November 5, 2011
There have been many good books on human rationality and irrationality, but only one masterpiece. That masterpiece is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, distils a lifetime of research into an encyclopedic coverage of both the surprising miracles and the equally surprising mistakes of our conscious and unconscious thinking. He achieves an even greater miracle by weaving his insights into an engaging narrative that is compulsively readable from beginning to end. My main problem in doing this review was preventing family members and friends from stealing my copy of the book to read it for themselves.
Kahneman presents our thinking process as consisting of two systems. System 1 (Thinking Fast) is unconscious, intuitive and effort-free. System 2 (Thinking Slow) is conscious, uses deductive reasoning and is an awful lot of work. System 2 likes to think it is in charge but it’s really the irrepressible System 1 that runs the show. There is simply too much going on in our lives for System 2 to analyse everything. System 2 has to pick its moments with care; it is “lazy” out of necessity.
Books on this subject tend to emphasise the failings of System 1 intuition, creating an impression of vast human irrationality. Kahneman dislikes the word “irrationality” and one of the signal strengths of Thinking, Fast and Slow is to combine the positive and negative views of intuition into one coherent story. In Kahneman’s words, System 1 is “indeed the origin of much that we do wrong” but it is critical to understand that “it is also the origin of most of what we do right – which is most of what we do”.