Tag Archives: thinking

135 Journals Book Club: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

13 Apr

http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman-ebook/dp/B00555X8OA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397358503&sr=8-1&keywords=Thinking+Fast+and+SlowThinking, Fast and Slow

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman starts his best selling economics/psychology tome with an intriguing idea: that people’s brains have two modes of operation:

  1. Fast: i.e; the part of the brain that gathers information quickly and indiscriminately, then quickly turns it into a story or assumption, and often causes us to act on it. It’s handy when as y sister once said, “You don’t know what ait’s going to feel like when a car is bearing down on you at 60 mph—you just get out of the way.”

However, this quick thinking part of the brain is sometimes wrong. In that case a person can use the part of the brain that is

  1. Slow. This part of the brain works more slowly and with more effort to reason out whether or not an assumption is true or not—even if the answer is not intuitive. This part of the brain is activated less often because it is tiring, requires discipline, and is expensive in terms of energy requirements.

Throughout the book, Kahneman gives examples of many ways that humans make mistakes in our thinking. He shows how we are in some ways wildly overoptimistic, that we are prone to judge by the most dramatic or memorable events rather than the typical ones, that we tend to be overly risk averse, for example.

One of the most interesting ideas in the book for me is that when people tare thinking FAST, they sometimes answer an easier question than the one that was asked. This interested me in part because it is something famous people frequently do—albeit deliberately—in public interviews. It amused me that people do this to themselves, unconsciously.


As Kahneman points out, this part of the brain is activated less often because it is tiring, requires discipline, and is expensive in terms of energy requirements. (Not that it’s literally “a part” of the brain—more of a systemic way of thinking). As neuroscience fans know, the brain consumes far more than its fair share of the food and other resources we give our bodies, and slow thinking requires more of that energy.


It becomes more and more clear that Kahneman’s work is less about neuroscience than it is about economics. It focuses on years of experiments done by him and others. About risks—whether someone would accept $100 and so son. Some of this later part of the book can become something of a slog, in my opinion. He is too good an academic not to provide evidence to prove his point, but aferwhile, it seemed like a bit of overkill. However, it does add to the richness of his thesis. Also, he uses a very useful technique at the end of each chapter of providing several small examples of what he is talking about.


Oh—by the way, if I were to read the book again, I would not read it on a Kindle. I would purchase a copy and write notes all over it. There are a number of great terms, like affect heuristics, that I’d like to throw around at dinner parties. But now I not only forget what affect heuristics are, I forget what heuristics are. I may have to make it my word of the week so I remember it. Also, WYSIATI (what you see is all there is). Overall, my slowly considered opinion is that this IS a fascinating thesis but that there are some parts that are a little more skimmable than others.


Writing Prompt: Can you think of a time when thinking fast was helpful? Or a time when thinking slow was better?



Is Evil Banal? Part 2

20 Jun


Hitler in 1933. (via Wikimedia commons)

In the movie Hannah Arendt, the 20th century philosopher wrestled with the problem of what to make of the unimpressive Adolf Eichmann, on trial for organizing the exportation of Jews during World War II to concentration camps. But as the movie explored her thoughts, I began thinking, too. I thought about how it is a normal human tendency to want to follow rules , to do meaningful work, and to belong.

Even though Nazism was built on a twisted fairy tale woven by a madman, Germany in the 1930s was a creative but unsettled place. The modernness of art and architecture (such as the Bauhaus movement) was intimidating and strange. Berlin was filled with decadence. Too many people were unemployed. Economic troubles ran deep. Many were bitter about losing the First World War. People needed jobs. They wanted dignity. They wanted to belong. And the Nazis were efficient about providing these normal human needs. Individually, people got jobs scheduling trains or working in munitions factories or making poison gas. But each part of the operation was so fragmented from the other that many people but blinders on and thought only of their small part of the larger picture. They did not ask where the trains were going. They did not ask why the poison gas was made. As Arendt says (in the film) about Eichmann, “He was simply unable to think.” But all of these pieces, the handiwork of all these hardworking laborers, was to create one of the most evil forces the world has ever known.

Another example of this tendency of human beings to just want to do their jobs and follow the law is the behavior of the people of Netherlands during World War II. Perhaps because Anne Frank’s secret Annex is so famous, or because The Netherlands seems like such a hip, open, friendly society, many people are under the impression that the Netherlands was a safe haven for Jews, with noble Dutch farmers hiding Jewish families in their basements and haylofts. Indeed, the Netherlands had been a haven for Jews for centuries. But during the war, 75 percent of the Jews in the Netherlands were taken away and murdered—the highest rate in any Western European country. According to an article, in Holocaust and Genocide Studies,  “The Holocaust in the Netherlands and the Rate of Jewish Survival” by Marnix Croes (http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/languages/dutch/pdf/article_croes.pdf) “Of the 140,000 people. . . . whom the Nazis considered “full” Jews in 1941, only 27 percent survived the occupation. Yet in Belgium, 60 percent of the approximately 66,000 Jews survived, and in France, 75 percent of the approximately 320,000 Jews escaped death at the hands of the Nazis.”

Not only were they betrayed in great numbers, the Jews were frequently rounded up by Dutch police. As Manfred Gerstenfeld wrote in Wartime and Postwar Dutch Attitudes Toward the Jews: Myth and Truth (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) (http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp412.htm) “Since The Netherlands was well-administered and well-documented, it was relatively easy to round up the Jews. Orders were given by the occupiers and executed by the Dutch authorities.”

He adds,” After the flight of the Queen and the government (to England) . . .the Germans could count on the assistance of the greater part of the Dutch administrative infrastructure (to catch Jews). . . .  Dutch policemen rounded up the families. . . Trains of the Dutch railways staffed by Dutch employees transported the Jews to . . . death camps. . . .  Eichmann later said ‘The transports run so smoothly that it is a pleasure to see.’”

Efficiency. Hard work. A job well-done. These are important things. But what Hannah Arendt alludes to is that it is not enough to follow the law. It is not enough to do your job well. It is important to put it into a larger context. You cannot rely on your society alone as a moral compass. You, as an individual, are responsible for your little piece of what your society does.

Writing prompts: Is there some wrong you’d like to right? Do you believe your work is a force for good in the world?

But that’s not all . . . See Part 3 for more