“Thinking, Fast and Slow” Review (prefaced with ranting)

I have had a painful move out of psychology. Since I did research while I was still in school, I considered myself reasonably critical of experiments, basically fluent in psychological phenomenon, and quite up-to-date on recent findings. After I left school, I tried to keep in touch primarily through science writing, which I have actually found quite disappointing.

I’m generally disappointed by science reporting, and it’s entirely my own fault. Writers do report on recent findings, but I am rarely satisfied reading their accounts. I wonder how accurate their reporting is and whether they truly understood the paper. Even if they understood it and report it honestly, I wonder whether they have delivered a complete report of the paper. And even if they got all of that right, I wonder whether it’s properly contextualized in the body of knowledge and what else I’m missing. Of course, none of this is the fault of the journalist: they write for a wider audience, and they might actually have done everything correctly. It’s my problem that I don’t trust 3rd party reports. I would only feel comfortable having read the original paper and done the background myself, and I’m clearly unwilling to do that, or else I would still be in academia.

The other popular psychology writing comes in longer books or pieces from writers like Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer and programs like Radio Lab. For awhile, I let these carry me, but the revelation that Lehrer self-plagiarized and fabricated quotes (see wikipedia’s references) made me re-evaluate this entire process, and I ended up being turned off by all of that as well. All of my above concerns are actually amplified here. The difference is that these pieces typically tell a “story” about what’s going on. A book or radio piece needs a compelling theme, and to do that, the writers pick and choose their science to fit their narrative, which can be quite misleading. Examples off the top of my head are Lehrer reporting on only 1 result from a paper and Radio Lab reporting on unfinished work.

So what’s left is science writing by actual scientists, and thankfully, I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a Nobel Award-winning psychologist whose work in heuristics and biases is taught in  Psychology 101 classes. In this book, he shares key findings in his research areas over his career. He starts out by describing the 2 systems of thinking, the “fast” (automatic) and “slow” (deliberate) from the title. From there, he continues into how our automatic processing compels us towards statistically incorrect and inconsistent decision-making.

Beyond his credentials, Kahneman presents the material in what I believe is a compelling, accessible, and most importantly, honest manner. The 2 systems of thinking are the theme to this book, but he uses them out of necessity and accessibility, not artificial unity, which he is careful to point out. He presents studies individually and offers some of the alternative explanations for the phenomenon. Although other writers may take broad themes from these results, he understands and limits his conclusions and lessons to the scope of the study.

Even better, Kahneman raises meaningful and thoughtful questions. Instead of leaving the reader with a sense of awe for the science and some vague speculation, Kahneman finds the actual limits of the science and discusses the impact of it on daily life to public policy.

The catch of the book is that it is quite long at almost 500 pages, and it can get quite dense. Despite that, Kahneman avoids the pedantic writing of true academia and mixes in real life lessons for the reader and uses anecdotes to enliven (but not prove) his points. If his Nobel Prize didn’t do it, his writing this book should convince you of how seriously and deeply he has thought about his research and its broad consequences for the rest of us. If you’re human, it’s worth the read.

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