Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I have a real problem with thinking that people are idiots. I'm working on it -- but in the meantime, here's a book by someone who kinda thinks the same thing but has research to back it up.

You've seen this video before, right?

Super cute kids trying so, so hard not to eat a marshmallow (because if they can hold out, they get two -- the agony!). But do you know much about the actual psychology behind this experiment? Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow explores the importance of the kind of mental processes that enable that darling kid from 2:50 to be a much more successful adult than that little redhead girl at 3:10. Seriously -- we can predict that just from this little video!

Kahneman isn't the guy behind this experiment, of course -- that's Walter Mischel. But Kahneman (he won the Nobel Prize in Economics, by the way) takes the Marshmallow Experiment and other psychological studies like it and paints a somewhat-scary picture of human nature. Remember when Rob Gordon (aka the always-great John Cusack) tells us, in High Fidelity, that his "gut's got sh!t for brains"? He wasn't far off.

Kahneman breaks down our minds into two basic systems. System 1 is our "fast" way of thinking -- our instinctive gut reactions based on emotional responses. System 2 is "slow" -- deliberate, logical, purposeful. Too often, we rely on System 1 (even when we think we're using System 2!), and this is what gets us into a whole heap of trouble.

Here are some examples Kahneman uses in his book. Some of these probably work a little better if I were to say them to you out loud rather than just having you read them, but so are the constraints of blogging! Ready for a pop quiz?

1. A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

2. Which of these is a correct statement? 
Adolf Hitler was born in 1892.
Adolf Hitler was born in 1887.

3. Who do you trust more?
ALAN -- intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious
BEN -- envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent

4. Which of these pairs of words rhyme?

How'd you do? I bet for #1, even if you got the right answer (which is 5 cents), your first inclination was to say $0.10, wasn't it? For the second one, I'm guessing most of you picked the first sentence. (Actually, neither one is correct -- he was born in 1889 -- but putting something in bold makes people more confident about it!) Alan and Ben have exactly the same characteristics, but since we list Alan's "positive" ones first and Ben's "negatives," we're more inclined to like Alan. And, for #4, both of those word pairs rhyme, but an impulse answer tends to be to pick pair #1, because they are spelled similarly.

These are just little mind games, of course. But think about the kind of impact this has on our daily lives: how often do we make financial decisions based on these kinds of impulses? How about with our careers? Our families? Our health? How does our natural tendency to focus on the present as the barometer for decision making affect our ability to predict, plan for, and achieve future happiness?

It's hard to sum up everything Kahneman talks about without making the book sound trite or getting way too long-winded (which I've already done, admittedly). Here's Kahneman's mission in his own words: "[the aim of this book is to] improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgments and choices often cause" (taken from the introduction, which you can read all of here). At 420 pages (not counting the appendices!), this is not a quick pleasure read -- but I think it's an important one. Unlike similar books (which I also loved) by Dan Ariely and Daniel Gilbert (did not notice the Dan trend until I typed this out!), Thinking Fast and Slow feels like more than just pop psychology -- it reads like you just took and aced an upper-level college seminar. Still too daunting to tackle? Try starting with this interview, or this one. You can also find condensed excerpts here.

The really nice thing about all of this? Kahneman, for as smart as he is and as much as he knows about the flaws of the human mind, somehow doesn't make you feel like an idiot even as you recognize yourself in his descriptions and examples. Now that's something to try to live up to.

Final verdict: ****


  1. You always read the most interesting books it seems like. That marshmallow test was pretty interesting and funny to watch!

  2. That video at the beginning immediately reminded me of another childhood psychology study that was mentioned in a This American Life episode:
    They had children look in a box and then they closed the box and said "Let's pretend there is a puppy/monster in the box." and they would ask "Is there really a puppy/monster in the box?" and the children would say "no, it was just pretend." Then they'd leave the children in the room alone with the box. The children who were told there was a pretend puppy in the box would eventually go over and peek inside the box just to be sure. The children that were told there was a monster in the box would inch further away from the box.

  3. This sounds so interesting!

    I have to say I loved the first sentence in this post. : ) And that pin is hilarious!

  4. great, great entry! i have a feeling I'll read this one again to re-affirm my belief that yes, everything WILL be okay.

  5. Another interesting post, Tom. This is a topic that can fuel a life-time of research and study, but I leave a couple remarks.Gives you a lot to think about. A must read!