Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

In trying to help us understand how we make choices, the author falls between two stools: too chatty for academics, too dense for amateurs, says Andrew Davidson.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2011

Presumably, the phone call from Daniel Kahneman's publisher went something like this: 'Hi, Daniel, we're always on the look-out for big-brain books with popular appeal on why things happen, you are a veteran psychologist who famously won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics - imagine that! It should go to economists - and you're a whizz on decision-making and risk, so how about writing an easy-read overview of your life's work, explaining as chattily as possible, er, why things happen, studded with a few anecdotes about the frisbees you've thrown with well-known academics across American and Israeli campuses over your 77 years ...?'

And so here it is, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a title that immediately made me think about the Slow Food movement in Italy and then, over 481 pages, just perplexed me.

It's an odd book, garlanded with praise from bestselling thinkers Stephen Pinker, Steven Levitt and Richard Thaler and puffed by Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan author) as 'a landmark book in social thought, in the same league as The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud'.

To this lay reader it is not a patch on either. Worse than that, it is strangely ephemeral, throwing out ideas without ever really suggesting how you might use them, and all too often simply stating the Blindingly Obvious.

But to blame Kahneman for not being Freud is hardly fair. Taleb must have felt the hot breath of a publisher on his shoulder.

Part of the problem is just how rigorous an academic has to be in unpicking the problems of everyday behaviour. Why, for example, do people spend a lot of money on insurance against their house burning down, when if you count up the number of people you've ever met whose house has burnt down, it's rarely more than one? Accept the risk.

But we don't, because we all sleep easier when we have paid our subs. And we do it because others do it, and perhaps because so much notional wealth is tied up in property. That's the sort of conundrum a psychologist could unpick for years. The rest of us probably move on.

Kahneman explains that we operate two ways of thinking: a System 1 that is quick and intuitive, and a System 2 that is slower and more logical. So far, so good, but this sounds so similar to theories of id/ego/super-ego and left brain/right brain, you would hope there might be a comparison. But there isn't.

Instead, the ways in which the two systems battle to influence our decision-making form the crux of the book. There are some great themes: why gamblers gamble more rather than accept a loss; how we buy holidays for memories; why we are more responsive to threat than reward (which could have led to examining why bad news enthrals the media more than good); why, when we can't answer a question, we substitute an easier one and answer that instead; and how averages are misunderstood.

That briefly leads into a pithy deconstruction of Jim Collins' Built to Last, which suggests the firms selected for praise in that book were not really any good at all, just lucky. But, again, it doesn't really go anywhere.

Likewise a diversion into stock-picking. Another chapter examines why people are happy to embrace capitalism yet disapprove when, for example, after a blizzard, a shop increases the price of snow shovels. What's wrong with playing to the laws of supply and demand? Because we don't feel it's fair, sometimes.

There are charts, illustrations, cross-headings and Kahneman's cute stories of sharing pizza with different peers on different projects to lighten the load. Every chapter ends with a clutch of quotes illustrating its themes - you can hear the publisher muttering: please, please make this book accessible.

So there you are at the water-cooler, mulling Jim Collins: 'He's learning too much from this success story, which is too tidy. He has fallen for a narrative fallacy.'

Perhaps that's really how psychologists chat.

And 481 pages later, you put it all down and think, well, what should I think? It is either brilliant and beyond me or one sprawling mass of a tome.

Somewhere inside could be a terrific 100-page book that will illuminate your life. There may even be a longer how-to business book that would enable you to manipulate everyone's decision-making for your huge personal profit. This isn't it, and Kahneman, a genial host on the book's rambling tour, wouldn't want to write that.

It's as if in trying to write an accessible version of an academic book, he's fallen between two stools - producing a book that's too chatty for serious students of psychology, and too detailed for amateur readers. It's exasperating, as I really wanted to like it, but time and again found my attention wandering after four pages of insight. I'm not sure his publisher is doing him a service producing this.

What he has written is an exhaustive and exhausting work memoir, which wrestles not just with his own research but with that of his peers. I just have a hunch -more System 1 than System 2 - that most outside his field will find it hard going.

How do we examine what we choose to do and guard against poor decision-making? Kahneman doesn't clearly tell us.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman
Allen Lane £25.00

- Andrew Davidson is a longstanding MT contributor and editor at large.

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