“Thinking Fast and Slow”

Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, is new to me, but not to others… In 2002 he received the Nobel Prize in Economics.  He is Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  

Thinking Fast and Slow focuses on the mind and, in particular, on two very distinct ways of thinking.  System I is thinking that is intuitive and emotional.  System II requires complex analysis of information, requiring a series of steps to work through information to reach a conclusion.

 For those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the concepts of intuitive thinking are well-known.  This is fast thinking.  Fast thinking is thinking that is essentially automatic.  It may be wrong, but it involves recognition of information almost instantaneously, followed as quickly by a rudimentary analysis and application of that information.
Daniel Kahneman, ever the scientist, identifies fast thinking by a very professorial name, “Heruistic” thinking, which, essentially means an “educated guess”, thinking based on factors for analyzing data relying on such factors as easily available information and one’s own experiences.  It is apparent throughout his book, that the author is suspicious of such intuitive thinking.
There are numerous aspects to his discussion of fast thinking.  Among them is that  the type of information an individual can analyze quickly varies from person to person.  Since my own background involves legal analysis, I am more likely to make intuitive decisions when reviewing matters related to the law.  In contrast, my husband’s expertise includes accounting and economic issues.  He will deal quickly with business matters that are outside my area of knowledge.
Decision making relying on fast thinking is potentially subject to serious errors because our intuitive thinking often relies on our own biases and limitations.  In my attempt to understand this concept, I am reminded of the saying “to a hammer, everything is a tack”.

Slow thinking is deliberative.  It differs from fast thinking not only in the speed with which it occurs, but the steps and process by which it happens.  One of Kahneman’s initial examples of deliberative thinking is the process of multiplying 17 x 24.  He opines that most people can’t immediately multiple complex numbers. No question that for me, as for most of us, reaching an answer  to this mathematical process requires a series of steps. There is nothing intuitive about the answer.

Kahneman analyzes various aspects of how we think, the factors that influence the speed and accuracy with which we analyze information, as well as ways in which we can improve the quality of our deliberative activities. While academic in the detail and in the explanations of the concepts on which he relies, the studies and experiments on which he rely represent a significant leap forward in our understanding of the human mind.  He also manages to effectively wrap into this analysis a lesser analysis of the impact of fast and slow thinking on the seemingly unrelated analysis of happiness and pain.

In his conclusion, Kahneman describes the mind as an “uneasy interaction between two fictitious characters:  the automatic System 1 and the effortful System 2.”  Thinking Fast and Slow is a book to be studied, rather than merely read.  Each of us can enhance the quality and accuracy of our decision-making by studying his work.  It is more than worth the effort required.

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Malcolm Gladwell’s View Through his Own Looking Glass

If you haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, I suggest you start with Outliers The Story of Success. I have been a big fan of his ever since I read Blink and Tipping Point.  But as much as I love those books, I really want to encourage those who have not yet encountered his work to start with Outliers.  

Gladwell’s unique world view is evidenced by his lengthy explanation of why a disproportionate
percentage of the very best professional hockey players are born in January through March and almost none are born in December.  The reason, according to Gladwell is that when each grade of children is introduced to hockey, the oldest children in that grade level are more physically mature than the children born later in the calendar year.  They  become, from the beginning, the best players. They are encouraged in the sport.  They receive extra coaching, extra practice time and extra playing time. The best within that group are elevated to the premiere hockey teams, where they play against stiffer competition, and are able to gain the skills essential to become competitive at the highest levels of the sport.  Meanwhile, the youngest players, those born in November and December, lag behind because they are–well–younger and never given the opportunities or encouragement to excel.

Gladwell approaches the remainder of his book in similar fashion.  He focuses on what it is that enhances the opportunities of “extremely successful people,” i.e., Bill Gates among others. He identifies the importance not only of the month of one’s birth, but the year. He explains why an individual born in 1954 and 1955 had significantly enhanced opportunities to excel in computers sciences.  He talks about the importance of mentoring, of access to education, to employment opportunities and to the opportunity to practice, practice, practice.

While he does not discount the importance of intelligence and hard work, he focuses on the advantages individuals gain due to financial security, family connections and even summer academic opportunities. He also addresses the disadvantages and hardships that can stand in the way of success: limited access to education, the life long impact of being burdened with debt and poverty.  He never, ever discounts the role of luck in the good fortunes of extremely successful people.  He also never discounts that luck without hard work is not enough.

In a book that is considered to be at least somewhat autobiographical, he addresses the circumstances of his own success, starting with the story as to how his ancestors moved from slavery to opportunity.

While much of the book deals with the luck that will benefit few of his readers,  the stories and the examples of individuals and groups who study hard, work hard and create their own opportunities are more than worth the read. While much of what he writes seems obvious after I read it, Outliers gives new insight into the impact of luck, class and even intergenerational family values and experiences.

It is one of my favorite books.  I wish you “good reading.”