Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two of psychology’s most venerable figures, used to joke that their area of expertise, decision making, was one their grandmothers already knew well. Luckily for us, their grandmothers must have been extremely clever ladies.
Take the concept that losses affect us more than gains, which the two men established. Although this idea may seem obvious, its consequences are not. For example, an analysis of 2.5 million putts in professional golf revealed that, regardless of the difficulty of the shot, players were more successful when striving for par than for one stroke under par. That is, the distaste for not reaching this benchmark motivated the golfers more than the desire to beat it, leading them to concentrate harder on nailing their next putt.
Now consider how a person’s aversion to loss might affect a territory battle, a corporate restructuring or attempts to trim costs. Any reform will involve winners and losers; however, the underdogs will be more driven to fight against change and will inevitably temper the outcomes. Score one for the losers.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and professor emeritus at Princeton University, sets these findings and others in a broad model of the mind. Kahneman explains that humans evolved decision-making shortcuts to aid in survival; avoiding losses is one example. Often we can mediate these gut reactions with logical reasoning. Even so, the brain frequently runs up against its limits, leading to flaws in our thinking.
Knowing how those errors arise can come in handy in numerous fields, including health care. In one study, Kahneman’s subjects placed a hand in icy water for 60 seconds and 90 seconds. After a minute elapsed in the 90-second trial, the experimenter silently warmed the water by one degree. When asked later which episode they would rather repeat, the participants paradoxically chose the longer one.
The subjects, it seems, recalled the average of their peak pain over the trial’s duration, which was lower in the 90-second case, rather than the overall quantity of pain. They also remembered the end of each experience most vividly. Thus, Kahneman suggests that if the goal is to reduce the memory of pain, medical workers might prioritize softening a procedure’s worst moment over shortening it. Such studies led Kahneman, famous for bridging psychology and economics, to begin crafting a model of how we evaluate our happiness.
The writing takes on a tender tone when he describes his longtime collaboration with Tversky, who died in 1996. For years they spent their afternoons in conversation, thinking up deceptive scenarios and examining each other’s decisions. Kahneman writes in much the same way: almost every other page includes a thought experiment to elicit the reader’s judgments. Stumbling into your own sloppy thinking makes their discoveries all the more personal.