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Daniel Kahneman Expands Our Vision : System One Meets System Two

Reviewed By Diane Cole

Thinking, Fast And Slow
By Daniel Kahneman
Farrar, Straus. 499 pages.
ISBN: 9780374275631
Purchase this book on Amazon

Slow down; you think too fast. That could be the take-home mantra of the distinguished psychologist and Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant and eminently approachable new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. But to reduce it merely to that wouldn’t be to take the full measure of the intricacies of his—or, for that matter, our own—thinking.

Kahneman and his longtime research partner Amos Tversky (who died in 1996) are widely credited with founding the field of behavioral economics, which uses the psychology of cognition to pin down the reasons behind the frequently irrational, and seemingly inexplicable, behavior of consumers and investors. Kahneman’s and Tversky’s research informed Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink, and inspired the many books about intuitive thinking that appeared in its wake. (See, for instance, my review from January 2011, “Misstating the Obvious: The Pitfalls of Doing What Comes Naturally.”) But where those other books focused primarily on the cognitive errors, false assumptions, illusions, and distortions that an overreliance on intuition can lead to, Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast And Slow, provides nothing less than a comprehensive dissection of the reasoning mind as a whole.

Kahneman posits that there are two systems—one faster than the other, as the title suggests—that comprise the way we make decisions both small and large, choose one product (or career, for that matter) over another, judge a neighbor trustworthy or flag him as a phony. To make clear the distinction between the two types of thinking, he suggests that we imagine each system as a separate fictional character. Even better, think of these two characters as voices that argue back and forth inside our heads, tugging us one way with unreasoned passion and tugging us the other way with dispassionate analysis.

The first system, which Kahneman, for simplicity, calls “System One,” is like a quick-on-the-draw cowboy: fast, emotional, intuitive, automatic. The second system, which Kahneman calls “System Two,” is reminiscent of a laidback sidekick—a slow, logical deliberator, content to stay in the background until called upon to weigh decisions judiciously and do the analytical heavy lifting that’ll keep impulsive choices in check. We count on these two systems of thinking to interact smoothly, but, like most characters (and systems), they aren’t entirely dependable. System One tends to take control and speed ahead, while System Two—which generally prefers to expend no more energy and extend no more effort than absolutely necessary—can be left behind in the dust, unless we consciously put on the brakes and decelerate.

On an evolutionary basis, this type of mental hardwiring set us up nicely for quick reaction times in the interest of survival. (At the first unfriendly sound in the forest, start running and keep on going, without a backward glance or second thought.) Because paying attention uses up calories, being slower and more selective in switching to concentration mode was a good way to preserve our internal energy stores when food was in short supply. But in the contemporary era, our human propensity to think fast first, in haste, only to think slow later, with regret, has made us likelier to blunder into traps—witness the long list of financial bubbles, harmful-to-your-health diet fads, and so on—whose warning signals we miss as we rush by—right into trouble.

The bottom line, alas, is that “Laziness is built deep into our nature,” writes Kahneman. Yet we need to find ways to keep on our cognitive toes. Rather than making us feel like dunces for being such easy prey, Kahneman gives us tools for doing better (or at least, learning to try harder). For one thing, he ends each of the book’s 38 chapters with examples that place his ideas in the context of everyday life, transforming what may at first seem like abstract concepts into concrete cases.

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