I recently finished Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics. Kahneman received the distinguished prize for his “Integrated economic analysis with fundamental insights from cognitive psychology, in particular regarding behavior under uncertainty, thereby laying the foundation for a new field of research.”
Kahneman writes extensively in Thinking, Fast and Slow about his research conducted over a period of several years with his late friend and research partner Amos Tversky. Though heavy in theory, the book is an engaging and frequently challenging read. It provides a unique perspective on the decision-making process which Kahneman demonstrates via his thesis—how we think with two systems, fast and slow. His supporting research reveals just how fallible we are. Kahneman describes the fast and slow thinking as two systems→system one which is quick, spontaneous and often inaccurate, and system two, that is slow [even lazy], methodical, yet when engaged, accesses memory for facts. Kahnemen examines how the two systems affect cognitive biases, choices, even our well-being and happiness. Going deeper, Kahneman explores how [flawed] biases and perceptions when applied to larger issues, policy decisions for example, can have significant impact on sectors such as healthcare, education and employment.
→ System 1: fast, instinctive, is biased to believe and confirm, infers and invents causes and intentions, exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
→ System 2: slow, deliberate, rational, logical, relies on facts and knowledge
Throughout the book Kahneman incorporates numerous details and specifics of his research, describing the scenarios of his studies, even providing illustrations and images within the book. He shares the outcomes of the research in great detail along with his personal insight. The anecdotes are often humorous, providing a balance to the heaviness of the topic.
One of the writing techniques of Kahneman I enjoyed the most, was his use of summary statements at the end of each chapter representative of the concepts discussed. If I didn’t follow the logic of the statements, I had failed to grasp the concepts Kahneman presented in the chapter, which sent me back to reread it to find what I’d missed (which happened more than once). I’ve chosen a selection of statements from a few of the chapters:
Chapter 4 ‘The Associative Machine’: “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found“
Chapter 14: ‘Tom W’s Speciality’: “The start-up looks as if it could not fail, but the base rate of success in the industry is extremely low. How do we know this case is different?”
Chapter 16 ‘Causes Trump Statistics’: “No need to worry about this statistical information being ignored. On the contrary, it will immediately be used to feed a stereotype.”
Chapter 18 ‘Taming Intuitive Predictions’: “Our intuitive prediction is very favorable, but it is probably too high. Let’s take into account the strength of our evidence and regress the prediction toward the mean.”
What ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ Means to Education
As mentioned, Thinking, Fast and Slow is full of concepts that challenge traditional views on human decision-making, application of choice theory, even probability. What Kahneman’s research reveals is that people, regardless of their education background are prone to cognitive biases, faulty decision-making that fail because system 1 kicks in before the more rational and logical system 2 is engaged. Viewing the book through an educator’s lens, the results highlight the need for institutions to educate learners to be disciplined thinkers, which is quite opposite from today’s emphasis on teaching creativity and innovation skills. Our minds, according to Kahneman don’t naturally rely upon logical, rational or critical thinking processes. Instead system 1 thinking dominates, prompting emotional reactions, reliance on recent events and experiences, and is susceptible to the priming effect, where exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another. Kahneman’s gives examples to support his point. One example of a study involved doctors, which revealed even medical professionals were susceptible to the priming effect (p 227). Other scholarly research supports Kahnemans’ results, described in this research paper.
Notes to Educators
If one subscribes to Kahneman theory, education for high school and undergraduates should focus on teaching disciplined thinking, decision-making skills and principles of probability, choice theory and statistics. Another skill to emphasize is to approach problems methodically, without jumping to conclusions and settling on easy answers—a challenge given the way culture has shaped expectations for answers at the speed of light.
“The most glaring deficiency of system 2, according to Kahneman, is that it is naturally very poor with probabilities and statistics. Fortunately, system 2 can be trained to improve here, and this is another major concern of the book.” News Books In Brief, 2013
“When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment… You can… feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains” (2011, Kahneman).
Thinking, Fast and Slow highlights what is missing from education, or at least what is not emphasized across disciplines, which is the concept of disciplined thinking, logic, application of methodical processes that harness factual and theoretical knowledge one learns. As mentioned already, the trend in education today leans towards teaching creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, even the application of design thinking principles. Kahneman’s books provides solid evidence for education that includes applications of disciplined thinking, logic and methodical decision-making.
If you are interested in this book, but short on time, the resources below provide excellent highlights and descriptions of the key concepts of the book. The short YouTube video illustrates one example outlined in the book, and the link to edge.org includes an interview with Kahnamen where he discusses much of the content outlined in his book.
The video below demonstrates a scenario Kahneman describes in his book (p 186). Note: the video uses the idea of the US grade point average (GPA). For those not familiar with it, the top score is this instance is 4.0.
- The Marvels and The Flaws of Intuitive Thinking: Edge Master Class 2011, Daniel Kahneman, [includes recorded interview with Daniel Kahneman, where he speaks of intuitive thinking as described in his book]
- A Statistical Review of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman, Burns Statistics
- Two Brains Running, Jim Holt, Sunday Book Review, New York Times
- Nobel laureate challenges psychologists to clean-up their act, Ed Yong, Nature