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Book reviews, Critical Thinking, Middle Way Philosophy, Psychology

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Penguin 2011.

What does it mean to face up to illusion? What does it mean to try to overcome illusion? Daniel Kahneman cannot quite give us a complete answer to these questions, but he offers many insights. All of these insights are expressed with a good deal of scientific caution and grounded in accounts of experimental evidence. Kahneman gives positive evidence for what the tradition of scepticism has long faced in the abstract: that our judgements are often unreliable.

It is impossible to adequately summarise all the insights that this book offers, but here are a few selections. We have two kinds of modes or ‘systems’ of thinking: a fast mode and a slow mode. Because the slow mode takes more energy, we often use the fast mode instead and thus jump to unwarranted conclusions. The fast system tends to substitute easy questions for which it can find answers for the difficult ones we initially asked. The fast system can be trained, as firefighters and concert pianists know, but if insufficiently trained it is both unreliable and over-confident. Intuitions are only likely to be correct in a limited and predictable environment. Our fast system can easily be skewed by ‘anchors’ that prime us in a particular way; it assumes that things are as they appear; and it is dominated by associations that are used as a short cut to judging complex probabilities.

One effect of this is that we are not the rational agents assumed by classical economics. Instead of judging what would best fulfil our desires in relation to the environment we encounter, we become over-confident about things we have thought about or planned. We are disproportionately averse to the risk of small or improbable losses, and overconfident when we feel we have little to lose. We disproportionately undervalue otherwise useful or attractive objects with minor flaws, to the extent that adding a flawed object to an otherwise faultless collection irrationally decreases its total value. To the same extent we also over-value apparent flawlessness even when it is of limited extent. The market, being run by biased human beings, will thus not always find a rational price for an object.

When remembering our experiences, we tend to neglect the duration of those experiences and focus mainly on the peaks of pain or pleasure and the end of a particular experience. Thus a period of moderate pain will seem worse if it finishes with intense pain, and a short period of peak pleasure will be valued much more in retrospect than a long period of moderate pleasure. We make most of our judgements using our remembering self rather than our experiencing self, and thus distort our memories.

This is an extremely rich book, distilled from a lifetime of Kahneman’s research, the implications of which it may take me years to fully digest. Its main effect has been to confirm for me what I have long suspected: that the cognitive biases uncovered by psychologists have massive implications for Middle Way Philosophy. Some of the ideas it sparked in me will require a lot more thought, and will probably emerge in a more worked form in the later volumes of the ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ series. However, here are some initial thoughts about how Kahneman can help with Middle Way Philosophy.

One area where he gives some very useful evidence is in helping to understand the psychological basis of metaphysics, and how it is that metaphysical beliefs are associated with dogmatism and with a failure to address conditions. Kahneman does not mention metaphysics as such, and indeed seems to be quarantining religion from his discoveries about cognitive bias, but he gives plenty of grounds for deducing that metaphysical beliefs are a substitution by the fast system for the detailed, observant thinking that needs to be done by our slow system. What could be faster, more convenient, or more mental-energy-saving than an absolute catch-all metaphysical explanation? For example, all criminals are completely responsible for their crimes, or God is causing unaccountable events to occur. Even if he avoids religion and most philosophy, Kahneman does give clear evidence to undermine the metaphysical assumptions of classical economics, and the libertarian politics that often goes with it. If people are not absolutely rational, the case for leaving them completely to make free rational choices without any paternalistic interference at all becomes a good deal weaker. Just as the metaphysicised State of state socialism cannot solve all problems, nor can the metaphysicised Market of right-wing libertarians.

Kahneman also gives lots of evidence of the attractions of absolute positions, and of how that attraction distorts our relative judgements. In his decision weight theory, he offers experimentally-based psychological equivalents to various percentage chances. The decision weight of a 1% chance, for example, is 5.5%, and the decision weight of a 99% chance is 91.2%. Because of our anxious desire for certainty one way or the other, our decisions are particularly distorted when we are dealing with small chances, so that we grossly over-weight them when they are small and under-weight them when they are large. This shows the gravitational pull of the metaphysical certainty: so great that when we can’t just ignore a small degree of uncertainty we have to hugely over-react to it, like some kind of allergy.

Kahneman’s evidence about duration neglect is also striking. Just as we have trouble with probabilities and have to make a strong effort of slow thought to engage with them, we have to make a similar effort to reflect on the bigger picture of varying conditions over a varying period of time that we have labelled in terms of its end and/or its peaks. This kind of neglect of duration is something identified by Iain McGilchrist as typical of left-brain operation. Even a slow-thinking left brain can’t really cope with duration unless we can link it adequately to the experiences of the right brain.

This last point suggests strongly to me a point which Kahneman does not consider at all, when he writes with such severely limited optimism on his personal experence of overcoming all the cognitive biases he has identified. “I have improved only in my ability to recognise situations in which errors are likely”, he writes, “And I have made much more progress in recognising the errors of others than my own” (p.417). But awareness of the possibility of error can presumably be improved by awareness in general, particularly awareness such as that cultivated in meditation, that unites the left and right hemispheres. This can particularly help with duration neglect, as meditators often report changes in their experience of duration, together with an increasing focus on the present moment. Such increased awareness will not be enough by itself unless we are also aware of the situations in which errors are likely (meditation needs to be integrated with wisdom), but it will provide one of the necessary conditions for overcoming the illusions that Kahneman has helped so much to make us aware of.


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


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