Book Chat: Thinking Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a psychological profile of the two systems of human thought – a topic on which he is one of the pioneering researchers, and for which he shared a Nobel Prize. System 1 is the fast intuitive system that allows you to make snap judgments. System 2 is the slow methodical system that allows you to really dig into the data and do math. The book is mostly about the weaknesses of the two systems and how System 1 can be tricked and System 2 gets tired. The material is presented as a series of experiments mostly paired with an anecdote of how the idea came up. It tries to outline which problems engage which system and why. None of this material is directly applicable to computer programming; however, the understanding of human cognition is useful to understand how you are thinking about problems and hopefully be able to recognize when you should be trying to engage System 2 and when taking the quick answer from System 1 is acceptable.

One of the most interesting experiments to me was one that described how patients rated their pain over time during a procedure and how they rated the experience as a whole afterwards. The goal was to find the relationship between the two of them. The peak level of pain suffered was an obvious component to the whole, the experience towards the end of the procedure also had a strong component. However the total duration of the procedure did not impact the total rating of the experience. This implies that the mind doesn’t remember things based on the duration of the experience. Kahneman suggests that therefore,  if you were trying to structure an experience where there will be discomfort, extending the session to make the last part nicer would improve the memory of the whole experience. I’m not sure if this would apply to pulling off bandaids or not.

There was another anecdote that caught my attention, where Kahneman had spent his time in the Israeli Defense Force working on figuring out how to assign incoming recruits to the various branches. The previous method had been a sort of free-form interview relying on the judgement of the interviewers, which had not been overly successful. He designed a new system to try and remove the individual biases of the interviewers from the process. The system he put together had six categories and a fixed set of factual questions for each category. Based on the answers to those questions each category was assigned a rating between one and five then the results were summed to produce an overall evaluation. This produced a significant increase in successful placements over the old system. He also suggests that this theory could be applied to hiring. I’m not certain if that would be a good choice since this was to sort recruits to different types of units, rather than to pick one person from many.

Overall there are thirty-some of these different little experiences that are all drawn together here from Kahneman’s 40+ years of research and quite entertaining. Despite the somewhat dense material, it reads easily and is quite accessible without any sort of former exposure to these sorts of topics. If this sort of thing is interesting to you, he also references other similar books talking in more detail about some of the specific ideas discussed.

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