Thinking fast and slow – why it’s good to think about your thinking

Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman provides many interesting insights. It does take some persistence to get through. According to Kindle, it takes the average reader 11 and a half hours. I tried to read it a couple of years ago, but at that point gave up fairly quickly. Now that I finished it I do think it was worth it.

Our brain consists of two mechanisms that in the book are referred to as systems. System 1 is uncontrolled and often biased, but it’s quick and it doesn’t use a lot of energy. System 2 is deliberate, but also slow and lazy. It leaves as much as possible to system 1, which means that a lot of our initial reactions are uncontrolled and biased. The book contains many examples of how this impacts our ideas, decisions, and impressions. Some of it is so fundamental that it should be taught in schools.

An area in which we should be especially suspicious of our intuition and gut feeling is statistics. It has been proven that even statisticians have a terrible intuition when it comes to statistics.

For instance, we forget that in most events, especially when they are extreme, good or bad luck plays an important role.

  • When a golfer plays exceptionally well on the first day of a tournament, we expect that person to also do exceptionally well on the second day. However, the great score on the first day was exceptional, meaning, an exception. Therefore the score of this player is likely to be closer to average on the second day. Meaning there is a significant chance the player will be worse on the second day than on the first. The opposite happens when someone plays unusually bad on the first day.
  • Suppose you have to interview two candidates for an open position. One of them has a lot of experience, the other has little proven experience. If the first job applicant has a mediocre interview and the second one smashes the interview, we are likely to hire the second person. Even though there’s a significant chance that the great interview of the first applicant is a lucky shot. It is likely that the work of the second applicant over time will be better. We should assume that the long term performances of both candidates will be closer to what would be average based on their experience, rather than to how they came across during the interview.

This mechanism can also fool people into thinking that punishing someone for a bad performance makes them do better next time. When in fact the person was always likely to improve compared to the mishap.

Another example of why we can’t do statistics based on intuition is because when events are easy to retrieve from memory, we tend to overexaggerate how often they occur. Something that’s more flashy and dramatic sticks to memory more easily, even if it doesn’t happen a lot. For instance, far more people die in car crashes or through heart failure or cancer, but it’s a lot easier to remember a terrorist attack.

Not related to statistics, but relevant when talking about biases and in the context of how quickly “us progressives” tend to judge more conservative people is that the human mind is unable to reconstruct past states of knowledge. We forget that we didn’t know before what we now know and we are unable to recall what we used to think or believe.

We think that we are rational beings, but we are a lot less rational than we think we are. How a question or a choice is framed determines the answer many of us will give. When we are asked to weigh wins and losses a loss is weighed twice as high as a win, making us behave irrationally when gambling for instance.

If all of these examples are as fascinating to you as they are to me then I recommend reading “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Even if it does take some patience and tenacity.

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is

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