What I’m Reading: Thinking, Fast and Slow

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It will change the way you think

I started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow over two months ago, stopped reading it, read another book, then slowly started reading it again and I’m glad I did.  The book, written by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, changed the way I think; the way I think about thinking; changed the way I make decisions and judgments.  It made me see the errors in my intuitive thinking and decision-making and the errors in the intuitions and decisions made by others.  Especially the errors of others. Kahneman says spotting the mistakes in other people’s choices make it easier to see when and where you’re making the same mistakes.

The book is dense and academic.  Reading the book is like sitting through a lecture given by a kindly, older professor who is passionate about learning why people do what they do and teaching others what he’s learned.  It’s just that sometimes as he tried to explain what he knows, he lost me.  It’s difficult to explain psychological and economic theory and research and be entertaining.  The descriptions and explanations of his research were sometimes mind-numbingly boring and jargon-y, but despite that, he managed to relay some really interesting and life changing ideas I think everyone should know.

The main characters of Thinking, Fast and Slow are the intuitive System 1 and the rational System 2:

System 1…does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can within its limited resources.

The attentive System 2 is who we think we are.  System 2 articulates judgments and makes choices, but it often endorses or rationalizes ideas and feelings that were generated by System 1

Most of our thinking is done by System 1 but it makes errors.  It is biased and overconfident. However,

System 1 is indeed the origin of much that we do wrong, but it is also the origin of most of what we do right — which is most of what we do.

System 2 has its limitations as well:

(It) is not a paragon of rationality.  It’s abilities are limited and so is the knowledge to which it has access.  We do not always think straight when we reason, and the errors are not always due to intrusive and incorrect intuitions.  Often we make mistakes because we (our System 2) does not know any better.

The idea that human beings can be completely rational is a myth.  We can be highly reasonable, but never completely rational.  I remember watching The Bachelorette a few years ago (don’t judge me, please) and this guy was telling the “Bachelorette” what he wanted in a woman (ew).  One of the things he wanted was “a woman who is rational, not emotional” or something like that.  I thought at the time he was completely insane.  I figured he didn’t want to be with a human female.  My intuitive, gut reaction to what he said is now backed up by a Nobel Prize winner.

So what else did I learn from the book?

1.  Intuitive judgments or predictions can only be relied upon under certain circumstances.  This includes the predictions of so-called experts.  These circumstances are:  if the environment in which the judgments were acquired is “sufficiently regular to be predictable” and if there is “an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice.”  Then, the intuition is basically a recognition of a pattern.

The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer.  Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.   —  Herbert Simon

This means you can trust the intuitions of doctors, nurses, athletes, firefighters, even chess and poker players and not stock pickers and political scientists.

2.  We have 2 selves:  an experiencing self and a remembering self and each self wants different things. We make a lot of our decisions with our remembering self (governed by System 2) which wants to minimize regret and thinks about how those decisions will affect its overall life satisfaction instead of  considering the pain and pleasures endured and felt by the experiencing self (governed by System 1)  in the moment.

I’m going to generalize here, but if you’re a woman you probably wanted to get married at some point in your life.  Your remembering self thought at one point or another that to have a fulfilled, satisfied life involves marriage and kids.  This is despite that fact the your experiencing self knows that more than half of marriages fail, you don’t know a happily married couple, and you’re pretty happy and satisfied with your life as it is.  You still want to get married even though it won’t make you happier and may end in divorce and make you unhappy longer than a wedding will make you happy.

3.  Luck is a big factor in success and performing well.  Kahneman created a formula for success that looks like this:

SUCCESS = TALENT + LUCK

GREAT SUCCESS = A LITTLE MORE TALENT + A LOT OF LUCK

We are all under the illusion that we control more aspects of our lives than we actually do and certain people in certain professions believe this more than others and are rewarded for essentially being lucky (stock pickers).  Those people we label “geniuses” and “exceptionally excellent” are very skilled and a lot lucky.

I found this study about luck that has nothing to do with Thinking, Fast and Slow but I thought it was interesting.  From Jonathan Fields’ What Lucky People Do Differently

Recently I came upon a fascinating study by Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. Wiseman surveyed a number of people and, through a series of questionnaires and interviews, determined which of them considered themselves lucky—or unlucky. He then performed an intriguing experiment: He gave both the “lucky” and the “unlucky” people a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell him how many photographs were inside. He found that on average the unlucky people took two minutes to count all the photographs, whereas the lucky ones determined the number in a few seconds.

How could the “lucky” people do this? Because they found a message on the second page that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” So why didn’t the unlucky people see it? Because they were so intent on counting all the photographs that they missed the message. Wiseman noted,

“Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner, and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through the newspaper determined to find certain job advertisements and, as a result, miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there, rather than just what they are looking for.”

I liked that in order to be lucky you just have to pay attention.  That just happens to be my tagline for my website and the way I live.

Daniel Kahneman’s advice in the middle of the book is his best advice:  “do not simply trust intuitive judgment — your own or that of others — but do not dismiss it either.”

I used to not just honor the gift that is intuition, but to worship it.  Not anymore.  I intend to use my faithful servant, the rational mind, a lot more.

Or put another way, slow down and think.

The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle:  recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield , slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2.

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