Book Review: ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman

December 17, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


My non-fiction spree this year continues with one of the most interesting books I’ve read from an academic perspective, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a big and insightful book based on years of research into the way the human mind works. It’s not exactly a constant page-turner (though it has its moments) and it won’t change your life, but it’s crammed with fascinating thoughts, theories and ideas, and will make you question actions and motivations perhaps a little more.

The title, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is quite brilliant in itself because it captures the essence of the his 500+ page book. Without going too much into the specifics, Kahneman basically identifies two ways human beings think — fast and slow — and categorizes them into System 1 and System 2 for the sake of simplicity.

System 1 is the type of thinking that comes instinctively and emotionally (such as say the answer that pops into our mind when we are asked the answer to 1+1), while System 2 is more contemplative, focused and logical (such as say when we are asked to work out a complex mathematical problem). System 1 is essentially subconscious, and as a result it is prone to jumping to conclusions and making assumptions based on first impressions while ignoring statistical probabilities and the like. Judging a book by its cover and people by appearances is a product of System 1. System 2, on the other hand, exercises the analytical part of the brain and forces us to slow down and think critically about a matter. The problem is, human beings are lazy by nature and resort to System 1 whenever possible, which is why we end up making a lot of decisions that are biased and defy logic, common sense and mathematical probabilities.

After setting the foundations, Kahneman goes into more detail about various theories linked to these two systems, such as why people tend to be overly optimistic when it comes to estimating how long it would take to complete a project (I’m Exhibit A on this one) but are so risk averse when it comes to money despite. There are many other thought-provoking ideas, such as the “anchoring effect”, which refers to how our minds get swayed by irrelevant details, and the “framing” phenomenon, where our views on something can be dramatically changed depending on the context of the wording. For instance, people would tend to accept having an operation if they are told that the survival rate is 90% rather than that the mortality rate is 10%.

Kahneman backs each one of these theories up with ample discussion and analyses of the results of experiments, many of which are incredibly interesting. There are far too many to list, but I had a fun time putting myself in the shoes of the subjects to see whether I would respond and react the same way. This is not to say I necessarily agreed with all the conclusions in the book, such as that “intuition” is essentially worthless and almost always inferior to formulae, but they did make me think about the driving forces behind some of the decisions I’ve made in my own life.

In any case, there are countless nuggets of insightful wisdom in this book that I kept finding myself nodding in agreement with or widening my eyes with surprise. One is the “illusion of validity” we give to the skills of certain professions such as financial advisers, when statistics and economic theory suggest that they can’t consistently outperform the market. Another is “regression to the mean”, which is used to debunk the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx (which suggests that athletes who land an SI cover become cursed and doomed to perform poorly thereafter) by noting that these athletes may have simply had a good run and were regressing back to the mean. The same concept is used to refute the notion that praising people for good performance will result in them performing worse the next time or that heavily criticizing people for poor performance will result in a better performance the next time around — in both cases it was probably just regression to the mean and unrelated to the feedback they received.

Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize in economics for work contained in this book, is obviously a thinking man with a big brain, but he’s also quite adept at getting complex ideas across in relatively simple and easy-to-understand prose. Despite this being a non-fiction book, he infuses all 38 chapters of this book with his strong voice, which is that of an astute, humble storyteller who regularly pays tribute to his research partner, the late Amos Tversky. There are some complex ideas in this book backed up by complex research, studies and experiments, but for those most part it’s a highly readable study the vast majority of people should be able to follow — albeit with more focus and attention (ie, their System 2) than they might be accustomed to.

This is definitely a book I would recommend to people who think thinking is fun. Admittedly, some parts are long and the discussion can get convoluted and tedious at times, meaning this is the kind of book where you might find yourself reading a single chapter at a time and allowing the concepts to sink in before tackling the next chapter some time later. But when it’s at its best, Thinking, Fast and Slow is brilliant– you just need to come equipped with your System 2 because you’re going to need it.