February 10, 2021

Thinking Fast and Slow

Read time Min.

Thinking fast and slow is the number one book I recommend to people who ask me for something interesting to read. It is one book that I keep coming back to over and over. I read and re-read it in about yearly frequency, and every time I do, I encounter a new nugget of wisdom I hadn’t seen before.

Cognitive biases have been a subject of interest of mine for a while. It was a significant part of what motivated me to go into marketing. The thought of gaining more insight into why or how people behave the way they do, what makes them stay or leave, buy or walk away was incredibly intriguing, and it was far too late to consider a new career in neuroscience.

This post isn’t about writing a book review, but about making a recommendation of a book that has resonated with me, made me think and even get frustrated as I read it. I will share a few quotes, ideas and impressions on the book and hope that they invite you to pick up a copy if you haven’t read it or share your own thoughts in the comments if you have.

The book is divided into five parts:

  1. An explanation of the two-system approach to choice and decision-making.
  2. Explores the difficulties we have when we try to think statistically.
  3. Devoted to the confidence we have over what we know, or what we think we know.
  4.  A conversation with the field of economics, and their assumptions that people are rational decision makers.
  5. Introducing the concept of our two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self.

Having read the famous paper published by Kahneman and Tversky in Science in 1972, this book reads as a collection of anecdotes, humorous analogies and fun mental exercises. However, it doesn’t for a moment let go of the science that originated the first findings, and all the findings since. It’s a fun, digestible account of the solid scientific principles the author has spent a lifetime researching, and a beautiful homage to a colleague and friend who has passed away.

One point that stood out the most to me in my most recent re-read of the book, was the fond depictions of collaboration and friendship that are scattered through the book, it is something that I had never noticed before, but now as collaboration and team work takes a pivotal role in my own life, these little nostalgic tidbits come into sharp focus for me.

While writing the article that reported these findings, Amos and I discovered we enjoyed working together. Amos was always very funny, and in his presence I became funny as well, so we spent hours of solid work in continuous amusement.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

This first part of the book explores with colorful anecdotes and fun examples the different interactions between two systems, and how they are programmed to work efficiently together. How these efficiencies are a great tool in some situations and how they deceive us in others, such as the case of optical illusions.

An idea that sticks out for me in this book is the notion that we have laziness embedded deeply in our programming. Our brains are always looking for the fastest and easiest ways to perform a task, make a decision, or come to a conclusion, and System 2 engagement is costly in terms of resources and energy.

You dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

There has been plenty of research into cognitive depletion, or that moment when your limited budget has run out. In chronic illness communities we often speak in terms of spoons, as this limited amount of energy we have to handle tasks, and brain fog is the state I reach when pain occupies all of that budget making simple tasks like fetching something from the fridge turn into an odyssey when I accidentally leave my cellphone in the shelf right next to the pickle jar.

Scientists have studied poverty, and seen how it takes up most, if not all, of that budget, leaving people cognitively vulnerable in many scenarios. Marketing research even studies how time pressures effectively empty all of that budget and sets us up to fail in considering whether an offer is in our best interest. I would like to say all the research I’ve come across focuses on how to stop this from happening, but it increasingly focuses on how to turn this brain glitch into conversions and profit.

The second part of the book presents a list and explanation of some of the most common heuristics and biases, such as the law of small numbers, anchoring, and availability. Kahneman addresses another idea that has been occupying my mind lately: if these heuristics are an inherent part of being a human being, and they occur constantly in our day to day lives whether we -or the people who use them on us- notice or not, when does it cross the line into exploitation? when does it stop being interesting and become reprehensible?

The psychological mechanisms that produce anchoring make us far more suggestible than most of us would want to be. And of course, there are quite a few people who are willing and able to exploit our gullibility.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

The third part of the book, while exploring the subject of overconfidence, touches on a favorite subject of mine, the optimism bias, and how this inherited trait can push people to take more risks, take up bigger endeavors and become entrepreneurial. It also hints the downsides of this.

In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases. Because optimistic bias can be both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

These are some of the main points that have stood out for me in this reading of Thinking Fast and Slow. Hopefully, they will get you interested in reading the book or listening to the audiobook if you haven’t before. Or maybe just sharing your thoughts about what you’ve read here.