When reading non-fiction books similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow, I’m always thinking about extracting various practical life lessons from each chapter, write them down on index cards and review them later on a regular basis to let them sink in deep. Because what’s the point of reading these books, if I don’t learn from them. Okay, I’m facetious here. Also, this would never happen, since I’m far too lazy to do it. So, I just keep reading books I find sort of interesting and hope enough sticks.
I haven’t read much non-fiction over the last years and most of it concerns in-built human errors in some ways. Probably because I don’t have much trust in human decision making and my experiences have corroborated those convictions. It’s sort of confirmation bias at work, with me seeking out books that strengthen my credo that how we decide things, how we think about things, is deeply flawed.
Though, it’s not all about finding flaws, but understanding how the thinking, memory and consciousness work and all those things that help me to get at least a rough idea about what shape the map of human minds take and where all the white spots are (well, more like where they are not, because to me it seems mostly white with a few blurry patches that could mean we know, or maybe not at all). I don’t believe there’s some basic limit that makes this stuff unknowable per se, but to me it’s far more complex than people often assume.
Kahneman’s book is about two modes of thought, one that works more at the gut level and is fast and easy and another mode that is slow, deliberate and exhausting. These aren’t real brain structures, but merely two metaphors for how we react in various situations and how we come to conclusions, make decisions and other stuff where we have to use our brain.
From that initial idea, that goes way beyond simplistic notions of intuition vs rational thinking, Kahneman’s shows various experiments he did with his colleagues or experiments from other researchers working in the field and how they relate to the concept of those two modes of thought. Various aspects of decision making are explored, thought system one (with its quick and dirty heuristics) gets more space than the second.
And while the book for the most part concentrates on the errors we make because of the heuristics at work in system one, it also shows that this is not primarily the domain of the first mode of thought. All the slow and deliberate thinking doesn’t help in the least when you don’t have enough information. Or when the second mode, which is inherently lazy, trusts information provided by the first system.
But to get back to my initial concern, whether there’s anything of practical use here. This is much harder to answer, because even knowing doesn’t change our long ingrained habits. The simplest lesson probably is don’t bother too much thinking about inconsequential decisions, but if you make an important one, think long and hard. Though even knowing what is important and what not isn’t easy. But if you want easy answers, there are always self-help books.
One further bit: the later chapter on the two selves, the experiencing one and the remembering one, added to the concept of the I, of personality as a narrative that we groom over our entire lifetime into something pleasing to us (going fully self-referential at this point with its idea of an incremental self-optimizing story), which is something I’ve seen in variations elsewhere and which to me implies that most people’s concept of what personality and self means is completely at odds with reality.
What I found interesting, though, was Kahneman’s interjection that both of those selves matter, the experiencing one (the life-in-the-moment I that doesn’t need the super-arc of personality) and the remembering one (that structures memories into a live story that contains elements of looking back, forward and self-evaluation of the present). Most approaches emphasize one of those two, arguing that this is the real self, instead of admitting that there’s more to it that isn’t easily reconciled. That both aspects should be viewed as parts of the whole, even if it makes everything concerning who we are much harder to pinpoint or categorize, is a suggestion I find oddly pleasing.