Daniel Kahneman spent part of his childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris. Like the other Jews, he had to wear a Star of David on the outside of his clothing. One evening, when he was about 7 years old, he stayed late at a friend’s house, past the 6 p.m. curfew.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
He turned his sweater inside out to hide the star and tried to sneak home. A German SS trooper approached him on the street, picked him up and gave him a long, emotional hug. The soldier displayed a photo of his own son, spoke passionately about how much he missed him and gave Kahneman some money as a sentimental present. The whole time Kahneman was terrified that the SS trooper might notice the yellow star peeking out from inside his sweater.
Kahneman finally made it home, convinced that people are complicated and bizarre. He went on to become one of the world’s most influential psychologists and to win the Nobel in economic science.
Kahneman doesn’t actually tell that childhood story in his forthcoming book. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is an intellectual memoir, not a personal one. The book is, nonetheless, sure to be a major intellectual event (look foran excerpt in The Times Magazine this Sunday) because it superbly encapsulates Kahneman’s research, and the vast tide of work that has been sparked by it.
I’d like to use this column not to summarize the book but to describe why I think Kahneman and his research partner, the late Amos Tversky, will be remembered hundreds of years from now, and how their work helped instigate a cultural shift that is already producing astounding results.
Before Kahneman and Tversky, people who thought about social problems and human behavior tended to assume that we are mostly rational agents. They assumed that people have control over the most important parts of their own thinking. They assumed that people are basically sensible utility-maximizers and that when they depart from reason it’s because some passion like fear or love has distorted their judgment.
Kahneman and Tversky conducted experiments. They proved that actual human behavior often deviates from the old models and that the flaws are not just in the passions but in the machinery of cognition. They demonstrated that people rely on unconscious biases and rules of thumb to navigate the world, for good and ill. Many of these biases have become famous: priming, framing, loss-aversion.
Kahneman reports on some delightful recent illustrations from other researchers. Pro golfers putt more accurately from all distances when putting for par than when putting for birdie because they fear the bogie more than they desire the birdie. Israeli parole boards grant parole to about 35 percent of the prisoners they see, except when they hear a case in the hour just after mealtime. In those cases, they grant parole 65 percent of the time. Shoppers will buy many more cans of soup if you put a sign atop the display that reads “Limit 12 per customer.”
Kahneman and Tversky were not given to broad claims. But the work they and others did led to the reappreciation of several old big ideas:
We are dual process thinkers. We have two interrelated systems running in our heads. One is slow, deliberate and arduous (our conscious reasoning). The other is fast, associative, automatic and supple (our unconscious pattern recognition). There is now a complex debate over the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two systems. In popular terms, think of it as the debate between “Moneyball” (look at the data) and “Blink” (go with your intuition).
We are not blank slates. All humans seem to share similar sets of biases. There is such a thing as universal human nature. The trick is to understand the universals and how tightly or loosely they tie us down.
We are players in a game we don’t understand. Most of our own thinking is below awareness. Fifty years ago, people may have assumed we are captains of our own ships, but, in fact, our behavior is often aroused by context in ways we can’t see. Our biases frequently cause us to want the wrong things. Our perceptions and memories are slippery, especially about our own mental states. Our free will is bounded. We have much less control over ourselves than we thought.
This research yielded a different vision of human nature and a different set of debates. The work of Kahneman and Tversky was a crucial pivot point in the way we see ourselves.
They also figured out ways to navigate around our shortcomings. Kahneman champions the idea of “adversarial collaboration” — when studying something, work with people you disagree with. Tversky had a wise maxim: “Let us take what the terrain gives.” Don’t overreach. Understand what your circumstances are offering.
Many people are exploring the inner wilderness. Kahneman and Tversky are like the Lewis and Clark of the mind.