Book Summary and Analysis |

 Popular Psychology, Personal Growth and Self-Help



A Summary and Critique of
Daniel Kahneman’s
Thinking, Fast and Slow

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, offers valuable advice to people who want to have a better understanding of how our brain works and how we make decisions. For those readers who are familiar with Kahneman and Tversky’s work from the 1970s and 1980s, the ideas discussed in Kahneman’s book, except for the ideas discussed in the first part of the book, should be well known. For other readers, Kahneman’s book offers a very good introduction to the research that had been conducted by Kahneman and Tversky.

Their research comprises a lifetime of psychological experiments that lead to a conclusion that the human brain operates in two modes of thinking, which are loosely connected. The first one is called System 1. It makes snap judgments, using metaphors and biases, as well as loosely constructed rules of thumb. It is rather simplistic and usually not very precise, but it has helped us survive in a variety of constantly changing environments.

System 2 employs objective analysis and computation, as well as complex sequences of logical reasoning. It is responsible for our rational thinking. According to Kahneman’s research, people use System 2 sparingly and some people use it more than others.  Typically, it activates when System 1 needs help. System 2 requires concentration, training, self-discipline, critical analysis of facts and the meticulous elimination of contradictions.

Actually, these two models of thinking (heuristic vs. analytic) were first introduced in 1999 by Keith Stanovich, the Canadian psychologist and Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto. Daniel Kahneman made these terms popular.

It took centuries for humankind to bring together the results of System 2’s workings in order to build a technological society that provides huge material benefits and a great level of comfort to the population, which continues operating mostly on System 1. Indeed, the premise behind Behavioral Economics, which relies heavily on Kahneman’s research, is that modern people are irrational and that they frequently make uneconomical and self-defeating decisions.

System 1 is actually encouraged by politicians and the media who manipulate our snap judgments, biases and rules of thumb. It is no surprise that most people are conditioned to feel reluctant to expend their mental energy in order to analyze various political and economic issues, letting politicians handle these issues to their liking.

Kahneman’s theory examines System 1 and System 2, but it does not explain how these systems arise. It does not investigate relations between the emergence of numerous biases and the necessity for an energy-saving strategy, which might have changed over the course of human evolution.

Kahneman offers an interesting interpretation of the workings of the mind, and his book provides a tremendous amount of relevant information. It describes how people make quick decisions based on intuition and rarely use a more rational and methodical approach to decision-making process. However, some of his arguments are extended much more than it is necessary or reasonable, in my opinion. That is, his research is rooted in certain experiments and the results of the experiments are then freely generalized to be applied to our ways of thinking.

Kahneman’s book includes an in-depth detailed discussion of the issues underlying behavioral economics. It covers a wide range of topics. Kahneman offers a valuable discussion of how our biases and our “fast-thinking” System 1 affect our decision-making process. Yet, it feels like the author could not make up his mind about the true purpose of his book.

Was it supposed to be a textbook, a popular science book or a memoir? Consequently, the book includes elements of all of those types of literature. The book is full of fascinating facts, but they are presented along with explanations and discussions, which become repetitive and tedious in the second part of the book. At some places, the book seems to lack smooth transitions.

Overall, Kahneman’s book is not an easy read, but it is a very educational one. The biggest lesson from Kahneman’s book is the one that the irrational System 1 can be very influential, affecting many judgments and choices that people make. This conclusion questions our general belief that we are rational thinkers and decision  makers.

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