This was a really interesting book. Thinking Fast and Slow is the culmination of years of Daniel Kahneman’s research into the nature of human decision making, how our minds process the world around us, and basically how people think. From the very start the reader must realize how difficult of a subject this is to explore and understand, let alone explain. Simply by being human, any researcher working on this has to keep in mind that he is prey to the very biases he is working to uncover.
This book was organized and written very well. Kahneman divides the human mind into two systems from the very beginning, giving these systems traits and tendencies to help us relate to them in ourselves. System 1 is the fast and intuitive thinking, or (if I may generalize here) our subconscious thoughts; our automatic reactions, feelings and impressions. System 2 is our rational system; the one that is often more accurate, but takes up much more energy to use. Most of us can see those two “systems” within ourselves, and that makes the book easy to follow. He often brings up points that seem arbitrary only to have them neatly tied together to create a larger concept a chapter or two later.
I feel like this book was created for those who tend to be of a less scientific mind. He uses examples of experiments very often in the book that seem on the surface to prove his point, but I often wondered about the details of the experiments, which were never included. Now don’t get me wrong; I know nothing about Kahneman’s career and have no reason to think he does not do his research as scientifically as possible; that information just isn’t included in the book. This is an overall explanation of what his research has led him to conclude; if you’re looking for details and numbers and results so you can reach your own conclusion, you won’t find it here. For example:
He wrote about an experiment where subjects heard various groups of words, then had to walk down a hallway to another room to do the second part of the experiment. The actual experiment was how long it took them to walk down the hall. Some people were given words that related to older people, disabilities, and generally being slow while other people were given words that related to young people, fitness, and generally being fast. People who were given the “slow words” took a significantly longer amount of time to walk the distance of the hall than those given the “fast words.” That’s really all he tells the reader because that is all he needs to make his point. And reading that, it is very easy to jump to the conclusion “wow, just hearing words can change our actions” because it’s interesting. He doesn’t answer questions like: Could the words have evoked different themes in different people’s minds? Was a background of the subjects taken to determine their general mood? Were the fast words speeding people up or the slow words slowing people down? How do you know this doesn’t only work with certain themes? Etc.
My point is, take Thinking Fast and Slow with a grain of salt. The book is fun to read in the way that personality tests are fun; it’s always neat to learn more about ourselves, and it fulfills that somewhat narcissistic need in the reader. But that’s system 1 thinking; if you go into this wanting proof, you won’t get it. This is a subject very difficult to study objectively, and while I’m sure he did the job as well as possible, you can’t know that by reading his book because he does not give details, he gives his conclusions. And who can blame him? You don’t sell a book by filling it with numbers, you sell it by making it easy to understand – and when you get into such cutting edge research, there just isn’t a way to make it widely accessible and include all the nitty gritty details.
I do believe this book is a very important stepping stone. Kahneman’s research is just one step toward understanding the human mind. I think many of the experiments he talks about are not enough to draw conclusions, although he does the best that he can. Scientists will continue the same path of research he has taken for centuries to come, and his ideas will be expanded on, accepted or thrown out as we learn more. This isn’t absolute truth. But if you are interested in where we stand on understanding the human mind and what theories are out there, then this book will be invaluable to you.
I do not in any way think reading it is a waste of time since the ideas will most certainly change. Throughout the book he points out many of the common illusions that people fall prey to because of certain biases in our minds, and even if he doesn’t have the processes behind them exactly right (who can really know if he does or not?), that doesn’t mean the illusions aren’t real. Everyone can benefit from reading this book simply by being made aware of these pitfalls and therefore being able to avoid them in the future.
So, what do I think? He went a little light on the explanations, and I wish he had provided more of the scientific details about his work. However, I understand that the book is already lengthy and so he may not have had much choice. I do absolutely recommend this book for any non-fiction readers interested in psychology or in improving their own thought processes.