Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Every now and again a book comes along which stops you in your tracks.  You catch yourself thinking about its ideas at odd moments.  After a while you realise that it has changed your way of thinking - perhaps not radically, but changed all the same.  Three books have done this to me recently. One of them is Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast And Slow 1.

'Thinking' is a romp through advances in our understanding of how the mind works, from the past forty years or so.  As an experimental psychologist, someone who  contributed to many of these advances himself, Kahneman is well placed to take us on this tour.  He writes entertainingly, without losing the technical detail necessary to insight, making it accessible and thought provoking.

You may well have come across some of the ideas in here before 2.  You will have not met them gathered together, with quite so much breadth and with the evidence for them presented with such clarity.  There is much of practical use to take away and apply in the the real world.

With his colleague Amos Tversky, Kahneman can take the credit for thoroughly debunking the economists' assumptions of rational man operating in the markets .  A large number of our politicians and senior business leaders still cling to the narrow ideas of the Chicago School economists. This book will help you to identify the poverty of their vision.

The core premiss of the book is that the brain functions in two ways, both well suited to addressing some of the problems humans face, but embarrassingly, annoyingly and even disturbingly flawed in important ways.  There is the superfast, subconscious associative machine and the  slower, calculating, conscious and effortful machine.  We think we are the latter, the rational conscious us, whereas we are unknowing prisoners of our associative machine.  The experiments presented here show us how this is so, and why it is that others can often see what we ourselves are blind to. Anyone in a management position, especially a senior position, would benefit from taking careful note.

There is much sport to be had, and money to be made, with the ideas in this book. You will be better placed to spot the tricks advertisers and supermarkets use, and to use them yourself. Things like priming, framing, anchoring, the availability bias, the intuition trap, the overconfidence we place in a coherent causal story, the two selves and much more.  You will learn things about yourself, such as the shortcuts your mind makes, not always wisely.

Here are a couple of things, to give you a flavour:

Priming is probably the most important and gobsmacking effect we need to be awake to.  We are extremely sensitive to being affected by small details of context and are rarely conscious of this effect.  Kahneman gives us some brilliant examples.  One of these is "the honesty box", a study over ten weeks of the takings in an office kitchen's honesty box.  Workers were expected to pay a small sum into the box for tea and coffee whenever they made some for themselves.  Over the ten weeks a series of posters were displayed above the box, either of flowers, or of eyes that appeared to be looking directly at the viewer.  Takings in the honesty box correlated strongly with the eye posters.  In "eye" weeks, contributions averaged 70 pence per worker.  In "flower" weeks, these fell to some 15 pence each.

I have an idea that this effect has been used by retailers somewhere to cut shoplifting, simply by placing a lifesize cut-out of a policemen at the end of an aisle.  The other examples of priming given in the book should give you considerable pause for thought.

If you have had any statistical training you will be aware that small samples do not provide results that give confidence.  You may also have a sense of how small samples yield extreme results more frequently than large samples do - something that should be tattooed in mirror image on the foreheads of all journalists. Kahneman noticed that he often achieved troubling results from his experiments. With some embarrassment, he realised that despite his own statistical training, this was due to designing experiments with small sample sizes.  It struck him that his rational self was being being bypassed by his intuitions and those intuitions were wrong.  He wondered if the same thing happened to other scientists - in other words, to people who should know better. He and Tversky designed an experiment to test this and, surprise, he was not alone; worse, a majority were making the same mistake. 

The beauty of this book is that he and Tversky went further, to explain why skilled and knowledgable people can have poor intuitions and a wobbly grasp of the world around them. Why bright people can be real plonkers; why two brains, a team, are better than one. We are all susceptible, we all risk sleepwalking through life, and this is why I urge everyone, to read this book.

It is still in hardback, so you may not want to fork out £25 or so for it.  I am confident it will be a strong seller when the paperback comes out.


1 Those other two books :  Anna Funder's Stasiland (reading it you will realise why we should not drop our guard. It could happen here) and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage  (in some ways a a precursor to Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris).

2 Roger Neighbour's  The Inner Consultation is worth a plug here, strictly a handbook for medical consultations, but it covers the difficulties we all encounter in one-to-one conversations and meetings and makes effective use of some of the concepts.



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Last modified on Monday, 29 September 2014 12:38

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