Thinking Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman
© 2013

When I first picked this book up from the library I was surprised and more than a little intimidated by the thickness. I almost put it back and picked another book, but I am really glad I didn’t! Thinking Fast and Slow explains how our brains process information and reach conclusions about the world around us. This process is usually very efficient at giving us good answers, but if you have ever wondered if there are blind spots in the ways that we think… you would be correct, and the book talks about this as well.

For us in the military, this book can speak to many relevant issues, including common mistakes in decision-making and the power of subtle messaging.

This book could have been a much longer and more laborious read, but Kahneman sets up his chapters more like stories (or a “psychodrama,” as he calls it) rather than scientific research reports. The two main characters in his narratives are the two systems that function together in our brains to make up our cognitive processes, known respectively as “system one” and “system two.” System one is always running and specializes in finding patterns all around us to make the most quick and efficient decisions possible. We often use system one to drive on an empty road, produce the answer to simple arithmetic problems, and make a delighted face when we see a puppy.

When more concentrated effort is required, system one sends a report to system two as a starting point in its evaluation. However, system two requires a lot of effort and concentration to run. It will take system one’s report and begin sorting through what it can put together about the situation before making a decision. Some things that system two is responsible for is focusing on the voice of a person in a noisy room, comparing two appliances for overall value, and maintaining a faster walking pace than is natural for you.

One of the sections of the book I found most impactful is chapter nine. In it, Kahneman makes the case that oftentimes when making complex decisions, we will replace the difficult choice with an easier one and apply the same answer. An example he gives is the question “How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?” This is a complicated question involving any extra income you might have and where saving an endangered species might lie in your priorities, all of which are outside the scope of system one. If we don’t kick system two into gear to contribute the required data, we may replace it with an easier question like, “How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?” System one generates an answer without you requiring any effort. Kahneman completes the example like this:

“…Of course, System 2 has the opportunity to reject this intuitive answer, or to modify it by incorporating other information. However, a lazy system 2 often follows the path of least effort and endorses a heuristic [substituted] answer without much scrutiny of whether it is truly appropriate. You will not be stumped, you will not have to work very hard, and you may not even notice that you did not answer the question you were asked. Furthermore, you may not realize that the target [original] question was difficult, because an intuitive answer to it came readily to mind.”

Overall, our brains are very efficient at giving us good answers to most of the situations we find ourselves in most of the time. By understanding the holes in this system, we can protect ourselves from these holes when accuracy is more important than an efficient answer.

 

As military leaders, it’s important to be cognizant of these gaps in our mental processes. I learned a lot of useful information from this book that I’ll be taking with me through my career!