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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Sometimes I need a big meaty nonfiction book to work my way through. I find that I especially look for these types of books when life gets too hectic or begins moving too slowly. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman was exactly the type of book I needed for my post holiday rush cool down. Kahneman's book focuses on behavioral economics and describes the ways in which our brains work both for and against us. Rarely do I read a book that literally changes the way I think but this book definitely did.

Kahneman argues that the brain functions with two (imagined) systems. System 1 is fast, intuitive and System 2 is slow, reflective. These systems are imagined as distinct characters, while Kahneman states there is no neurological truth to the systems, they are meant to describe the ways in which we think. To illustrate the two systems the first half of the book establishes the way they each work, mostly through short tests of math and logic. Kahneman argues that we rely on our intuition and trust it far more than we should stating that it is “intuitive preferences that consistently violated the rules of rational choice.”

Throughout the opening section of the book I was in complete agreement with Kahneman, but the nature of his argument is forced to be too onesided and he eventually lost me. In the field of behavioral economics it is necessary for the many to be lumped together with the studied few. This removes the effects of personality. For example, I hate math. I am intimidated by it and do not trust myself to work through it. In general, I ignore math in all aspects of my life. Thus, I found Kahneman's questions or tests regarding math difficult. I trusted my immediate, intuitive thoughts and usually got the problems wrong (or refused to answer them at all), but when the question was based on logic rather than math I tended to answer correctly (even if the answer was one that came to me quickly, intuitively, or with my System 1). This distinction goes ignored in the early parts of the book and only becomes more problematic as time goes on.

This is not to say that I did not glean plenty from this book because I definitely did. Kahneman's discussions of logic provided lots of food for thought. Even if I did not always agree with his trail of logic, I always learned something from it. I have even put some of his findings in practice in my daily life. The idea of priming, that behavior is influenced by environment, made me think greatly about the things with which I surround myself. Granted, this choice is not always mine but being aware of the effects of priming and using the reflective rather than the reactionary part of my brain keeps me from becoming unintentionally hindered by details.

I could say a lot about this book. I took copious notes while reading it and instead of hashing them out here I suggest that you try this one yourself. Thinking, Fast and Slow made me feel both ecstatic and infuriated, but most importantly it made me think and react. I hate to say that it “changed my life” because that is such a cliche, but it did alter the way I think in many, many ways. I look forward to rereading great swaths of it and agreeing and arguing with it as I go. I am working to get as many people reading this book as possible because if ever a book warranted being talked about it is this one.

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