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A very interesting look at the conscious/unconscious mind
on November 6, 2011
I have to admit that I wasn't really aware of Kahneman's work before I bought this book. Back in 2002, I was shocked to hear that there was a Nobel prize in Economics given out for someone showing that humans aren't rational investors. "Duh" I thought. Psychologists have known that for decades. Well, it turns out the guy who won that Nobel prize was a psychologist- Kahneman.
This book, written at the end (or just about) of his career, is a reflection back on a life's worth of research. Part biography (including his research partner Amos Tversky), part lecture, part research book, it makes for a good read. The chapters are all short, focused, and aimed at a broad audience yet contain some data for researchers. They also end with two or three quotes that illustrate the point of the chapter. Time and again, we're hit over the head with the difference between System 1 of the mind (unconscious, intuitive, biased, fast) versus System 2 (conscious, logical, lazy, slow). In a nutshell, most people believe that System 2 dominates our thoughts and behaviors. Kahneman goes to great lengths to show that this is often not the case.
Taking a broadly evolutionary perspective, he views System 1 as a background integrator of data that's concerned with survival-level issues. It often steers the thinking of System 2, which is costly and thus lazy. System 1 works well enough often enough for System 2 to only really kick in under consciously important circumstances. Certainly, psychology has revealed dozens of ways in which our unconscious mind can exert shockingly large influences on our behavior in contrast to our conscious perceptions and ideas. That's hardly surprising, and in that regard, I found the book a little stale and repetitive. Which isn't surprising given that it documents research starting in the 70s.
One of the reasons it gets five stars is that it is packed with enough amusing examples and anecdotes that only the most jaded psychologist would not enjoy reading through the chapters. Even though I was aware that many of the examples were tests of my System 1 vs. 2, I still fell into some of the common System 1 traps. Which is an intentional move by the author. To his credit, he follows some of the research he preaches by making the story personal to the reader, using their own surprised thoughts at their performance and the dominance of their System 1 to cause the reader to change the way they think about their mind. It's a great illustration of using science to teach science, something that I can't help but enjoy.
And that's ultimately what's so satisfying about this book. Because it's big, and often belabors similar points, I was tempted to give it four stars. But given its writing/teaching style, the theories it presents, and the evidence for them, this book deserves five stars. Because it is pretty hard to read it and not come away with a different perspective on one's mind and how one thinks. And that's a pretty cool thing for any book to accomplish!