Book of the week: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

In his first book written for a lay audience, the cognitive psychologist and 2002 Nobel Prize winner draws an insightful portrait of how human beings make decisions.

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30)

When it comes to making decisions, you’re pretty ill-equipped, said Christopher F. Chabris in The Wall Street Journal. Not to worry, though. According to cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, so is everybody else around you. In his first book written for a lay audience, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner has condensed five decades of groundbreaking research into a “tour de force of psychological insight.” Kahneman’s findings “overturn the assumption that human beings are rational decision-makers who weigh all the relevant factors logically before making choices.” Rather, when we’re faced with decisions, we often get them drastically wrong because we’re of two minds: “System 1,” which makes quick, intuitive decisions grounded in associative memory, and “System 2,” which reasons deliberatively, but requires time and energy and therefore often lets System 1’s judgments stand.

Kahneman’s book can be a disheartening catalog of the ways we err in judgment, said The Economist. Some of the errors he describes will strike readers as familiar. Most test subjects found it more threatening, for instance, to hear about a disease that kills 1,286 out of every 10,000 people than about one that kills 24 percent of people—despite the fact that the second number is twice as large. Other findings, however, seem “downright peculiar.” When Kahneman presented subjects with images of money, they acted selfishly when performing subsequent tasks. When primed to think about the concept of old age, subjects walked more slowly.

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Not everything our intuition does leads us astray, said William Easterly in the Financial Times. Kahneman shows that it’s also responsible for much that we do brilliantly. One of the book’s “signal strengths” is how it melds “the positive and negative views of intuition into one coherent story.” Through training and repetition, for example, doctors and firefighters develop what’s called “expert intuition,” a System 1 ability to recognize patterns and unconsciously produce the correct response to a complex emergency. And while Kahneman often humbly reminds us that he’s as mistake-prone as anyone, he’s masterful at teaching us how to recognize situations that require slower, more deliberative thinking, said Roger Lowenstein in Bloomberg Businessweek. Such insights make Thinking, Fast and Slow a “monumental achievement.” It deserves to be pondered, slowly.

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