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thinking easy and hard

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman

I feel this book richly deserves its status. Kahneman has handed over the rich & surprising fruits of a lifetime of creative thought and research, in a well-organised book free of academiese (hurrah!) He also makes the material interactive by inviting us to do little mental activities to illustrate his simple study methods and assist the delight of recognition that makes this such an enjoyable read.

One of his goals is to provide ways to talk about and tackle some everyday problems by considering the way we think as two interacting systems, and to point out the weaknesses and mistakes that arise from ways these tend to (co)operate. He frankly admits that it is easier to see others' sub-optimal performance than our own, and the tools he offers are generally for 'water-cooler talk' or gossiping about co-workers and negotiation partners. This is a lot better than it sounds, I promise!

I would have to type out almost the entire book to share all the insights that impressed me, but I will pick out a few of my favourite themes:

People use an 'availability heuristic' to make judgements about how often things occur - if you can think of a lot of examples of something, you tend to assume it is common. This makes us vulnerable to subtle propaganda techniques, and gives rise to an uncritical conflation of what-is-in-the-news with what-is-happening-in-the-world. Kahneman points out that we tend to ignore absent evidence: what-you-see-is-all-there-is (WYSIATI)

People do not behave 'rationally' when faced with many types of wager that map onto real life decisions. Most people, in fact, behave in predictably irrational ways. Economic models that treat people as rational agents ('Econs') are deeply flawed. Which is a shame, because economists are using those models

Intuition is not magic. People who are very experienced and highly trained have the ability to process sense data and make snap decisions before going through the laborious work of stringing verbal thoughts or calculations together. This works well in many situations: for firefighters, sportspeople, medics etc. However, there is a tendency to overinflate the importance of hunches and intuitions in other situations, particularly stock market trading, where Kahneman's statistical analysis shows that people (even experienced workers) are worse than computer programs, and even WORSE THAN RANDOM CHOICE at predicting and picking winners and losers.

Perhaps especially in Euro-USian white culture, most of us tend to privilege our 'remembering self' over our 'experiencing self'. We tend to care disproportionately about the end of a story, and the ends of people's lives. People asked whether they would bother going on holiday if they had to have the memory of the holiday erased at the end of it often say they wouldn't. Kahneman's (very gentle!) experiments on pain showed that privileging the remembering self resulted in people choosing to experience MORE pain because of the way the experience was presented. He suggests that giving more thought to the experiencing self could improve life for many people. This echoes the concept of mindfulness that is important in some cultural traditions, therapies and religious practices. A friend pointed out that it was similar to Zen.

So, that's your taster; I strongly recommend the whole smorgasbord. I'll definitely be reading this again.