4 Big Ideas From Dan Kanheman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

Daniel Kahneman is an eccentric, energetic, full-of-life professor in the fascinating discipline of Psychology. He is a Senior Scholar at Princeton University, and Emeritus Professor of Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. And was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, is an incredibly in-depth look at the workings of the human mind; an insight into how we think, and how we make decisions. Whether you’re a scholar, entrepreneur or baker; a professor, lawyer or postman, if you’re interested in what’s going up there, in the minds of others, or just how you can make better decisions, I suggest you pick up this excellent book.

4 Big Ideas From The Book

Two Selves

Our minds operate at two levels of consciousness. For the purposes of the explanation and ease of understanding, Dan names these two levels System 1 and System 2. The former is essentially what most of us know as the subconscious. It acts automatically, is in constant operation, and drives most of our decisions. You can see your own system 1 in action by answering the following question: 2 + 2 = ?. You know what the answer is without even thinking about it. You know the answer is 4. This is system 1 at work.

The latter, is our conscious mind; the thinking mind. If the above equation was instead 13 x 17 = ?, you would have to stop and think hard about it, probably with a pen and paper; you would not have an immediate answer in the same way you did with 2+2 — unless of course, you’re an aficionado in calculus. This is system 2 at work.

Our Minds Are Run By System 1

We think that it is our conscious self that runs our lives, but its the opposite; most of the decisions we make everyday our made by system 1, our autopilot. Whether it’s how to brush your teeth, order a cup of coffee, put on your pants or answer the phone, it is system 1 that does it. If we had to think about all of these things, we’d be paralyzed — because as Dan points out in the book, we have a limited pool of mental energy, and every single thought we have draws from that pool. If we had to think about everything, we’d be incapacitated within an hour of waking up — In fact in today’s world, within 10 minutes.

Humans, being as self-regarding, over-optimistic and egotistic as they are, generally think that it is their conscious self that runs their lives; that it is their thinking mind that controls their thoughts, habits and actions, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Intuition Is Nothing But Recognition

The mystery and awe surrounding intuition is nothing but a lack of understanding of what it really is. “Intuition is nothing more than recognition”, says Dan. What most people think is intuition, is actually the subconscious at work, recognising a familiar situation or environment, and displaying this in the form of feelings, thoughts and instincts.

The example he uses is an experienced firefighter instructing his crew to leave a burning building because he has a ‘weird feeling’ about the situation. This weird feeling is simply a well trained system 1 recognising patterns, pacifiers and indications of danger.

Cooks, Bakers, Lifeguards, Traders, Salesmen, Fisherman, Sportsmen, and so many more types of professionals–most in fact–experience ‘intuition’ during their work. So for the matter, does everyone, everyday, as they go about living their lives — most of it goes unnoticed by system 2.

Being Rational Is Hard

Throughout the book, Dan dissects many of the cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and faults in reasoning. What he also makes clear is how hard it is to remove the biases, apply logic, and ultimately, be rational. Thinking draws on our limited mental energy pool, and all of it requires system 2. If system 2 is engaged in just one thought, system 1 automatically has the upper hand in all other decisions.

Even when we are aware of this fact, and stop and think about our decisions, it is still very hard to remove the ingrained biases, such as the availability bias (tendency to move towards what’s most available) and the association bias (influence by association, i.e. images, memories, people ), and the logical fallacies, such as false dilemma (“just because this isn’t the answer, this is”). Why is it hard? Because our very thinking about better thinking is influenced by system 1 — the cognitive tendencies and logical fallacies.

Dan isn’t an opponent of system 1 thinking however. He makes it clear that it is in fact usually right, and as discussed in the third idea, it is essential. Because system 1 is sculpted in large part through repetition–and we only generally repeat things that are safe, correct or rewarding– most of it’s thinking is correct. For example, when system 1 says you’re hungry, you probably are; when it gives you a funny feeling about a situation you a very familiar with, it is probably right; when it answer’s elementary math like 2+2, it is probably right. On the other hand, it’s very important to know that it can and does make incorrect decisions — because it is heavily influenced by instincts, survival mechanisms and biases.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a tremendously rewarding read, and upon completion, you’ll probably want to reread it — if not for the understanding, then for the great examples and stories that Dan has imbued into the book. It’s very dense, and therefore, could be a long read for some — it depends entirely on your reasons for reading.

Get the book here. For a great TED talk from Dan, check this out.

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