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Home » All, Book Review, Decision-Making

Homage to Kahneman, Part 1

By on July 20, 2012 – 5:00 pm  7 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning (Theano Coaching LLC). She teaches positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. She recently published a book,Smarts and Stamina, on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits. Her blog is Positive Psychology Reflections. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is so dense with interesting ideas, descriptions of research, stories, and wise commentary that I’ve almost despaired of writing about it. Once I tried to organize an article the way he did his conclusion:

“I began this book by introducing two fictitious characters, spent some time discussing two species, and ended with two selves.”

My draft made me think of the 90-second Hamlet that I once saw in a theater.

But my goal is to entice you to read the book, not to boil it down. So let me completely give up on completeness, refer you to Jeremy McCarthy’s recent article for a discussion of the two fictitious characters, and just share eight of the statements that I underlined and why they are important to me. I’ll say thanks along the way to Daniel Kahneman and his late thinking partner, Amos Tversky, for the light bulbs that they turned on in my mind.

1. “She is an Alzheimer’s patient. She no longer maintains a narrative of her life, but her experiencing self is still sensitive to beauty and gentleness.”

This comes at the end of a discussion of the two selves:

  • The experiencing self, which does the living
     
  • The remembering self, which keeps score and makes choices

Most of the discussion about the two selves is about the remembering self and the amazing ways that it makes decisions that are often suboptimal for the experiencing self. The remembering self often chooses an option with lower total pleasure because of duration neglect (a bias of ignoring how long something lasted and condensing a rich experience into a snapshot) and the peak-end rule (a bias of judging experiences largely based on their peak moments and how they end). Knowledge of the quirks of the remembering self gives us ways to game our own minds. For example, we can make sure to end a meeting or a class on a high note so that memories of it are positive.

Thank you for this potent and tender reminder that the remembering self is not the whole self. There is still someone at home, even when planning, keeping score, telling stories, even recognizing faces are no longer happening.

2. “A recurrent theme of this book is that luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.”

Awareness of this viewpoint has affected me in two ways:

  • We’ve all seen books and webinars and articles by successful people, telling us how they did it. The implication is that there is a recipe we can follow to have the same success. But with awareness that luck had a lot to do with their successes, I’ve found it easier not to get swept away by successful people trying to sell their secrets.
     
  • Barry Schwartz made the same point in a TED-X talk at Swarthmore. He goes on to suggest that if we all remembered just how important luck is to the outcomes that matter in our lives, such as getting in to a particular college, we’d be much less likely to feel entitled to what we’ve gained and much more likely to feel empathy for those with less luck who may be just as deserving as we are.

Thank you for the reminder to be humble about what we gain, not to attribute it all to our own efforts, and not to assume that our own recipes for success will work for all.

3. “When can you trust an experienced professional who claims to have an intuition?”

“The acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions. When these conditions are fulfilled, skill eventually develops, and the intuitive judgments and choices that quickly come to mind will mostly be accurate.”

Kahneman spent 7 or 8 years exploring the question of expertise with Gary Klein, “the intellectual leader of an association of scholars and practitioners who do not like the kind of work I do.” Klein has studied how experts work. Kahneman has explored thinking errors that are as common to experts as they are to others. They failed to disagree when they realized they tended to look at different kinds of experts.

Kahneman commented that the conditions they identified for experience to turn into skill are more likely to occur for clinical nurses and firefighters (the people Klein studied) than they are for stock pickers and political pundits (the people Kahneman studied).

Thanks for reminding us that all types of expertise are not equal, and that it’s not enough to go by the person’s confidence in his or her own judgments.

4. “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

Thanks for an important reminder for an election season!

Come back for four more quotations in Part 2 on Monday.


 
References

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Allen Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kahneman, D. & Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree. American Psychologist, 64(6), 515-526.

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1984). Choices, values, and frames. American Psychologist, 39(4), 341-350.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974) Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases Science, 185 (4157), 1124-1131

Kahneman, D. (2010). The riddle of experience versus memory. TED Talk.

10 Questions for Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman


7 Comments »

  • Senia says:

    Kathryn,

    That’s neat to see an article featuring research highlights that relate to you directly. It makes Kahneman’s content seem personal, first personal to him and then personal to you.

    Your article made me think of three things:

    1) I think it’s wonderful when two researchers who are incredible separately then come together like Kahneman and Klein, and especially when they find that the nuance that makes their findings different: that expertise can have different flavors.

    2) This book is one of Martin Seligman’s two recommended books as potential gifts for the 2011 holiday season.

    3) Kathryn, if you or if someone reading this article is interested in more about decision-making, here is a new video from this month of Prof. Baba Shiv of Stanford giving a TEDx talk on decision-making: Sometimes it’s good to give up the driver’s seat (it has over 70,000 views in the few days or weeks since it’s been posted; BTW, if you want to view a decision-making TED-talk marathon, then on the right-hand side of that link, you can find more decision-making TED talks, including one by Barry Schwartz on decisions). I just saw this link yesterday and am saving it for tonight to watch with a friend, and already saw that the beginning is great. Baba is a super lecturer, and I’ve worked with him. I’m a big Baba Shiv fan.

    Best!
    Senia

  • Hi Kathryn, I enjoyed this and looking forward to part II. I couldn’t agree more with your opening paragraph. Kahneman’s book is an opus covering a lifetime of some of the most interesting research in psychology every done. I bought it on my kindle and as soon as I finished reading it I bought it again as a hard copy because I knew it was a book that I would want to come back to again and again. Thanks for helping me come back to it with these interesting quotes and how they apply to the real world.

  • Thank you Kathryn for your excellent post! This has been on my reading list for a while – can’t wait to get to it!

    And Senia, thanks for the additional links – especially the reading list – this had escaped me! I’ll be posting a recommendation or two in the comments :)

    Looking forward to reading part 2 after vacation if I ever get there (day 5 of standby).

    Cheers!

  • Jeremy,

    I bought it on my Kindle as well — which is why I can’t provide page numbers for any of the quotations. I’m thinking about buying a hard copy for the same reason that you did.

    One of my favorite stories is the one that Kahneman tells about projecting how long it will take to complete a project. He and his group completely ignore the base rate, even after asking questions that bring it to light. He doesn’t stand above all the rest of us pointing out our systematic errors and biases. He’s right in the middle of making mistakes with the rest of us — and humble enough to share them.

    Thanks for posting your article about System One and System Two –> http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201207/youre-not-as-smart-as-you-think-you-are.html That lifted a weight off my mind.

    Kathryn

  • Senia,
    Thanks for sharing the link to Baba Shiv’s TED-X talk. It makes a lot of sense to think about whether or not you want to make this particular decision. But I’d also read Kahneman’s discussion of expertise before giving up the choice.

    Kathryn

  • Senia says:

    Kathryn,

    I agree. I wonder if it’s personality-based. I’d prefer to be able to make the choice about those kinds of decisions. Or at least, that’s what I think now.

    Senia

  • Thanks Kathryn, I guess it’s both comforting and frustrating to realize that in spite of all this research, there is not much that we can do to overcome our mental fallibility. A micro example of this would be one of the visual illusions that Kahneman cites regularly in the book, the “Muller-Lyer Illusion” see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Müller-Lyer_illusion. In this (and many other) visual illusions, knowing that we are being tricked does not seem to break the spell.

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