Book Review – ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman

To an economist humans are rational, selfish, and their tastes do not change, however to a psychologist it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable. It is this debate that the book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ seeks to address. The most important living psychologist of our times ‘Daniel Kahneman’ turns psychology into a predictable science by carrying out repeatable experiments which are generally posed as one-liner questions all through the book, and the responses would surprise even the biggest sceptics of psychology. The book to a large extent is a treatise of the seminal work carried out by Daniel over four decades. It is probably a side issue that some of his work also earned him a Nobel Prize in Economics – a rarity for a psychologist – or that it inspired the past two decades of popular psychology writing that we are now familiar with.

The core of the book explains that we are still largely controlled by our inherited nomadic brain functioning even when we don’t have the same ancestral survival challenges as that in a jungle requiring a very fast reaction. We address most problems faced everyday with a quick response, a response that doesn’t require thinking only comparing against all past experiences stored in our mental library and repeating the past action as soon as a specific experience is matched. For instance, every time we have to tie our shoelaces we quickly – and unconsciously – scan our brain for the past process and as soon as we find it we quickly apply it for tying the laces. The process is easy and doesn’t require us to think and analyze the problem carefully. The trouble arises when we search our mental library for a ready response and match rope tying, for example, to laces tying because our mind wants to quickly identify a known past pattern and repeat action rather than spend time thinking carefully about it; and, laces tying seems close to the past experience even if we might not have any such past rope tying experience to rely on. This is how mind tricks us into believing we have got the correct answer and this sometimes leads us into committing fatal errors.

Why is it that when discussing a surgical procedure we consider the statement, ‘The one-month survival rate is 90%’ more optimistically than, ‘There is 10% mortality in the first month’, even when both of them mean the same thing. And, why is it that most of us might refuse going on a vacation at the end of which all the pictures and videos would be deleted and our mind would be wiped off of any memory of the trip – after all we go on holidays to refresh and rejuvenate not just build pictures and memories. Why a $100 loss might appear more painful than a $100 gain even when it is the same amount of money. A shrewd seller might quote a price of $80 for an article of actual value of only $10, making it virtually impossible for us to negotiate it down to anywhere near the true value, the closest most people are able to bargain in such cases is nearly $50 and even at that deeply discounted level seller books astronomical profits. Why do we assume that a good looking person will be highly skilled as well? Why does text written in BOLD persuade us to believe it more? And, shockingly why judges drastically deny parole shortly before lunch but their rate shoots back up to morning levels post having their lunch? Examples such as these have been used all through the book to explain and build the theory of human irrationality.

The book is a treat to read and is a true revelation in many ways, however the rich content and details of the experiment which are a true hallmark of a scholar can tend to get a bit too intense and it might therefore come out as a heavy read at several places. The title of the book seems to suggest that it will explore all aspects of human thinking however what we learn is only about our cognitive decision making function and how irrational it is. The book doesn’t touch upon either the functioning or the irrationality of mind when exposed to stronger emotions such as passion, love, hate etc.

The book is clearly not self-help and Daniel seems to have gone to great extents to ensure that it doesn’t appear like one. In fact Daniel gave $2000 each to two psychologists to anonymously read and critique the book and tell him if it was worth publishing – of course we all know what the feedback was as we can now have the delight of holding this book in our hands. Daniel humbly states in the end – highlighting the strength of entrenched human thinking processes – that despite knowing about the irrationality of the human behaviour for so long he hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, what he has become good at is spotting cognitive errors in others. He hopes with increased awareness future generations would slowly evolve to be rational thinkers and make better decisions. If anything, his hopes are already coming true in his lifetime as ‘Behavioural Economics’ a derived psychology field is increasingly being used by governments while deploying various policies and ‘Neuroeconomics’ an intersection between neuroscience and economics is a hot area of research.


Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman was born on March 5, 1934. He is an Israeli-American psychologist famous for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. For his work on behavioral economics, he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
This book is available in many formats. So go ahead and read it!

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