Book Review: Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman - Header

The human mind is a fascinating thing. Or at least I think it is. My intrigue and interest was sparked when, many years ago, I read that the human mind can’t feel pain. And that, during brain surgery, patients are fully conscious often engaging in physical activity or conversation. I was mesmerised and it is one of the main driving forces behind my love of psychology. I want to learn more about the ball of fat, the wiring of billions of cells, and how it somehow comes together, with a power we cannot comprehend, to give us “life”.

As a result I’ve started to read more and more non-fiction and  this is another example. While the title of the book gives away little as to what it actually contains Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman is more than just a look at how the brain “thinks” and instead covers the way our brain processes the information and requests we give it. The book, essentially, is based around the fact our brain can be split into two distinct processing paths (or systems as Kahneman refers to them throughout). The first, an impulsive pathway that initially reacts to everything the brain processes and secondary, a slower reflective pathway that arrives when the first gets a bit out of its depth.

The Thinker - Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

The easiest way to explain this is to image the equation “2 + 2”. Without being told anything else your brain will have finished it off, it will have shouted 4 loudly. That’s the impulsive initial pathway, taking what you read and giving you the answer without actually being asked. However, if I then write “what’s 17 x 24?” chances are you will stare blankly at the screen for a second before pondering that “it’s roughly 20 x 25 which is 500 so a figure approximately that, but lower, will be about right.” Of course, the correct answer is 408 and the estimation you arrived at was accurate, but it took you much longer to get there and you probably felt the cogs in your head turning in doing so. That’s your secondary pathway arriving to solve the problem after the initial pathway has failed. I hope that clears things up! Fast Pathway One and Slow Pathway Two.

Kahneman’s used tales of everyday situations and how the two pathways subsequently either compliment or fight each other to explain his points. Explaining how we, as human’s, naturally lean towards one or another (usually the initial intuitive pathway) and thorough the book this are not only interesting but also thought provoking. I’d keep finding the voice in my head going “Hang on, I do that…” Sadly, Kahneman is very academic (he’s won a Nobel Prize) and the book often descends into a slightly glutinous and heavy affair. Narrative rhythm giving way to scientific research and referencing to ensure that proof of everything is beyond reproach. This forced the book to change from being an interesting set of ideas to a formal regurgitation of other people’s work.

Alice Down The Rabbit Hole - Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Also, the book, like a lot of psychological narratives, ends up going deeper and deeper into the topic as it runs out of places to turn. This forces the examples and studies to become more and more complicated and further and further away from real life. While we can all easily follow the idea of complicated maths slowing down our brain, or information overload (i.e. being asked a question when already walking and talking) causing us to have to drop a task to answer (e.g. we stop moving), when the book transfers to tackle overconfidence and estimation theories through the use of stockbrokers and professional gamblers, the ideas become just a bit too far removed to easily follow. To quote a psychological term – it lost the self-reference effect, and thus, the concentration I had with it.

Further the book suffers as well with the standard non-fiction issue of having no sense of structure and thus, no linear direction in how it reads. You don’t feel like you’re going anything specific. Instead it jumps about as the research develops. This is obvious, though, as science will naturally lack a flow due to the simple illustration of points rather than telling of a story. The book cannot be another other than a collection of ideas that go from point A, to point B, to point C. It’s just frustrating because it means you never feel like you’re getting anywhere, you never know what’s round the corner. The subject is just a shallow presentation, it lacks the depth to draw you in and keep the pages turning.

Fish & Chip Paper - Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Don’t get me wrong though, I enjoyed reading it but ultimately I didn’t love it. It’s the type of factual book where only 20% of what your read stays clear in your mind. The rest arrive and disappear like, to borrow from an old saying, tomorrow’s fish and chips paper. I’m glad I read it because it without question, has opened ideas and angles in mind my that has cemented my love of psychology. But from the point of view of the general public, it’s hard to see exactly what anyone just picking it up to pass the time would really get out of it.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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