“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

To be honest, I haven’t finished the book. In my defense… it’s very long… and I finished like half of it, meaning I read the first half thoroughly, and I skimmed through the latter half. The first half I did read was quite insightful, and I really wanted to keep up with the second half, but… there were too many numbers… says the girl who, in a month and a half, will be going to ‘Math Camp’… Also, the problem with thick books in psychology like this one is that it often appears too repetitive. Maybe the subtle differences in psychological concepts do matter for the experts in the area, but for laymen, like most of the readers, I would imagine, the usage of two different terms doesn’t necessarily translate into a clear differentiation between the concepts said terms represent. I mean, the author should have known; there he is talking about how our cognitive, intelligent and academic (my words) side of the brain is a lazy one that doesn’t always like being used (System 2, according to Kahneman), and he exposes over 400 pages of intense reading. Clearly, our intuitive part of the brain (System 1) was going to give up at some point or the other.

Kahneman’s major theory in the first half of the book is about how System 1 of our brain reacts instantly and almost intuitively when exposed to new information. In the matter of seconds, we will form an idea of the person we meet, or a piece of news we see on TV. System 2 is slower (thus lazier), but more rational and analytic. It will, for instance, try to debunk some of the first impressions or provide logical counter-examples to our prejudices and stereotypes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t intervene as fast nor as often or as willingly as System 1, and people are often left spending most of their time attached to what System 1 has told them. Moreover, although System 2 can be critical of the pre-conceptions rendered by System 1, it is more of an endorser of such feelings, searching for information that is consistent with the belief system already set in motion in each of us. A fact, that I’ve already been acquainted with through Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff. It doesn’t surprise me anymore to read that we use less logic and rational thought than we believe we are.

The impression I had from reading this book was that we each build our own little world around System 1 (our intuitions, feelings), firmly believing it is the ‘right’ world, and everything else, our actions, our belief system, our political values, and so on, is a product of such individual world.

Much like this well-known story, we believe only what we see.

Much like this well-known story, we believe only what we see.

We don’t like when things are too random for us to understand, and thus, we look for causality in almost everything, creating a story that makes sense to our little world, and also stereotypes that are much more helpful in explaining random facts. “Oh, he is French, that is why he complains about everything all the time”, “She’s American. She must like burgers”, “He sure knows how to drink, well, he’s Korean, it’s not surprising”, and so on. We may see, at the most, a dozen of people from each of these nationalities, yet that doesn’t prevent us from believing that we know, for a fact, that the whole country behaves in such and such way.

We are also prone to believe in the frequency of things that happen in our surroundings or in the media, more than its actual frequency. Because suddenly everything the news talks about is rape, we are convinced it’s happening everywhere, at any time. Of course, rape is a serious issue, and I don’t mean to disregard the victims of this horrible crime. But its statistic value may be less than the idea we have in our head. Another, lighter, example, is for instance, how people are convinced that EVERYONE in their surroundings is getting married, and they wonder why EVERYONE is suddenly getting married, so quickly. Yet, statistically, fewer women and men are getting married, and much later, too. So clearly, not everyone is getting married, no matter how we feel they are, because my friend from college, as well this one colleague, are.

Although the author doesn’t overtly suggest we use more of our System 2 (he actually admits that using System 2 and perhaps going against your intuitions in the process isn’t always pleasant), as a reader, you cannot but wonder how much of what you thought was based on a rational process of thinking and analysis indeed is such, and not a bundle of your first impressions and stereotypes, and truths you held dear without some real questioning.

This may be a mistake I am making despite the author’s warning, but it does seem that there are more and more books discussing and doubting the simple fact that we are rational human beings, and rational thought is the most important, if not the only, thing that separates us from animals. Kahneman clearly states in his last pages that he does not want his book to be seen as something that disregards this idea and concludes we are not, after all, rational beings.

But it is undeniable, at this point, that we have to step down from the delusional pedestal we have put ourselves since the Enlightenment period, believing we use our reason most of the time and it is on this reason that we base our decisions and actions. The growing gap between political parties and adherents, the financial crisis that no one seriously predicted, despite the vast amount of information the ‘experts’ seemed to have, and too many ‘rationally inexplicable’ issues and disputes are leading us to believe that we are, after all, not as rational or logical as we would like to be. We are, in large part, governed by our intuitions and prejudices, and it is based on these very ‘gut feelings’ that we have failed to understand ‘the other’, and fighting with teeth and nails to defend our ideas, our opinions, and our values. While we may not succeed in a perfect compromise (an oxymoron in itself) or mutual understanding, such books are helpful in teaching us that we can’t keep on with this fight of political, social and economic values, if we want to build a world where everyone can live in more or less, harmony. We have to understand what drives the other in accepting certain principles, no matter how foolish they may, at first sight, seem to us. Let’s stop, for a while, trying to figure out what is more rational all the time, because, clearly, we are not too keen on pursuing that. Instead, we can focus more on what ‘drives’ a certain group of people to think or act a certain way, and through continuous listening and explaining, in sum, through ‘conversations’ and ‘discussions’, we just may arrive at better results than what we’re facing now. Of course, it’s easier said than done. After all is said and done, I bet some will remain convinced that only stupid people would refuse to have evolution taught in schools, while some will unshakably think that only irrational people can accept abortion…

It's about time we see past these.

It’s about time we see past these.

 

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