Welcome to WeAreSMRT.com. Click here to register

Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

As a group, many of us love to read. The reading group meets here.

Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby FrodoSaves » Mon Jan 07, 2013 6:10 am

Can you re-learn how to think in 418 pages?

That is the ambitious gambit of Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book which aims to pull apart the thought processes of our brains, dissect the common and all too frequent cognitive mistakes we make, and teach us how we can avoid the traps and learn to think better. It is, in some ways, an obituary to the use of intuition for decision making.

The title derives from the book's two "characters", and they stay with us throughout. "System 1" is our immediate, impulsive, automatic thinking machine - the one that knows the answer to "2 + 2" without having to get the cogs whirring, the one that spins us in the direction of a sudden, loud noise, and (if allowed to) the one that happily continues to make error after cognitive error. "System 2", its big brother, is slower, lazier, but more rational and - once it's learned its younger brother's tricks, with Kahneman's assistance - apt to catch System 1 with its fingers in the cookie jar. Like optical illusions which amused us in the second grade, it is Kahneman's goal to teach us to recognise the illusion and not allow System 1 to be duped by it.

The Jekyll and Hyde distinction is unlikely to be a new one to you. I expect no one would be surprised by the proposition that different modes of thinking are involved when tackling "2 + 2" next to "43 x 17". Kahneman's coup, however, is twofold: (i) he describes them with clarity, aided by frequent reference to what I will call "error concepts", and (ii) he takes great pains to hammer home his thesis' relevance - that is, this book is about all of us.

By "error concepts" I mean the tricks and shortcomings of System 1, many of which earn their own chapters. Like a set of tools, Kahneman trots through each one, adding them to your bag for later use in subsequent chapters. One of the central concepts is "WYSIATI" - what you see is all there is. By this, Kahneman means that System 1 simply draws conclusions based on the (almost certainly) incomplete information before it. It's System 2's job to be alive to what Donald Rumsfeld famously called the "unknown unknowns", but all too frequently this doesn't happen. He makes reference to an experiment set up like a civil law suit, where two sides are given broadly the same set of facts, but one is treated to the plaintiff’s “closing submissions” and the other to the defendant’s (and a third sees both sides). Although participants in the first two groups knew they were receiving one-sided evidence, not only did the majority favour the side of the story as they saw it, they also rated themselves as more confident in their judgements than those of the third group. System 1 excels at smoothing out the rough edges of an incomplete story, and translating them into a coherent narrative. WYSIATI.

Another pastime of System 1 is the “heuristic” – or substituting an easier question for the actual question. It is in part this concept that leads interviewers to focus on small or irrelevant details in deciding whether to hire a candidate. Instead of asking themselves whether she is the right person for the job, all too often the question becomes – “did she interview well?” A further concept is what he calls the “halo effect” – extrapolating from a single positive quality into an unsubstantiated supposition of other positive qualities – that a friendly person must be charitable, or that a hard worker must be intelligent. I could list more of these “error concepts”, but in trying to do Kahneman’s impressive list of our frailties justice, I would write far too much.

From the outset, Kahneman goes to great lengths to make us aware that this book is about you - about me, about all of us. We all cut our teeth on the same savannah and - barring an outlier or two - our equipment is primed to think the same way. His great skill is in using the tools and concepts he has already taught to hammer this message home.

For example, System 1 primes you to disbelieve negative statements you read about yourself, but Kahneman pops this bubble early and urges you to be wary of that comforting refrain – “but I wouldn’t have made that mistake.” This is merely System 1 at work.

He does so by reference to a couple of further “error concepts” and uses amusing experiments to explain them. The first is our disinclination to draw inferences from the general as to the particular (although System 1 is perfectly happy to do the opposite). In one experiment, bystanders are videoed to see whether they will voluntarily intervene to assist an actor having a “seizure”. Few do. When these bystanders are subsequently interviewed, participants in the study watch the interviews and are asked their opinion as to whether the interviewees are likely to have been one of the few people who intervened. Even armed with the foreknowledge of the very low intervention rate, participants refused to allow this to affect their judgement of otherwise friendly, likeable people.

Experiments like this are eye-opening, and Thinking, Fast and Slow is full of them, along with surprising asides and observations which will make you want to put the book down and think for five minutes. That is not to say however that the book is without its faults - surprising perhaps because those that I identified were scientific or methodological in nature.

Some of these are characterised by an amusing lack of self-awareness. For example, in one section he bemoans the use of intuition rather than math by scientists in choosing sample sizes for their experiments. To back up his conclusion, he refers to a survey he prepared for a “group of sophisticated participants” as to how these participants went about choosing sample sizes. There is, however, no indication that he applied his own gospel in polling a subset of the congregation.

Another oddity was an experiment ran to explain the “endowment effect”, that is, that we weight losses more greatly than we do gains. Students who were given coffee mugs worth $6 were asked to state their nominal sale price for the mug, whereas prospective buyers were asked to state theirs. Kahneman explains the $4 discrepancy (between $7 for the sellers and $3 for the buyers) by saying that sellers have built into the price the pain of losing something functional and useful, of which the buyers have no subjective experience. This however seems to ignore the story’s “muguffin” – namely that the mug is objectively worth $6. Shouldn’t at least $3 of that $4 difference be explained by the fact that a rational seller wouldn’t have sold below the market price?

Kahneman also frequently and flippantly reverts to evolutionary explanations as to why Systems 1 and 2 operate the way they do. Given the piles of statistics and evidence that underlie most of this book, these explanations seem unsubstantiated, and he appears out of his depth. For example, “Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce” (282). Statements like this appear teleological in context, and – worse, I think – seem to be precisely the type of beguiling “truthy” assertions that he has laboured to raise our defences against.

If nothing else, at least you can’t say I’ve succumbed to the halo effect.

My final gripe is that – and I suspect a publisher’s guiding, greedy, sweaty hand here – the conclusion of every chapter is plagued by corny
"Speaking of Concept X" sections, in which a handful of faux quotes are listed to help readers deploy what they have learned in quotidian parlance. For example: “Our intuitive prediction is very favorable, but it is probably too high. Let’s take into account the strength of our evidence and regress the prediction towards the mean.” Someone at Penguin, I fear, has designs on this book as the next middle management bible.

Unless it’s Kahneman himself, you can’t blame him for that, and it does not really detract from the book. It is ultimately a worthwhile read – both in introducing new concepts, and giving labels to ones you were probably already aware of. I have learned to recognise the whirring down sound of its gears when my System 2 says “you don’t really need me, it’s probably right”. I suspect it won’t change the way you think, but it should make you more wary of the sloppy conclusions we're more than capable of coming to.
Froggie already took the best signature.
User avatar
FrodoSaves
 
Posts: 1173
Joined: Fri Dec 19, 2008 1:30 am
Location: Are we still using the word "Orient"?

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby zilch » Mon Jan 07, 2013 8:11 am

Nice to hear from you again, frodo, and a good review. Sounds intriguing, but as you say, it sounds as though the author hasn't purged himself of system one contamination either. I would just add that although this way of looking at things is insightful and might even be useful, we should keep in mind that there's most likely a smooth continuum between system one and system two thinking, not a sharp line.
You were born. And so you're free. So happy birthday.
- Laurie Anderson
User avatar
zilch
 
Posts: 15233
Joined: Wed Jan 07, 2009 2:12 pm
Location: Vienna, Austria

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby FrodoSaves » Mon Jan 07, 2013 8:40 pm

zilch wrote:Nice to hear from you again, frodo, and a good review. Sounds intriguing, but as you say, it sounds as though the author hasn't purged himself of system one contamination either. I would just add that although this way of looking at things is insightful and might even be useful, we should keep in mind that there's most likely a smooth continuum between system one and system two thinking, not a sharp line.


Thanks zilch. The author has actually won a Nobel prize, which made me question myself when I thought I found an error. But he actually devotes a chapter to the value of questioning so-called expertise, so I suppose it's only fitting.

Do you have any examples in mind when you speak of the continuum between systems?
Froggie already took the best signature.
User avatar
FrodoSaves
 
Posts: 1173
Joined: Fri Dec 19, 2008 1:30 am
Location: Are we still using the word "Orient"?

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby E-lad » Mon Jan 07, 2013 9:43 pm

Deep.
Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.- Horace Walpole
User avatar
E-lad
 
Posts: 14772
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2008 12:48 pm
Location: Northwestern Pennsylvania

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby FrodoSaves » Tue Jan 08, 2013 9:20 am

E-lad wrote:Deep.


Throat?
Froggie already took the best signature.
User avatar
FrodoSaves
 
Posts: 1173
Joined: Fri Dec 19, 2008 1:30 am
Location: Are we still using the word "Orient"?

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby zilch » Tue Jan 08, 2013 9:37 am

One example is Kahneman's own: arithmetic. I don't know about the rest of you, but my memorization of the multiplication table has developed some rough edges. I used to know up to 25x25 fluently, but nowadays, I have to do lots of them in my head. But there's no line I can see between an "instant" answer from memory, through a vague memory of the thirteen's table (but which one?) to having to really work it out from scratch, including counting. It's all a jumble, and I suspect the same is true of most such distinctions between system one and system two thinking.

But of course that doesn't mean it's a useless contrast- we must make decisions that divide the world in two all the time. We just need to keep in mind that the distinctions are often points along a continuum.
You were born. And so you're free. So happy birthday.
- Laurie Anderson
User avatar
zilch
 
Posts: 15233
Joined: Wed Jan 07, 2009 2:12 pm
Location: Vienna, Austria

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby FrodoSaves » Wed Jan 09, 2013 7:36 am

On the subject of books, has anyone read Stephen King's 11.22.63? If not, highly recommend it. Just finished reading it and found it oddly moving.
Froggie already took the best signature.
User avatar
FrodoSaves
 
Posts: 1173
Joined: Fri Dec 19, 2008 1:30 am
Location: Are we still using the word "Orient"?

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby E-lad » Wed Jan 09, 2013 12:39 pm

FrodoSaves wrote:On the subject of books, has anyone read Stephen King's 11.22.63? If not, highly recommend it. Just finished reading it and found it oddly moving.


Since my schedule the last couple weeks has been frenzied, at best, I will be anxiously waiting your review!

Btw, JFK was buried on my 13th birthday, 25 Nov 1963. I still wonder why they did it so fast.
Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.- Horace Walpole
User avatar
E-lad
 
Posts: 14772
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2008 12:48 pm
Location: Northwestern Pennsylvania

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby FrodoSaves » Thu Jan 10, 2013 7:48 am

E-lad wrote:Since my schedule the last couple weeks has been frenzied, at best, I will be anxiously waiting your review!

Btw, JFK was buried on my 13th birthday, 25 Nov 1963. I still wonder why they did it so fast.


A nasty case of the stinkies?
Froggie already took the best signature.
User avatar
FrodoSaves
 
Posts: 1173
Joined: Fri Dec 19, 2008 1:30 am
Location: Are we still using the word "Orient"?

Re: Wordy Review - Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Postby E-lad » Thu Jan 10, 2013 11:49 am

FrodoSaves wrote:
E-lad wrote:Since my schedule the last couple weeks has been frenzied, at best, I will be anxiously waiting your review!

Btw, JFK was buried on my 13th birthday, 25 Nov 1963. I still wonder why they did it so fast.


A nasty case of the stinkies?


It didn't seem to bother the Russians. Lenin is still on display.
Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.- Horace Walpole
User avatar
E-lad
 
Posts: 14772
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2008 12:48 pm
Location: Northwestern Pennsylvania


Return to The SMRT Bibliophile Lounge

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

cron