclaimed experts and believes more in the wisdom of the crowd. If he were to take his own advice, the book would be twice as long and full of counter-arguments from his detractors.

Still, I couldn’t recommend this book more. To everyone. It is full of interesting observations and research studies that opened my mind to just how little I should trust it.

I was left with one concern that Kahneman never addresses. Rather than fluctuating between System 1, auto-pilot intuition, and System 2, careful contemplation, I feel like I’m passing more and more of my life in System 1.5, constantly processing information, sorta paying attention, but never giving it as much clear-headed reflection as I once did.

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