Uncovering the Hidden Self: Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’

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With the highly anticipated release of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize- winning professor of psychology Daniel Kahneman sets out to revolutionize the way we think about thinking. He reveals the powerful unconscious forces that influence our decisions, challenging our basic capacity for rationality and agency.

He presents the process of decision-making as an interaction between two very different types of thinking, which he terms Systems 1 and 2.  System 1 initiates the intuitive, emotional, apparently effortless judgments that take place without our knowledge or conscious control. System 2, on the other hand, drives the complex, effortful mental activity that makes up our conscious identities. All too often, System 2 allows System 1 to take over, sacrificing accuracy and rationality for speed and energy conservation. Such mental shortcuts are as insidious as they are misleading, since they are often indistinguishable from the slower, more precise mechanisms of System 2. Human beings are blind to their blindness, confident of the logic of their decisions even as they remain endlessly susceptible to arbitrary impressions and emotions.  Kahneman even questions our ability to know our own desires, pointing out the discrepancy between current and remembered happiness. Trapped in our bubbles of subjective consciousness, most of us know as little about what makes us happy as we do about how we think. Even as he acknowledges the full weight of the problem, Kahneman presents his book as a partial solution.

However unsettling his insights into the psychology of decision-making, his clear, informal style renders his work strangely empowering. Each chapter illustrates scientific and psychological concepts through clear definitions, orderly headings, and phrases that place them in the context of ordinary conversation. He gives Systems 1 and 2 distinct roles and personalities, pandering to the natural human preference for characters and narrative over correlation and statistics. Just as he advises government institutions to tailor information to fit the biases and fallacies of the public, Kahneman must partially distort scientific fact to facilitate his readers’ understanding. Without any hope or expectation of human rationality, it becomes necessary to alter information to fit the inevitable bias. Yet he also insists that this distortion remain clear and transparent. Even though his book casts doubt upon human rationality, he never fails to treat his readers as rational beings, reminding them that Systems 1 and 2 are not in fact characters in their own right and supporting his conclusions with a lifetime’s worth of research. His lively accounts of various experiments and studies transform behavioral psychology from a theory to a reality. Even more compelling are the numerous illustrations and mental tests printed within the book itself, which confront readers with the limitations of their own thinking. The book offers readers insight into a wholly unfamiliar side of themselves, informing their thought even as it destabilizes their deepest certainties.

 

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