Thinking, Fast, and Slow is the title of the current best selling book by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman has won the Nobel Prize, not in psychology as there is no Nobel Prize in psychology, but for his work with Amos Tversky in Economics. This work ushered in the era of behavioral economics and further debunked the myth of the rational human being. Kahneman has been misinterpreted for arguing that humans are irrational or seriously flawed. What he has been arguing is that our information processing capabilities are limited, and that we use clever heuristics to deal with this limitations. These limitations lead us astray.
The title refers to two systems we use for processing information. System 1 is fast and allows us to cope with high rates of information in a dynamic environment. Without System 1, we would not have survived as a species. But this fast processing speed has its costs, which sometimes lead to errors. System 2 is slow, and is what can be thought of as thinking. If you know your multiplication tables, if I ask you what is 6 time 7, you’ll respond 42 without really thinking about it. But if I ask you to multiply 67 times 42 you would find it difficult to compute in your head, and would most likely use a calculator or use paper and pencil (which are examples of transactive memory). This multiplication requires System 2 processing without or most likely with technological aids.
System 1 requires little or no effort. System 2 requires effort. It is not only faster, but also less demanding to rely on System 1 processes. Consider the following question.
A bat and a ball cost $1.10
The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
The number that quickly comes to mind is 10 cents. But if you take the time and exert the mental effort you will note that the cost would be $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat). If you do the math, which takes a little algebra, you will find that the ball costs 5 cents (the bat costing a $1.00 more than the ball would be $1.05 and $1.05 and $0.05 is $1.10). System 2 must be engaged to get the correct answer. This question has been asked of several thousand college students. More that 50% of the students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong, System 1, answer. At less selective universities more than 80% of the students gave the wrong answer. Good students tend to be suspicious of a question that is too easy!
If this example does not strike you as relevant, Kahneman provides many examples with clear relevance throughout the book. We shall be hitting some of these examples in future Healthymemory Blog posts. Kahneman’s Two System Theory is not new to the Healthymemory Blog (enter “Two System View” in the search block). Kahneman has already had a clear influence on economics. Additional behavioral and brain imaging research has further enhanced his view. Unfortunately it is still not the dominant view in economics, which still embraces the model of the rational man. An argument can be made that our current economic problems are due to an outdated paradigm in economics, and the wholesale adoption of behavioral problems could help us avoid these reoccurring disasters. I also think that the two system view is relevant to Political Science. I think a compelling reason why people do not vote in their own best interests can be found in the two system view. System 1 is automatic, whereas System 2 requires effort.
The Dumbledore Hypothesis regarding the effects of aging on the brain fits well within the two system view. According to the Dumbledore Hypothesis, we have learned so much as a result of our aging, that we rely on our old habits and do not make as many demands on our attentional resources. In other words, too heavy a reliance on System 1 at the cost of not engaging System 2 causes cognitive decline because we are not exercising System 2. It’s a matter of use it or lose it.
Thinking, Fast, and Slow is a must read for anyone interested in human cognition. Actually everyone should be interested because it provides examples and insights regarding the errors we make everyday. Although Thinking, Fast, and Slow is certainly not a cure all, it provides us with awareness and does offer some means of coping with our information processing shortcomings.
Note that the book is a best seller, so it is an easy read and not an imponderable academic tome. Kahneman also includes personal stories, especially of his relationship with Amos Tversky, that are interesting and entertaining.
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