Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has been out for a while (published in 2011), and many of the topics within have been discussed in other books or in the wider popular media. But it was fascinating, if challenging, to read directly from the source.
One of the biggest take-aways that I have - and that I have seen in other discussions of this work - is that people do not behave in a purely Spock-like rational way. And this is important because there are models of human behavior that assume perfect rationality - particularly the “econ” concept used in classical economics. Kahneman and research partner Amos Tversky and many others have done studies that show this concept over and over again. The book recounts many of those experiments and the nuances of behavior and thinking that are connected to those experiments.
The title of the book comes from a concept that comes out of this review of human behavior. We have a “fast brain” (System 1) and a “slow brain” (System 2). It is the fast brain that reacts to stimulii and responds to “easy” questions. The slow brain takes over with difficult questions or scenarios that the fast brain cannot handle. And as Kahneman says over and over again, “System 2 is lazy,” so it often left to System 1 to respond or make guesses or do its best job. (He also acknowledges that the brain isn’t quite so simply divided in operations, but their research has clearly shown these effects.)
One example of the effects discussed in the book is the idea of “What you see is all there is” or WYSIATI. A perfectly rational response to a question or input would take into account all the information available. But what people actually do is respond to the information that is immediately in front of them. There are a number of scenarios where this becomes relevant: priming people with positive concepts causes them to be more positive; the popular news cycles; framing an argument one one or another can cause people to respond certain ways; setting up default options (as discussed heavily in Nudge). Essentially, the fast brain picks up on what it has seen recently or what it can see now, even if the slow brain might be able to pull up other relevant details.
For me this book took a while to read. The concepts were heavy and required some thinking and review. Happily, the chapters were focused on a given topic and relatively well self-contained. Sometimes I got frustrated with the examples and discussions which Kahneman showed as “obvious”. I could have used some more explanations of how the not-obvious-to-me examples demonstrated the counter-intuitive results that arose. In some cases the language seemed to be saying the opposite of what he was claiming.