Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow

The best popular science book I have encountered to date.

Extremely well-organized with short, self-contained chapters. Kahneman is an intellectual giant, and it shows in his writing. The book surveys an impressive amount of material. His seminal paper on prospect theory – the most widely cited article in the social sciences – is explained in detail. Every chapter ends with “water cooler quotes”, which I found to be a surprisingly-useful way to recap new material.

Kahneman’s book is organized into three distinctions:

1. Cognitive Systems. “System1” is the first system discussed, and is summarized as “fast thinking”. It is associative, subconscious, heuristic-oriented. “System2” is a more recent biological phenomenon; it is more analytical, abstract, purposive, effortful, and also more lazy. This distinction is not merely a theoretical construct of a researcher, it is the basis of dual-process theories of psychology, which is one of the most active areas of psychological research today.

2. Behavioral Agents. “Econs” are the decision making agents found in classical economic textbooks. Their preferences are constant, consistent, and geared towards maximizing utility. “Humans” are the decision making agents in the real world, cognitively driven by System1 and System2. Their preferences change, are manipulable, and are deeply inconsistent. This distinction is rooted in the modern field of behavioral economics (which Kahneman helped found).

3. Phenomenological Selves. The “experiencing self” is the self that experiences the moment, the self that perceives the world as it flies by. The “remembering self” is the self that constructs a narrative of personhood; it derives on memory to reconstruct the experiencing self, but its restorative work is – as with everything else in the book – subject to error. Here is a TED talk Kahneman gave on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahne…

I highly recommended this book.

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