This will be a short discussion/review, mainly because Kahneman covers a lot in extensive detail and discussing it all would be the equivalent to writing an essay! But I’ll go over the fundamental concepts so you can decide if you want to delve into the nitty gritty of it all!
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman is an interesting book that delves into how we think and how we make decisions. This book has a specific focus on System 1 and System 2 (now commonly referred to as type 1 and type 2), as well as an in-depth look at heuristics and our predisposition to make decisions based on shortcuts rather than statistics, in a sense it looks at rationality and how we are not – in terms of thinking – rational.
While nothing is clear cut in psychology and it would be detrimental to assume that Kahneman is perfectly correct in his theories, he does raise some very interesting questions and highlights the biases of our brains. Our brains are not infallible, and while many psychologists are resistant to this, we often make mistakes when thinking, judging or deciding on something. Kahneman takes a deep look at why we make these biases, but links them back to why, despite producing poor answers, we may have developed them – for example, they may have been necessary in terms of evolution. Humans like to believe they are rational, but any number of things that occur in our daily lives is enough to pull that into questions, and, at the extreme, a look at certain events also make this questionable.
Kahneman proposes we have two systems of thinking, however, it would be a mistake to say they are not connected. System 1 is our fast thinker, it produces quick answers to questions, or rapid solutions to problems, but it is prone to error. System 2 is our slow and lazy thinker- it’s the system you draw on when doing calculations, it pieces things together. But it is prone to laziness and doesn’t want to work if System 1 can. Difficult tasks, however, usually handle by System 2 can be completed using System 1 if you have practiced the skill extensively. This is an extremely simplified way of discussing the two Systems but draws on the key function of them, the two systems are also the basis for Kahneman’s look at heuristics.
Heuristics are a shortcut, so to speak. We give an answer or make a judgement based on prior experience and stereotypes. Heuristics also seem to ignore statistics, the likelihood our judgment is correct. Stereotyping is a little different in this aspect as to it’s everyday meaning, in this context it means we have a framework for specific things in which heuristics can act adequately. However, it is prone to error. Kahneman uses the (similar) example of; There is a neat, orderly, nerdy young man. Is this man likely to be a male librarian, or a farmer? Now, statistically, your answer should be farmer but our stereotype results in a response based on heuristics, and we are likely to conclude he is a librarian despite that the number of farmers far outweighs the number of male librarians.
The bias of heuristics is further and more famously illustrated by the Linda problem, which draws on the conjunction fallacy (due to representativeness). E.G: Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which is more probable?
- Linda is a bank teller.
- Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Statistically, your answer should be 1. The probability of Linda being both is much lower than being only a bank teller. And yet, heuritics (specifically representativeness), leads us to give an incorrect answer. Of course, this is a heavily criticised theory, but it does pose some interesting questions- I for one dislike the Linda problem and believe it’s wording is problematic.
So how can we be rational if we do not make judgments rationally?
Heuristics give us easy answers, but not always the right ones and often it will give the answer to an easier question instead of an answer to an actual question. Heuristics are, therefore, a product of system 1.
This book is fascinating, though I admit the last third is heavily economically focused and draws on examples of stock and trade, it is very very dry to read, even if it does raise some intriguing arguments. However, it is structured well, working from the broader theory of the Systems to the biases and inner workings of each one. There is more of a focus on our quick thinking friend System 1, but Kahneman manages to take a bit of a delve into our slower friend System 2. The idea of the two systems is interesting, and seems to hold some value – the theories are of course criticised considerably, but it does bring into question why we make quick judgments and how, sometimes to our own surprise, we can make quick decisions or conclusions. What we may attribute to gut feeling is simply our Systems drawing on complex information and providing a quick answer.
Kahneman packs a lot into this book, and if the workings of the mind, how we thing, decide and judge is interesting to you then I highly recommend giving it a go! See what you think, do you think there is credit to the two systems?