Thinking fast and slow

Daniel Kahneman

Allen Lane (Imprint of Penguin Books)

ISBN: 978-1-846-14055-6

Book cover - Thinking Fast and Slow

In this book Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist by profession and a Nobel laureate in Economics (by chance?) expounds upon the nature of ‘our brain’ (and not his own, for “it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so”). Our brain seems to be an example of 'two states', with no link whatsoever to the book by the same name (intended towards the Indian audience). To explain the working of our brain, and to make the distinction more clear Daniel names these two parts of our brains as ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’, though, he makes it clear that such precise distinction can never be made for our brains.

System 1 is the intuitive and automatic brain which controls most of our daily routine and judgements. It is the one which jumps the gun, the one which makes us think we know, even when we don't, and it is the one which we don't really realize exists. System 2 is the lazy part, but also the one which can reason, and calculate, and think deliberately, not to mention that it is a resource guzzler and still slow. It reminds me of the vehicle called ‘Hummer’. It is very much like a heavy lifting vehicle. When we talk of the 'self', it is this small, system 2, “the attentive system 2 is who we think we are”. System 2 springs into action when somebody is asked questions like ‘what is 17*24?’ The system 1 has been elegantly abstracted out from our conscious monitoring for if we had to deliberately tell ourselves about breathing, we won't have time to think at all. System 1 is the efficient one, though more prone to errors than the second. “The capabilities of system one include innate skills that we share with other elements. We’re born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognise objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders.”

Throughout the book, the author walks us through the garden of system 1, with intelligent questions - which are great fun to answer (and also great at disappointing oneself by failing) - to reveal different kinds of cognitive biases that we didn't know we were prone to. His aim? He hopes to develop a “vocabulary that people use when they talk about the judgements and choices of others, the company’s new policies, or a colleague’s investment decisions”, the usual gossip that is exchanged nearly office water cooler. “Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognise our own.” It is to give biases and patterns a name, for as in medicine, once you, as a practising doctor know something (a disease or condition) by its particular name, your associative memory (again a part of system 1) fills in the rest of the details that you learnt about. Or as Lara had found out, “to call everything by its right name”. At the same time, it is to unveil the common fallacies that we are regularly committing and possible ways in which we could avoid them.

It is not his aim however to pit system 1 against system 2 and have a clear winner or to downplay the importance of system one. “System 1 is indeed the origin of much that we do wrong, but it is also the origin of most of what we do right-which is most of what we do.” For example, the 'Halo effect', where we are more inclined to have a favourable attitude towards a person who makes a good first impression (even before he has opened his mouth), or the Müller-Lyer illusion of parallel lines with fins at the end which makes us misjudge the actual length of lines, or produces 3D effects in 2D planes (3D-Heuristics) by using relative size and scale manipulation. He discusses why we gamble, buy lottery tickets (and not win, yet not feel loss), why we stereotype, and why most individual investors who indulge in day trading (rapid buying and selling) end up losing more money than the lazy long term investors who let their shares lay eggs like hen even when the first ones get an illusion of making profit. He shows how we may contradict ourselves, by showing loss aversion in one case and risk-seeking in the same case phrased in a different manner. He shows the magic of wordplay, how ‘90% fat free’ is more favourable to sellers than ‘10% fat’ (and why some Governments are now making it mandatory to display both in the same place, albeit allowing different font sizes) and why some European nations have a higher rate of enrolment in organ donors while signing up for a driver's license than others even when mostly the same form is used while filling the application. Above all, he explain why many of us will learn nothing at all from this book, as he quotes from Nisbett and Borgida, “Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular

Consider this activity and “do not try to solve it but listen to your intuition:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?”

I answered wrongly when I first attempted it, thinking “Ha! I’m better than average, I’ll solve it right.

Now consider this syllogism and answer if it is valid or not:

All roses are flowers.

Some flowers fade quickly.

Therefore some roses fade quickly.

I again answered wrongly, while my roommate did not. Turns out, I have a very lousy system 2. However, the good part is, I faired fairly well in problems which were relatively more complex, and involved probability (even when I suck at probability as a subject). To know the answer, you will either have to first attempt it in the comments section, or Google it.

He discusses the massive illusion of WYSIATI (What you see is all there is) and how it primes us deceptively into believing something which doesn’t necessarily have to be true. In many places, Daniel suggests ways in which we can avoid these cognitive biases though at the same time we will be taking a time penalty and energy, for the System 2 is inherently lazy and it takes a lot of effort to get it up on its butt.

He talks about how 'experts' at predictions often do worse than laymen guessing it, even when experts think they are taking care of more variables and producing a more reliable prediction, and why they still vehemently deny it. He lucidly describes how we substitute a tougher question with an easier one (without us really knowing). In between all of this, he discusses his Prospect Theory, for which he won the Nobel Prize (jointly). It reveals the failure cases of, and improves upon the expected Utility theory, and Bernoulli's theory which are standard practice in Economics. He also shows in what ways his theory is lacking. Mostly, the psychologists contest that Humans do not always behave rationally, and often make mistakes (at the same time rejecting that humans are irrational); it is a view that Economists don't seem to endorse, for most seminal work in Economics had been done with the assumption of a rational agent. No wonder behavioural economics is stirring things up, but we have a long way to go.

If you read carefully, it also reveals a few points of exploitation. For example “intense focusing on a draft can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention. The most dramatic demonstration was offered by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla… Several psychological studies have shown that people who were challenged by demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Imagine that you are asked to retain a list of seven digits for a minute or two. You are told that remembering the digits is your top priority. While your attention is focused on the digits, you’re offered a choice between two desserts: a sinful chocolate cake and the virtuous fruit salad. The evidence suggests that you would be more likely to select the tempting chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with digits. System 1 has more influence on behaviour and system two is busy, and it has a sweet tooth. People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgements in social situations [I satisfy all these criterion, almost most of the times, just for the record]… Baumeister’s group has repeatedly found that an effort of will or self-control is fighting; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing and are less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomena has been named ‘ego depletion’.” When System 2 is engaged, we will believe almost anything. “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. Indeed, there is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted.” Ladies, now you know when to approach husbands, and Gentlemen, now you know when you mustn’t listen to their sweet talk. That Airtel advertisement of impressing your father to cajole him into sharing his internet plan is all baloney. Nab him when he’s busy with CNBC TV18 when stock markets open.

It might so happen with you as it happened with the author, and as Bertrand Russell found (quite validly) “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts”: The author’s confidence in his grading of students was much lower than it had been before as he frequently experienced discomfort that was new to him, which kind of validates another saying that truth is often uncomfortable and unsettling (truth here means superior method of measurement and not necessarily the absolute truth).

A large part of our life is governed by System 1, which also houses our sense making machinery, which believes in the coherence of the story constructed, its consistency and not its completeness. He writes, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story and you know little, then there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense less on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance… The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future should also be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.” I would like to relate it to the ‘Event cone’ or ‘light cone’ that Stephen Hawking describes in ‘A Brief History of Time’ where the moment, the present, is the summation of all the events that could have affected it in the universe which together form a cone with the apex at that present moment.

You will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern”, which according to me is how science works. As Kant had put it, “Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us. This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.” Indeed, we have to start somewhere, whether wrong or right, but we have to wonder why.

Many of these things also hint at (and the author also dedicates many pages to this topic) on why endings matter, which is - why “all is well that ends well”? The adeptness of system 1 at averaging and its ineptness of handling sums (and hence integration) with the same efficiency, the distinction of the ‘experiencing self’, and the ‘remembering self’, all seem to point to a common thread, which the author does not fully join explicitly (but I am sure he has thought of it at some point of other, for he has everything written in a single book).

I found that I did not quite understand all questions or could readily generate an answer for many of the questions that the author expected me to know. This is because these questions were targeted towards the American audience, for example, “How many murders occur in the State of Michigan in one year?” Also, for a certain part of the book, in particular where he discussed the Prospect theory, all I could think was “everybody’s got a story to sell. This ‘Prospect Theory’ is his story” while the reading got a little belabouring. However, the lull period was met with more fascinating behaviours to which I later realized, some knowledge (if not understanding) of his theory and the various other things that he discussed in its pretext was very necessary.

It is a treasure trove, full of interesting information about us and how we think. It can addle your brain, and will give you a serious self-consciousness at a certain point (if you think you are better). But then again, it will also reinforce some of your positive points (as I found out, I am more prone to doubting, but not on short notices, which means I am a very slow genius). At a certain point, I wondered if our elders (not the Mayans though) really knew something when they said that everything is an illusion “sab maaya hai”.

When you are asked what you’re thinking about, you can normally answer. You believe you know what goes on in your mind which often consists of one conscious thought leading to an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is that the typical way. For most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. He cannot raise how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a hint of irritation in your spouse’s voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid the threat of the road before you became consciously aware of it. The little work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in the silence of our mind.

I’ll leave you with a little food for thought: In Electronics, one learns about ‘thermal noise’, or Johnson noise, which is inadvertently generated because the electrons moving and the thermal energy present in them. This creates a sort of floor full of noise which we call the Noise Floor; the device must learn to ignore it (or rather compensate for it by subtraction) from its calculations. Learning in this case comes from the human mind because we design it such. This is akin to how our hearing works: living in a bustling city, a body attunes itself to the constant noise of the environment which we call the ambience. When somebody is able to concentrate in such a noisy environment, he/she effectively mutes out this noise, and enters a state which is often referred to as “flow” for variable periods of time. But, when we really need to concentrate on thinking and not on any external stimulus like a book, we crave for a quiet time. In that case, this miniscule noise floor also proves to be a massive hindrance to our pursuit (even our own breathing can prove troublesome). Likewise, when the electronic equipment needs to be very accurate, for example deep space telescopes (like Herchel) or superconducting materials, we need to remove or minimise that thermal noise. In such situations, we try to lower the temperature of the device such that is entropy is reduced, or, to calm its agitated electrons (0 Kelvin being the state of zero entropy). That zero state is supposedly the state of absolute calm. Metaphorically speaking, the deep space telescope could not see any farther until it was troubled by internal noises. As it calmed down (by lowering temperature), it reduced its internal noise, and could then see a little farther and a little more accurately. Much is the case with us, we too are made up of electrons.

P.S.: I really like the book cover. It gives an impression that there is an actual pencil placed on the book, when we look at the real book. The effect is somewhat absent in web images.​

P.P.S.: You can buy this book on Amazon by following this link (or by clicking on the picture above)