Thinking, Fast and Slow


Daniel Kahneman
2011

Even though he’s been around for decades, Daniel Kahneman is a “hot” thinker, partly due to his own work and partly due to the runaway success of Nudge, a book that relies heavily on Kahneman’s seminal ideas on behavioural economics.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is Kahneman’s latest book, and you can read admiring and scholarly reviews just about everywhere you look. The review in the New York Times is probably the best example.

I guess that it depends on your experience and your expectations, but I found Thinking, Fast and Slow rather condescending.

For one thing, it recapitulates a lot of ideas that are found in a lot of other books. For another, and this is more telling for my purposes, the book reads like a middle management primer on how to make decisions such as which investment broker to trust and which job candidate to hire.

It’s not at all that the book is inaccurate, but it is just about always simplified, most notably in the way that each chapter ends in a short section of aphoristic examples of how to think about decisions. These practice notions are presented in a section called “Speaking of …” whatever the immediate topic has been. We have “Speaking of Regression to Mediocrity” and “Speaking of Hindsight” and “Speaking of Life as a Story” and many more.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little summarizing at the end of a chapter, but the chosen method reinforces Kahneman’s statement in the opening lines of the Introduction:

Every author, I suppose, has in mind a setting in which readers of his or her work could benefit from having read it. Mine is the proverbial office watercooler, where opinions are shared and gossip is exchanged. I hope to enrich the vocabulary that people use when they talk about the judgments and choices of others, the company’s new policies, or a colleague’s investment decisions.

Fair enough, but I’m afraid that I don’t hang around water coolers much these days, and I don’t see much advantage from closing my eyes at the end of each chapter and reciting the relevant insights aloud until I’ve memorized them. Here are just a few randomly chosen nostrums that the successful manager is encouraged to internalize:

““She is very confident in her decision, but subjective confidence is a poor index of the accuracy of a judgment.”

“They will feel better about what happened if they manage to frame the outcome in terms of how much money they kept rather than how much they lost.”

“We are hanging on to that stock just to avoid closing our mental account at a loss. It’s the disposition effect.”

And so on, and so forth.

It’s a patronizing style, one that encourages readers to think in pat phrases and to be satisfied with basic understandings. If this is the typical depth of behavioural economics, and I suspect from my limited reading that it is, I don’t see how it’s ever going to rise above the level of Marketing 201.

Remember, I’m not criticizing the behavioural studies that underlie Kahneman’s presentation. When he writes about the actual research, including his own, his book is interesting and readable. His reiteration of the difference between unconscious and rational cognition, Type 1 and Type 2 thinking, is clear and useful, even if it’s not new.

Maybe it’s just that I don’t have much stake in the processes or much interest in the goals of those whom Kahneman invites to apply his insights? After all, I’ve never been involved in management of any kind, or in the acquisition of more and more money in particular.

One of the primary attractions a career in education had for me was that I had my own little fiefdom, in which I could largely ignore the actions of the administrators who managed the building and the goals of the politicians who oversaw the system. Interacting with students, engaging with them about stimulating content, attacking barriers to learning (not the same thing as barriers to graduation, which were much easier to overcome) — satisfying work that produced a satisfactory salary then and a sustaining pension now.

So maybe I just don’t have sufficient sympathy  for those caught in the money-chasing race, and  that is influencing my take on the field of behavioural economics.

So read Kahmeman (and Nudge, for that matter) if you’re looking for a few bits of cognitive psychology that you can apply to your business.

If that’s not your goal, for my quite modest money you’re better off reading something a shade more substantial and a bit less goal-directed.

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