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Food for Thought

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

ImageFor those who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, this statistically more heavyweight but equally as engaging Thinking, Fast and Slow addresses the subject of intuitive vs. rational thought more thoroughly, based on many years of research conducted by Kahneman and his colleagues.

The foundational premise of the book is that our minds are programmed with two “systems” – which he designates System 1 and System 2. Whilst maintaining that this differentiation is a model of how the brain works, rather than literal physical structures in the brain, Kahneman is able to very sharply contrast them: System 1 is automatic, intuitive, effortless, while System 2 is slower, rational, effortful. He also claims that System 2 is often very lazy, taking System 1’s conclusions for granted and not questioning the initial, irrational conclusions drawn by System 1. The implications of this are wide-ranging: from the optical illusion that we cannot help but be fooled by, even if we know that it is an illusion; heuristics, whereby we sidestep a complex question by substituting and answering a simpler one, without realising that a substitution has taken place (such as judging someone’s leadership ability by their physical impressiveness) and logical fallacies.

Worryingly, he also brings System 2 to trial for leaving complex moral decisions and self-control to System 1; his decades of research suggest that, since System 2 is effortful, “depletion,” effort, hunger or tiredness can affect judgements, demonstrated by a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggested that the likelihood of a judge granting parole was in part influenced by whether or not that judge had eaten lunch (a whole new take on the expression “food for thought,” I suppose).

Although this book lacks the slight smugness that can characterise Gladwell’s writing, there is a certain amount of finger-pointing at the reader “if you agree this is true, then it is also true of you,” which both makes it an uncomfortable read in places, and also makes it difficult to disagree with. While protesting that System 1 usually serves us well, Kahneman spends very little time on its merits, highlighting only the significant and often worrying implications of our reliance on System 1… and as Kahneman himself point out, “WYSIATI” (What You See Is All There Is), casting intuitive processing in a very bad light.

Nevertheless, this book is a relentless source of extremely interesting observations with practical implications for everyday life. From becoming aware of the biases of information – that we can only make judgements based upon the information we have, not the information that we do not have – to the counter-intuitive concept of regression to the mean, to the strange idea that while taking one high-risk, high-yield decision may likely leave us worse off, taking many such decisions will be statistically advantageous. Since I read this book partly on the train to job interviews in London, I found myself critically appraising the interview process based on its reasoning: the difference between candidates is probably less great than it first appears, based on regression to the mean; the statistical likelihood of the candidate having a bad day; the heuristic of judging performance at interview as a substitute for likely performance on the job. In frustration, I declared to my family that employers might as well just take resumés and references and make equally as valid hiring decisions, without dragging me up to London. But then, I want a job, and my System 2 advises me to make the most of the process and use the 45-minute commute to interviews to read more books like this one.

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