It’s been ten years since psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman released his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow into the world. The book was a runaway success, becoming a New York Times bestseller and gaining widespread critical acclaim. Its popularity is owed to excellent writing and research, and also Kahneman’s audacity to tackle one of the most mysterious topics there is: the human mind. He explores deep into the psyche of the individual to attempt to understand the duality of a two system mind: one fast, intuitive, and one slow and deliberate.
To celebrate the impact of his work and reflect on how it has resonated across psychology, business and people’s personal lives, Kahneman joined Guardian columnist and author of Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman in livestream discussion last week.
At the time of writing, Kahneman revealed he had low expectations for his work, believing it would not garner the scientific respect of his peers or widespread public popularity: “The book was much more of a success than I anticipated. I had great doubts about it’s readability for the general public and about the reaction of my colleagues to it.”
But people want to make sense of the behaviour they observe in themselves and others that is irrational or illogical, and for many, Kahneman’s book offered answers and explanations that made the word feel more legible: “It’s clear that people recognise through introspection that ideas come to their mind in two quite different ways. Some are effortless and immediate and some are effortful – that distinction is readily available. But I think having some specific characteristics pinned on fast thinking and some on slow thinking seems to have been helpful for people.”
“The book was much more of a success than I anticipated. I had great doubts about it’s readability for the general public and about the reaction of my colleagues to it.”Daniel Kahneman
Kahneman acknowledges a past reluctance to connect his own difficulties in life with the psychological framework that he expounds in his book. Israeli born but growing up in Nazi-occupied France before fleeing the country, many have labelled his experiences as the foundation for his interest and insight into human irrationality.
Kahneman is not convinced: “This is a coherence bias. It’s trying to make too much sense of an individual’s story. I became a psychologist because I had a psychological orientation. I was interested in philosophical problems, like does God exist? and the ideas of good and evil and so on. But I then found myself even more interested in the psychological question, Why do people believe that God exists? From an early age, I had that psychological inclination. I think it had very little to do with my experiences during the war.”
Kahneman’s book discusses the idea that professional expertise offers no protection to the psychological biases that we are all prone to, and that in some cases, the professional setting compounds the bias. He reflects on how the last decade has seen a rise of skepticism about expertise, perhaps summarised in Michael Gove’s infamous conclusion a few years ago that “the people in this country have had enough of experts.”
“In the book, I was trying very hard to say that the human mind is more marvellous than it is flawed. The whole story is to explain the marvels and not only the flaws of intuition.”Daniel Kahneman
“Our questions about expertise are irrelevant to scientific work,” Kahneman clarifies. “It’s doubts about professionals that are perhaps more appropriate, and asking whether professional thinking is qualitatively different from the kind of thinking that we study in the laboratory.
“In the book, I was trying very hard to say that the human mind is more marvellous than it is flawed. The whole story is to explain the marvels and not only the flaws of intuition. There are situations in which you can trust expert intuition, and there are situations in which you cannot.”
He moves on to touch upon how bias and intuition interacts with climate change, noting that climate intuition has been inadequate for quite some time: “It’s because it’s distant, it’s abstract and it’s contested. You look around and think, things look fine. The belief in the threat of terrible things happening in a few decades is, for some people, optional, because it has become contested. This highlights how the breakdown in belief in expertise and authority has the potential to become disastrous.”
Reflecting on the legacy and purpose of his seminal book, Kahneman ponders the idea that by becoming more aware of our biases and intuitions, we can try to avoid being led astray by them. But he is quick to clarify that his work is not a template, guide, or collection of self-help tips: “I was adamant that it should not be read as a self-help book, because I had written the book and I didn’t think that had improved the quality of my thinking. However, and I said this at the time I wrote it too, I think individuals will find it difficult to improve their thinking, but organisations may be more able to improve the thinking of the people who operate within the organisation and speak on its behalf.
“This year, I’ve published another book called Noise: The Flaw in Human Judgement. Noise is a major source of error within organisations, and in this new book we are much more prescriptive than I was in Fast and Slow – we actually provide advice on how organisations can set up procedures, train people and shape themselves to improve thinking.”
Much has changed in the decade since Kahneman’s work was published. Contemplating his personal journey in that time, he summarises his shift from one of observation and explanation to one of advice and engagement: “I have definitely become more optimistic and prescriptive.”