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Thihnking Fast and Slow

August 19th, 2012 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

Another book I recently finished is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is another one of those books that occupies the intersection of psychology and economics, so if you liked Nudge, Freakonomics, The Wisdom of Crowds, Predictably Irrational, The Black Swan or any of the other many similar books you will probably love this one as it is written by one of the pioneers of the behavioural economics field.

The book is all about how the human mind has two ways of thinking, with one part of the brain making very quick decisions almost without thinking, and the other part making the decisons that require analysis. There are sound reasons why the ability to act and react quickly has evolutionary advantages but it can lead to irrational, wrong or just inappropriate actions and this book explains why and how this happens.

To large degree these wrong decisions are unavoidable, but perhaps the information here can help you mitigate the effects or just recognise when they are happening.

The real eye-opener is how easily we can be manipulated – the first section of the book certainly helps to understand how somebody like Derren Brown can do some of his stuff! Just the concepts of priming, framing and cognitive ease will make you look at adverts and political statements in a new light.

Here is an early example that really struck a chord with me:

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repitition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact. But it was psychologists who discovered that you do not have to repeat the entire statement of a fact or idea to make it appear true.

People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” were more likely to accept as true the statement that “the body temperature of a chicken is 144 degrees” (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement seem familiar, and therefore true. If you cannot remember the source of a statement, and have no way to relate it to other things you know, you have no option but to go with the sense of cognitive ease.

Something to remember when you notice that a politican is repeating some phrase over and over, like when the Tories talk about “the debt we inherited” or when Labour used to get the phrase “worldwide economic crisis” in at every opportunity. Also interesting to notice which newspapers and columnists also repeat the same phrases and wonder whether they are just quoting or actively trying to promote the same thing. I think that a lot of this goes on just by instinct. What this book does is show you how a lot of the tricks of spin doctors and advertisers use have a scientific basis and how depressingly effective they can be.

Here is what I wrote about the book:

I wasn’t sure about reading this. Having read several books on very similar topics already this year I thought there might be a lot of overlap with them. It turns out I was right, but it doesn’t matter. Although many of the examples in this book have been seen before in books by Dan Ariely, Jonathan Haidt, and others this book actually complements all the other books very well.

For example, the central idea of the brain having two modes fo working is also the basis of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer I thin kit is explained better here – I was never entirely comfortable with Haidt’s use of an elephant and rider as a metaphor for the mind, and prefer the idea of fast and slow thinking.

Daniel Kahneman is a name I had come across many times. His original work with Amos Tversky is cited in just about every book on behavioural economics and used to build up theories. Having just about created the whole discipline he now builds on all those books in a way that is surprisingly fresh. The first part of the book manages to explain a lot about how certain heuristics cause us to make wrong decisions or be mislead or manipulated and is very easy to read, until you reach the bit about regression to the mean which takes a little more effort.

At the end there is a sort of book equivalent to a DVD’s extra features – two earlier academic papers by Kahneman and Tversky on which a lot of this book was based. They actually sum up a lot of the rest of the book, but in a more compact format. They are harder to read since they were written for an academic audience and so are less conversational. On their own they would be hard going for an outsider like me, but at the end of the book they work well as a kind of summary of the rest of it.

Anybody who has read and appreciated Nudge, the Freakonomics books, Dan Ariely’s books or The Black Swan, probably won’t need much persuading that this essential reading.

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