Thursday, December 08, 2011

Daniel Kahneman's Hard-Won Insights on Thinking

Daniel Kahneman is a retired psychologist in his late 70's, who as a boy was forced to hide out in a chicken coop to survive Hitler, and who grew up to win the Nobel Prize in economics. His latest book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," was meant as something of a parting shot to the world, from a man who has experienced the best and the worst of it, and through it all had come to understand his species better than most. And still, understanding himself will always be beyond him.

This is not a book review -- there are dozens available on the web that focus on various aspects of Kahneman's book. It is not a summary of the book -- Google Books' preview of Thinking, Fast and Slow is your best bet for that. This is a short look at the key idea that apparently summarises Kahneman's thinking and life's work, and what that idea means for modern, between-level humans and their quest to find themselves, find the truth, and have it all.

Regular readers of Al Fin will have seen Kahneman's basic idea in various forms: The human brain does most of its work unconsciously and automatically. It requires work to maintain the focus and attention of the conscious mind to learn something new, but once it is learned it tends to revert to the automaticity of the subconscious. In other words, we are capable of conscious, deliberate, and painstakingly logical thought. But usually we flow with the river of unconsciousness, automatically.

Kahneman's claim to fame -- which helped him win his Nobel prize -- is to expose how error-prone our intuitive and automatic thinking is, and why. He exposed this perilously "false intuition" in a number of different areas of "expertise." The reason a psychologist won a Nobel Prize in economics, for example, is because Kahneman and Tversky revealed the "illusion of expertise and certainty" utilised by experts when making economic and investing decisions. But the delusion is operative in every area of human action.

The reason human intuition can go so badly wrong despite the strong certainty felt by the individual, is that the intuition uses a faulty source of information, according to Kahneman. The intuition relies upon "whatever comes to mind most easily," or whatever is salient in memory. For those who are consumers of the mass media, the most salient thing in memory is whatever the masters of the media decide to put on the menu. For those who are card carrying members of one devout orthodoxy or another, the salient thing is whatever they are soaking their minds in. Singers in echo choirs are particularly prone to the tyranny of the salient idea, which is reinforced with every chorus that is sung.

You may be thinking that Kahneman is warning against self-delusion, telling you to be careful not to fall into thinking traps or bogs of false belief. No. He is telling you that you cannot help but fall into the traps, bogs, and quagmires -- it is in your nature, and mine. And he does a better job of explaining why that is the case than most anyone else could do, in everyday language.

If you absorb the basic idea, and carry it far enough forward, it will be easy to understand why all ideology is false. It will also be easy to understand why you can never find yourself -- and what the very idea of finding yourself has in common with catching your own shadow when the light is constantly changing directions and intensity.

Previously published at Al Fin blog

No comments: