The author is a Nobel Laureate in Economics (2002) and a psychologist by education and training. Thinking Fast and Slow just won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest this past weekend. Clearly, this is a very important book. While such a book would be a good read for smart teens who are heading off to college, I don’t imagine too many will have the time to get through it soon—it’s 450 pages not including the notes and index, and the information is dense. But for educators who are looking at a changing world, this study of decision making helps us to understand fallacies in thinking and to avoid them. It’s a great choice for a serious read, and I ‘think’ that’s why it’s been on the bestseller’s list for months running.
For the sake of ease, Kahneman identifies as two systems our fast thinking and our slower thinking. (These are not systems in a real, biological sense.) Mostly, we use the fast thinking—and mostly it is efficient, giving us what we need. But when we don’t understand something automatically, we have to employ our slower thinking, and that’s where problems start. The slower thinking is lazy and can push back to the faster (and incorrect) response jut to get out of a mental workout.
Kahneman uses statistics to show us how we go wrong in many areas. One fun discussion is on whether super successful people are smarter than others or just luckier than others who also work hard but are less successful. (Mostly lucky—very lucky. But also very immune to worry about failure. They are often good at blaming others or the situation, rarely see themselves as at fault, and so will try over and over when logic would tell another person to give up or at least cop to the fact that s/he has been making big mistakes. Kahneman says if there is one quality you could wish for your kids, it should be optimism.)
I don’t agree with everything Kahneman says. (Actually, I never entirely agree with anything that anyone says 🙂 .) His example of bad thinking in the section “Linda: More is Less” doesn’t take into account that linguistic implicatures are the basis for folks thinking it is more probable that someone is part of a subgroup than part of the larger group. (Example: Linda is involved in women’s rights organizations. Is it more probable that Linda is a bank teller or that Linda is a feminist bank teller?) People really aren’t confused about groups and subgroups just because they were preloaded with information about the subject in question. They’re using the known language patterns of the question to come up with a response.
Honestly, this book is a cornucopia of studies/original research about judgments and choices—political, economic, personal finances, selection of the best candidates for jobs. (Job interviews often lead to the selection of the inferior candidate—but he’ll have charisma. Smart employers look at past performance and hire on that.) It deals with intuition, and how regression to the mean isn’t just about height and smarts. If you read it, you’ll have a new way of thinking about kids, their possibilities (rather than their probabilities); you’ll see who in your class is receiving an unearned ‘halo effect.’ You’ll understand how to question students about their thinking so that they will be more likely to engage in the subject rather than pass it off to their fast thinking when they don’t understand it. As Library Journal says Thinking Fast and Slow is, “a stellar accomplishment, a book for everyone who likes to think and wants to do it better.”