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86 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Disbelief is not an option, 10 Nov. 2011
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This review is from: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Hardcover)
And neither, for me, is dislike of this wonderful book an option. By the time Daniel Kahneman reassures the reader that the results of the various priming studies he has just been discussing are neither made up nor statistical flukes - and that "disbelief is not an option" - I was more than ready to take this as an avuncular and not an inquisitorial admonition. There is a warmth in the writing, and not only from scholarly passion for the subject. As well as being a masterly exploration of a fascinating part of human nature, this book is a tribute to a remarkable collaboration with Amos Tversky, and dedicated to his memory. That his name does not appear in the formal acknowledgements at the end of the book is no oversight: his spirit infuses the text, surfacing every so often in the plural subject "Amos and I" as Kahneman describes with relish some piece of scientific research they conducted together.

In a book that exposes errors we often don't realize we're making, it is fitting that the author himself fesses up. Kahneman admits that early in his career, like many psychologists, he was often guilty of choosing samples that were too small, getting results that made no sense and which - it eventually dawned on him - were actually artifacts of his research method: "My mistake was particularly embarrassing because I taught statistics and knew how to compute the sample size that would reduce the risk of failure". He learned to be wary of intuition and tradition, and, unlike most psychologists, went on to collect a Nobel prize, for work done with Tversky on judgment under uncertainty and prospect theory (published in two widely cited papers that are reproduced as appendixes).

Truly random errors can't be predicted, of course. The human mind, however, is somewhat more accommodating to scientific study in that it distorts reality in systematic ways, and these errors - or biases - "recur predictably in particular circumstances". A recurrent theme of the book centres on one particularly strong bias, towards causal explanations and away from statistical analysis. People "are prone to apply causal thinking inappropriately, to situations that require statistical reasoning". One clue to this tendency is that while even children are good intuitive grammarians, pretty much all adults (including professional statisticians) are poor intuitive statisticians. We prefer stories to sets of data, agency over chance, and we care more about coherence than either the quantity or quality of the data on which the story is based.

For someone who warns us to beware of stories, Kahneman's is a compelling narrative, at the heart of which are two characters who in turn entertain and exasperate, who sometimes work well together and who are sometimes in conflict, but without whom we would not be human. They go by the prosaic labels System 1 and System 2 and are vital for understanding how we make judgements and decisions.

In brief, the automatic System 1 and the effortful System 2 "respectively produce fast and slow thinking". System 1 is brilliant at identifying causal connections between events, while System 2, your conscious self, is the part of the mind that can concentrate on thinking a problem through. System 1 is always on, generating "intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way", and while it is never stumped it is "gullible and biased to believe". Given these aspects of System 1's character, the "laziness of System 2 is an important fact of life": System 2 ("in charge of doubting and unbelieving") could step in to stop you jumping to an unwarranted conclusion. It often fails to intervene, however, because it's often terribly busy and finds it hard to multitask. Besides, following "our intuitions is more natural, and somehow more pleasant, than acting against them". As for attitudes, "System 2 is more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions - an endorser rather than an enforcer".

"The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. When information is scarce, which is a common occurrence, System 1 operates as a machine for jumping to conclusions."

My guess is that regression to the mean has not set many pulses racing (examinations apart), and yet it provided Kahneman with "one of the most satisfying eureka experiences" of his career, when he "stumbled onto a significant fact of the human condition: the feedback to which life exposes us is perverse. Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty." Performance varies, and the chance element will both regress to the mean and be ignored: a golfer who has a good first day in a competition is likely to do less well on the second (despite all the praise), and a golfer who has a bad first day is likely to improve (despite all the flak). Most spectators and commentators ignore statistics and rely on intuition to predict the scores on the second day, and as a result will "tend to be overconfident and overly extreme". It goes without saying that golf tournaments are not the only situations when intuitive predictions "need to be corrected because they are not regressive and therefore are biased".

This book will be of interest to anyone who has woken up this morning, and is therefore experiencing, first hand, the push and pull of fast and slow thinking. Psychologists, however, should be warned about a potentially demoralizing conclusion: despite Kahneman's evident enthusiasm for his subject, it seems "that teaching psychology is mostly a waste of time". Reading this book most certainly isn't, although I do have a couple of further health warnings regarding this review: (a) I haven't quite finished reading the whole book and (b) I've just begun a chapter entitled "The Illusion of Understanding"...
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 11 Nov 2011 21:02:42 GMT
Simon says:
Readers who have trouble making decisions might also be interested in The Sixty-Second Motivator.

Posted on 15 Nov 2011 10:52:39 GMT
Leo says:
Thank you for your interesting review. Wuold you know whether this book adds much more to Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland ?

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Nov 2011 12:18:19 GMT
Sphex says:
There is certainly some overlap. I read the Sutherland a few years ago, and looking back one of his concerns is with the way biases influence our thinking, which of course is a major theme of Kahneman's book. Like Kahneman, Sutherland discusses anchoring effects, biases of memory (people's memories are "extremely fallible and heavily biased in the direction of believing they had made good predictions"), and how "people's misplaced confidence in their own powers of judgement not only makes them believe they are able to predict the future from the past far better than they in fact can, it also makes them distort past events and their recollection of their previous opinions". This tallies closely with the end of Kahneman's chapter "The Illusion of Understanding".

Having said all that, I still think it's worth reading Kahneman, because he pioneered much of this work and because he writes so well - and also because it keeps you thinking about this whole fascinating area. As Kahneman says, "Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the corrective procedures I propose is that they will require you to think about how much you know."

By the way, thanks for the post, the feedback is much appreciated. In some ways I felt I rushed this review, so I'm glad it proved helpful.

A couple more recommendations in the spirit of Sutherland: see my reviews of How We Know What isn't So: Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich and The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Dec 2014 15:00:55 GMT
SteveT says:
I am somewhat surprised that anyone should think that Kahneman has "discovered" anything new, or that his S1and S2 concepts are revolutionary.

That new structures of the brain have evolved, especially in humans, enabling a facility for language and consequent S2 thinking, whilst "fast" old structures and functionality have remained in place has long been known in both science and philosophy.

To give but one example, many years ago Wittgenstein analysed in great depth the relationships between the axiomatic true or false language games of "fast thinking" such as acts of perception and memory and reflexive emotions etc, comparing them to the secondary or "slow" or latterly evolved propositional language games of dispositional abilities such as believing, knowing,judging, thinking etc.

And although it is correct to say that Kahneman explicitly uses his terms merely as a category of mental operations without reference to neurological correlates that is in itself rather begging the question.

If you distinguish separate categories of mental operation, then for them to have scientific or serious import, rather than merely arbitrary pop cultural import, you should then be able to refer to their distinct neurological correlates, or at least place them within existing neuroscientific and evolutionary psychology theories. This, as Kahneman states, is out of the scope of his book but not out of the scope of neuroscience.

Otherwise all he is saying is that the less time and effort you spend making a judgement the more likely you are to be mistaken. This is just a commonplace, and hardly enlightening.
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