Daniel Kahneman Set the World Right by Showing How We Get It All Wrong

Daniel Kahneman

Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). (Wiki-CC, NRKBETA)




When news of Daniel Kahneman’s March 27 death at the age of ninety hit my first thought was to hang my head in sadness at the passing of a great mind. My second thought soon afterward was that I had to read, for a second time, the Princeton psychologist’s best-selling (and rightly so) 2011 title, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Forget that Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel for economics. What matters most is that he wrote this magnificent book for the public market.

It is cliché to say reading certain books—Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (171 CE); Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859); Albert Einstein’s paper, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1916)—change forever the way we see the world. Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow fits that description, and to Kahneman’s great credit, also a few others. Crucially, reading this book will change how you view yourself as a thinking person. As such, it is more immediately useful than whole boatloads of non-fiction books, great as they are, published throughout history.

Reading Kahneman’s book years ago it became apparent, at least halfway through its pages, that it ought to be required reading in every public high school worth taxpayers’ dollars or, if private, parents’ tuition bill. This is that rare book that, if widely read, has the potential to save each and every reader untold years of frustration and heartbreak by helping them avoid poor decisions.

While not an easy read, it is not at all impenetrable either. Kahneman’s basic message is that people by design are almost inherently illogical. Nature built our behavior to react to danger signs with speed and agility. Time-consuming decisions are not conducive to survival, which requires that we think fast. But in thinking too fast we fall victim to a whole host of errors that, if we were only aware of how those errors were made, we might slow down for a closer look. People aware of how these two “systems”—as Kahneman calls them—interlink will at least go about their lives knowing they might compromise between the two when making decisions. Those determined to avoid life’s myriad cognitive traps will take the time to understand them to the point when compromise is no longer necessary, and mastery over and above them becomes a distinct possibility. To get there, we all need to slow down and give Thinking, Fast and Slow a good, thorough and, yes, slow read.

Kahneman breaks with kid gloves the bad news of how human fallibility operates before getting down to the nitty-gritty of how to avoid it. Many of his lessons will be common fare to those with even a general knowledge of psychology: People are vulnerable to associative fallacies; we prefer the convenience of norms and biases that can lead us astray; we are susceptible to over-confidence; mostly, we are lazy because thinking consumes energy.

Kahneman’s book is a treasure trove of great advice if you have the stomach to humble yourself enough to take it. “The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own,” he writes early in the book. The more explicit way to interpret that sentence is: A true friend, preferably someone steeped in the psychology experiments and papers that comprise the bulk of this book, will warn you when you are about to make a mistake.

Opening the book again, a few days after Kahneman’s death, I was struck by a chapter sure to be relevant for years to come, and in the persistence of intractable problems exploited for political purposes. A citizen of Israel, Kahneman served his time in the IDF, and as an Israeli citizen was deeply familiar with the threat of terrorism. As an eminent psychologist, he also understood that the threat of terrorism was effective because it spoke directly to our collective “system 1” of fast thinking. Statistically, the probability we will die in a terrorist attack is miniscule relative to other causes of death, but in the post-9/11 we still live in the sensational images and drama of terrorist attacks induce emotions hard to surmount or argue against. We neglect the rare probability that we will die in a terrorist attack at the hand of foreigners, because it is too easy to succumb to fear. Kahneman frames it this way: “The combination of probability neglect with the social mechanisms of availability cascades inevitably leads to gross exaggeration of minor threats, sometimes with important consequences.” (144)

The interplay between threats probable and threats less probable is a dynamic sure to impact politics and policy choices in the foreseeable future. More than one million U.S. citizens perished and more than 6 million were hospitalized during the Covid-19 pandemic, yet the murder of one U.S. citizen, allegedly at the hands of an undocumented immigrant, holds the attention and outrage of millions. Stalin’s infamous dictum about the death of one person as “a tragedy” while the death of “a million is a statistic” comes immediately to mind. Kahneman, ever true to form in locating deeper understandings of human behavior, is far more useful. He shares the rational person’s objections to acting on irrational fears. He also understands, in one of the book’s most insightful passages, the consequences of fear.

“Rational or not, fear is painful and debilitating, and policymakers must endeavor to protect the public from fear, not only from real dangers,” Kahneman writes. “Democracy is inevitably messy, in part because the availability and affect heuristics that guide citizens’ beliefs and attitudes are inevitably biased, even if they generally point in the right direction. Psychology should inform the design of risk policies that combine the experts’ knowledge with the public’s emotions and intuitions.” (144-145)

Amid all the ways his book reveals how to avoid poor decision-making at the individual level, this is a somewhat rare instance of Kahneman capitulating to the mechanics of collective fear when faced with collective demands. It is also, the more you think about it, wise. Thinking, Fast and Slow is, in part, an extended lesson in humility. It should humble us all to understand how limited we are. Kahneman’s book is also, fortunately for us, a potent antidote.