Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review: Thinking, Fast & Slow- Daniel Kahneman

First off, book reviews will probably be coming out more slowly soon because this is the next to last book before I am caught up with my recent backlog.  There are two in my long ago backlog that I would like to comment upon, but then I'll be all caught up.  I hope to not end up so far behind in 2015 and to also spend more time sharing my thoughts on other topics than just books, but I do enjoy reading and talking about what I've read.
This book is one that I originally heard about, probably through Science Friday, and kind of put on the back-burner of books I'd like to read.  Then my best friend recommended it to me a little over a year ago and I decided with that high praise that I would have to give it a chance.  Very quickly I realized the audiobook would have spots where it would be difficult to read because there were continual references to diagrams.  Those were included on a .pdf with the audiobook, but of course I didn't have access to it.  Fortunately I was able to check out the e-book from my library and refer to it as necessary.  I don't know that I would recommend listening to it for others, but I managed to survive.
Anyway, the book was laid out in several sections, but I think the summary at the closing of the book did the best job of explaining it.  There are three different duality in our human nature that conflict with us making logical decisions.  The overall theme of the book is that humans do not naturally think mathematically or logically and will make decisions contrary to this.  Therefore, this needs to be considered when studying and accounting for human behavior.
The first of these three are what he called "System 1" and "System 2".  "System 1" is kind of the impulse decision maker where as "System 2" is more logical but slow to think.  There are plenty of times where I feel my gears grind as I take the time to think something out and that is System 2 hard at work.  System 2 is not good a recall and if interrupted when thinking through something will usually have to restart.  There are so many times this is illustrated in my own life and even occurred as I was listening to the book.
The next is kind of application of the prior section, but focuses on how humans make decisions.  This section seemed to drag on for me because it focused on applications to economics.  The argument was that humans have certain heuristics that guide our decision making process and so we frequently make illogical decisions.  I found myself answering the logical answer much of the time though in this section rather than the impulse answer.  I don't know if this is because I think differently, because I am always conservative when it comes to money, or if it was because like an optical illusion I know that the impulse answer should be and so I picked the other answer instead.  I'm not convinced that it is the last one through because there were several financial situations where there wasn't really an impulse or obvious answer and I still found myself grinding through the thought process to come up with an answer.  There is, however, always a fear in the back of my mind that I think of myself as the exception to the rule when I am not, or that the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the like don't apply to me.

This section also seemed to focus a little too much on the author patting himself on the back for what he has done and how he did it and why he is so smart and deserved the Nobel Prize in Economics [the fake prize handed out by Nobel's bank and not out of Nobel's personal funds] that he previously earned.  There was also a lot of background to experiments and on their design rather than jumping into results, interpretation, and analysis while leaving the background for professional papers as probably should have been done.
The final section was very short but focused on the Experiencing vs Remembering Selves.  There is evidence that we don't remember all that we think we will or do or should and that there are different levels of satisfaction with life depending on which side of life/yourself you try to focus on and please.  There are some similarities between these three sets of two natures, but each is distinct and it is important to know which one your decisions and biases are coming from.
My biggest complaint with this book, other than the issues already mentioned, is that the book was too long for the points it wanted to get across.  There were a lot of great exercises and thought experiments in the book that I am considering adding as a pre-class exercise for lower grades to encourage logical thinking and problem solving.  None-the-less, I've heard the main ideas of the book summarized in a very thorough fashion in online videos and podcasts that are a few minutes long.  The specific examples are nice, but the details of the experiments and the personal promotions seemed too much.  For as long as the book was I had hoped to learn more than I did, but other than specific ancetodal stories I don't think I picked up much that I hadn't heard elsewhere in summaries of the book.  I suppose if you haven't heard the theories from this book it would be an informative read, but I cannot help but think that you would do just as well to find good summaries or rewrites out there instead to learn as much and to save time.
As a final complaint, I don't know if this happens in other areas, but this is now at least twice I have read a book by an Economist after they won the Nobel Prize and both times I have gotten the impression that the point of the book was "look at me, I'm so smart, I deserved the prize I got and now am riding the bandwagon of my popularity to sell books that would otherwise just gather dust on shelves."- I'm looking at you Paul Krugman.

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