Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Look around for recommended books from academics and business commentators and you probably won't get too far without running into Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. I heard and saw it referenced again and again. Partly because of the scope of the book, there aren't too many areas that aren't commented on in one way or another in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Certainly some areas are a bigger focus than others, but I think many experts from many fields find something of value in this book. I also found it valuable and gained a great many fascinating insights from it, but I also found it tiresome and overly long.

You won't be reading Thinking, Fast and Slow for too long before you realize it reads very much like a "Greatest Hits" of psychology and social science research with a little bit of economics and other disciplines thrown in as well. Each chapter focuses on one or several academic studies which purport to explain some element of human existence and decision-making.  Kahneman is actually a decent writer, but he spends the vast amount of time explaining how a particular research study was done, writing out percentages, and detailing sample sizes. I'm fine with this to confirm the science was done correctly or so the reader can have some semblance of confidence in the findings; however, the book drags on too long, like many business and academic books, and the reading becomes tedious. The book tried to be too comprehensive and would have benefited from limiting its scope a bit.  Furthermore, Kahneman is an entertaining writer and can be very pithy and even funny.  His personality didn't come through enough. 

Kahneman attempts to coalesce the many findings in his book by using a pragmatic framework for discussion.  He separates our decision make processes into two parts—System 1—our intuition and quick judgments—and System 2—our deliberate thought processes and rationality. It works well enough and is easily recalled when reflecting on what you've read.  Simplifying what is essentially an incredibly complex topic is very useful when writing a book meant to be enjoyed by a wider audience and not necessarily only those in a particular academic discpline.  Thinking, Fast and Slow should make most of us think twice (or three or four times) about how we actually think.  Is my response to a particular situation part of System 1 or 2?  How or why should I trust my own judgment?  Am I seeing the world as it really is?  These are difficult questions once you've read Kahneman's book.  I have both a profound love for learning and an inherent faith in our ability to progress and improve ourselves.  At the same time, I have a deep skepticism of human knowledge and decision-making.  For me, Thinking, Fast and Slow, tends to feed my skepticism more than my confidence.

As overstuffed as the book is, the information it presents is almost universally applicable—politics, academia, business, religion, family life, all of it.  Yet, just as the book suggests, one should, in my opinion, be careful with some of the conclusions found within the book.  Just as the author repeatedly reiterates the dubious nature of human perception and decision-making, it also makes bold claims about those very things.  It should give us pause.  It should make us question without necessarily becoming cynical.

Thinking, Fast and Slow does deserve the attention it gets for the ideas it brings to the table, not necessarily as a book which is structured particularity well.  The best recommendation I can give for the book is that it already has seeped into my thinking.  I think I have a greater propensity to be cautious in my thinking, whether it's fast or slow.  And any book which influences you to change your thinking or behavior is worth paying attention to.

Notable Quotes:
  •  "Experts are human in the end. They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong."
  •  "The illusion that one has understood the past feeds the further illusion that one can predict and control the future."
  •  "The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Contagious
What You Don't Know is the Reason

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