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Home » literature » non-fiction » Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman) — book review

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman) — book review


This book had a bit of a cult following when it was first published a few years ago, and a lot of people mentioned it to me. I only got around to buying Thinking, Fast and Slow around a year ago (in a train station), and didn’t start reading it until a few weeks ago. I’d started reading Dan Ariely‘s (@danarielyPredictably Irrational (2008) and then remembered that I had Daniel Kahneman‘s book, so jumped to reading it instead.

Both books are focused on understanding why and how human rationality may be an illusion with a view to informing our (conscious) minds about how to spot and hopefully avoid some of our own biases and lapses in rationality. A very noble aim! I have a huge interest in psychology generally, but particularly decision-making and rationality, so both books were fascinating. In theory.

In practice, Ariely’s is the more ‘popular science’ of the two, which means it is easier reading. Kahneman’s is dense and, I’m afraid to say, rather a struggle to plough through. There is rather a lot of repetition and a deliberate focus on personal anecdote that teeters on being tedious. However, I admire the very structured approach that Kahneman takes, tackling each type of illusion and error of thinking and proposing ways of talking about them in ordinary conversation, in order to make it as easy as possible for people to take some of the book’s messages forward in their daily lives. It is only a shame that the prose doesn’t make it as easy for people to get to the end of the book!

Two of the most interesting ideas from Kahneman’s book are What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI), a deliberate play on WYSIWYG, and his discussion of the ‘halo effect’. Together, I think these account for a lot of so-called “public opinion”, which can often be dictated by the media, which sets the parameters (the “seen” elements of a story) within which the public then typically think, or the elements of a person/situation to focus on that then produce a “halo” (good or bad) and limits how they are thought of in the future.

Kahneman also gives some very interesting statistics and thoughts about “expert” predictions, such as those made by political advisers or journalists (or, indeed, doctors) in circumstances where expertise does not improve their judgment, but they strongly believe it does. The limits of human knowledge and possible expertise are interesting to explore, and Kahneman’s perspective is fascinating, even though it is based on his own expertise, and therefore if we are reading his book ‘properly’, we have to read it with a challenging approach at times.

Having finished Kahneman’s book, I will now get back to finishing Ariely’s, which I’m sure will a breeze to read in comparison. I would recommend both (tentatively in the case of Ariely’s, as I’ve not finished), but if you do buy Kahneman’s, don’t be afraid to skip pages of anecdotes. I know that Kahneman is trying to educate and impress his points upon people with the way that he writes, but I found myself reading several sections without any of the words sinking in!


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