I spent most of this fall reading Thinking Fast and Slow, 500-plus pages of richly stimulating writing. Rarely do I take this much time to pore over a book but this tome warranted the extra effort. In my line of work, teaching and coaching business leaders, I am continually mystified by why people choose different courses of action. What drives decision making is a perplexing and fascinating area of study for me.
Thinking Fast and Slow is all about the reasoning behind making choices and decisions. Daniel Kahneman, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princeton, has spent his entire career posing theories regarding choice and then debunking or proving his hypotheses with ingenious human experiments. Indeed, what makes Thinking Fast and Slow such a monumental contribution to our understanding of human behavior is that it is such a broad compendium of research, spanning Kahneman’s entire academic career and drawing upon the work of many of his esteemed colleagues in the field of cognitive and social psychology.
The theoretical backbone underlying Thinking Fast and Slow is Kahneman’s concept of the two systems of thinking. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 is slow, logical, and deliberative. Fast thinking is where our brains normally start, looking through its store of experiences, expertise, and memory for a quick solution to the problem. When System 1 fails to arrive at a solution, System 2 takes over and we use a slower, more deliberative approach to logically determine an answer. System 1, the thinking first out of the gate with its reliance on automatic mental activity, is a fast and expeditious approach, but one that is likewise plagued with biases and faulty logic. System 1 fast thinking can result in what may appear to others as illogical and irrational choices. By comparison, System 2 thinking can seem ponderous and overly self-conscious.
Kahneman makes the reading easily digestible by using short chapters to highlight a particular aspect of the two-system model. Chapters are grouped in sections based on a common overarching premise. Part 1 outlines the basic elements of the two-system approach to judgment and choice. Parts 2 and 3 explore judgment heuristics and the puzzling limitations of the mind. These sections delve into some common biases that shape our thinking including our tendency to overestimate how much we understand about our world while underestimating the role chance plays in events. Part 4 looks at the study of economics and the assumption that economic agents are rational. The last two sections of the book delve further into the workings of the mind, the distinction between the experienced and remembered selves, and our perceptions of happiness. Kahneman concludes the book with some thoughtful reflections on how we can use the two-system model to improve judgments and decisions.
I could not help thinking, as I read this book, about our current work environments that emphasize speed. Are we consciously or subconsciously promoting fast thinking? When I hear business leaders extoll decisions “from the gut” and see aggressive goals with truncated timelines I wonder if we are using our fast, System 1 thinking to an extreme. I suggest that we all need to digest the implications for decision-making presented in Thinking Fast and Slow and to seriously heed the advice Kahneman gives at the book’s conclusion: “The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2.”