Do you find yourself regularly frustrated by people’s irrational conduct? Are you sometimes frustrated by your own irrational conduct? Why do people so often make decisions that are so painfully obviously wrong, or at least inconsistent with their supposed values or goals?
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has spent a few decades researching these questions, and he has a lot of thoughts on the subject. The title of the book actually gives away the basic premise of this lengthy, challenging, and absolutely fascinating read. His proposed theory is that there are, in effect, two processes by which we think – fast and slow, or system 1 and system 2, one for emotion and intuition, and the other rooted in logic and deliberation (notably the message here is NOT emotion = bad, logic = good). Kahneman guides readers through decades of both his research and that of his colleagues into how these systems work, and crucially, how invisible this process is. He focuses on helping us understand at an instinctive level what the research says and provide the best scientifically-backed advice on thinking mindfully. He focuses on mental shortcuts and ways in which our environment can influence them to maneuver us into making decisions we otherwise wouldn’t.
Of course, it is also a helpful primer if you want to have a better grasp on how to gently nudge other people’s thoughts in the direction you want them to go, which I have no doubt has been used more for ill than for good. In particular the discussion of priming, which is really quite dystopian. For example, research shows that you are more likely to vote in favour of funding schools if the polling station is in a school. You are more likely to think positively if you are smiling (even if the smile is caused by making you bite down on a pencil sitting across your mouth rather than any actual feelings), and you are more likely to think harder if you’re frowning (even if the frown is caused by biting down on a pencil so it sticks out of your mouth). It is honestly rather alarming how easy it is to influence our thoughts without us knowing it’s happening. Of course, Kahneman also delves into ways this knowledge can be used for good – for example, for all the political moralizing about organ donation, the number one indicator of how many people will become organ donors is really just based on what the default is. People mostly just don’t want to have to think about it, so if by default you’re enrolled as a donor, most people will stay enrolled, and and if the default is to opt in, most people won’t. I wonder how many contentious, political debates could end simply by changing the default option on a form and as a result changing what the social norm is.
This book is bursting with fascinating, horrifying research about who we are inside. As a person who spends much of her time in system 2 thinking (so that’s why I’m so tired all the time!), this book helped me build up some more empathy for normal humans who think normally, and maybe also realize that I’m more “normal” than I realized. Kahneman’s goal is here to give you the tools you need to catch yourself when you’re making an intuitive decision where more thought is likely warranted and be more sensitive to efforts to maneuver your thinking. He even provides research on what it means to be happy, and how you can work to maximize yours.
You can also try to use it to manipulate yourself into doing that pile of mending that’s been sitting in your closet since the start of covid!