2011, Books, Non-Fiction

Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman

S0, I made the mistake of reading The Enigma or Reason before I read this much more famous book. That’s a mistake because the central argument of The Enigma of Reason is that the dichotomy (or tichotomy) of the brain is an illusion, that it doesn’t fit evolution. Whether it was philosophers or current psychologists, separating human thinking into two types makes no evolutionary sense. It’s an argument I think is very sensible and I take seriously. Of course, this book is Thinking, Fast and Slow, literally about a thinking dichotomy between intuition and rational thought. Now, Kahneman does indeed admit that his “System 1” (intuition) and “System 2” (reason) are fictions but, to him, they are necessary fictions to explain what he has observed in a laboratory setting. So, from the very beginning, I knew to question these fictions even more than Kahneman tells me to in the book. And I thought it would create some problems.

The book is full of interesting examples of various cognitive biases. Even if you’ve read plenty on cognitive bias, as I have, I’m sure you’ll find plenty that are somewhat new to you. For me, it was the final chapters about another possibly necessary fiction, the “remembering self” vs. the “experiencing self” which was the most novel and fascinating to me. (Among many fascinating studies.) Though I’ve read plenty of psychology, I was unaware of these studies on how much our memory biases our perception of past experience (and affects how we make decisions) rather than the experiences themselves. (The studies on memories of pain are just incredible.) It’s worth wading through this for that stuff alone.

It’s a pretty comprehensive assessment of many of the ways humans fail to make good decisions a lot of the time, when we rely on heuristics instead of reason. Kahneman isn’t the most engaging writer but he can be mildly amusing and he’s good enough. He also makes a very smart decision (supported by evidence, I’m sure) of having tiny chapters instead of big ones (there are 38 chapters), which makes for a pretty breezy read, given both the subject matter and his lack of literary style.

The big question for me becomes how do we reconcile what Kahneman and others have observed in the laboratory – actual physiological proof that humans do something different when they are “thinking” then when they are on autopilot – with a very solid argument that humans cannot have evolved two different types of thinking? I’m not sure. I’m not a psychologist, a neuroscientist, a biologist, or any other kind of expert in this field. But it strikes me that the observed behaviours Kanheman and other psychologists and behavioural economists have found do not necessarily conflict with the idea that there is no dichotomy in the mind. It is probably all just a continuum, right? (It usually is.)

When I began reading this book, I worried that it had been spoiled for me by The Enigma of Reason. Instead, I found that I only have a bunch more questions about how we think (the domain of Kanheman and others) and why we think that way (the domain of The Enigma of Reason and evolutionary science). It will be really interesting to see how this stuff evolves in my lifetime, if we can ever come to a unified field theory of human thinking, one that makes sense evolutionarily but also includes the physiological evidence of what at least appears to be two different responses to different types of challenges.

Worth reading even if the “fast” vs. “slow” thing is a fiction.


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