January 17, 2012

Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow"

In Taki's Magazine, I write:
Perhaps the most lauded book of 2011 was Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel (or, to be technical, Nobelish) Prize in Economic Sciences. The Wall Street Journal, Economist, and New York Times all anointed it one of the year’s top books. David Brooks declaimed, “Kahneman and his research partner, the late Amos Tversky, will be remembered hundreds of years from now.”  
In the New York Review of Books, elder statesman of physics Freeman Dyson announced that Kahneman’s “great achievement was to turn psychology into a quantitative science,” which might have come as a surprise to Wilhelm Wundt, who opened an experimental-psychology lab in 1879.

Read the whole thing there.


Anonymous said...

Read the whole thing there.
don't have to. not that your insights aren't great.. its just another case of jews referencing jews about how great some jewish author is for advancing jewish interests.

Anonymous said...

Read the whole book there.

spherical homo economicus said...

In the land of homo economicus-believing economist, the one-eyed man with common sense is king.

Which falls out from the first principle of economics: economics has never discovered anything that is both true and non-trivial.

Wes said...

Amazing how proving something that is common sense to an economist is considered "revolutionary". The work does appear helpful, but I thought I'd heard similar stuff before, not only from my grandmother, but from other social scientists and psychologists.

Anonymous said...

you nailed it sailer, great review

TH said...

I agree with Steve that many of Kahneman's experiments that supposedly show that people are irrational are about asking people what are in fact trick questions purposedly constructed to deceive them. They do not resemble real-life decision-making situations.

Here's Herbert Gintis's criticism of one of Kahneman's experiments:

I believe KW's work does not at all suggest that people are poor at making logical inferences. The experiments which might suggest this are generally misinterpreted. A particularly pointed example of this heuristic is the famous Linda the Bank Teller problem, first analyzed in Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, "Extensional versus Intuitive Reasoning: The Conjunction Fallacy in Probability Judgment", Psychological Review 90 (1983):293-315. Subjects are given the following description of a hypothetical person named Linda: "Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations." The subjects were then asked to rank-order eight statements about Linda according to their probabilities. The statements included the following two: "Linda is a bank teller" and Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement."
More than 80\% of the subjects---graduate and medical school students with statistical training and doctoral students in the decision science program at Stanford University's business school---ranked the second statement as more probable than the first. This seems like a simple logical error because every bank teller feminist is also a bank teller. However, there is another interpretation according to which the subjects are correct in their judgments. Let p and q be properties that every member of a population either has or does not have. The standard definition of "the probability that member x is p" is the fraction of the population for which p is true. But an equally reasonable definition is the probability that x is a member of a random sample of the subset of the population for which p is true.' According to the standard definition, the probability of p and q cannot be greater than the probability of p. But, according to the second, the opposite inequality can hold: x might be more likely to appear in a random sample of individuals who are both p and q than in a random sample of the same size of individuals who are p.
In other words, the probability that a randomly chosen bank teller is Linda is probably much lower than the probability that a randomly chosen feminist bank teller is Linda. Another way of expressing this point is that the probability that a randomly chosen member of the set "is a feminist bank teller" may be Linda is greater than the probability that a randomly chosen member of the set "is a bank teller," is Linda.

I believe my interpretation is by far the more natural. Moreover, why would the experimenters have included information about Linda's college behavior unless it were relevant? This behavior is completely irrelevant given KW's interpretation of probability, but wholly pertinent given a "conditional probability" interpretation. The latter can be colloquially restated as "the conditional probability that an individual is Linda given that she is a feminist bank teller is higher than the conditional probability that an individual is Linda given that she is a bank teller."

BrokenSymmetry said...

And for this he gets a Nobel Prize?

Steve Sailer said...

I wasn't aware Freeman Dyson and Michael Lewis, who praised the book to the skies, are Jewish.

dearieme said...

"economics has never discovered anything that is both true and non-trivial": people usually cite Comparative Advantage, an argument that's subtle enough to fox many people.

Anonymous said...

For anyone who doesn't know, back in 2008, Kahneman worked for the Axelrod/Soros pyschological warfare team [a group of all-star Scots-Irish Presbyterian ministers who helped to mold Andrew Jackson's free-market economic initiatives in the face of fierce opposition from that hated Yankee statist anti-free-market Unitarian, John Quincy Adams]:

How Obama Is Using the Science of Change
By Michael Grunwald
Thursday, Apr. 02, 2009

Two weeks before Election Day, Barack Obama's campaign was mobilizing millions of supporters; it was a bit late to start rewriting get-out-the-vote (GOTV) scripts. "BUT, BUT, BUT," deputy field director Mike Moffo wrote to Obama's GOTV operatives nationwide, "What if I told you a world-famous team of genius scientists, psychologists and economists wrote down the best techniques for GOTV scripting?!?! Would you be interested in at least taking a look? Of course you would!!"...

The existence of this behavioral dream team - which also included best-selling authors Dan Ariely of MIT (Predictably Irrational) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago (Nudge) as well as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton - has never been publicly disclosed, even though its members gave Obama white papers on messaging, fundraising and rumor control as well as voter mobilization. All their proposals - among them the famous online fundraising lotteries that gave small donors a chance to win face time with Obama - came with footnotes to peer-reviewed academic research. "It was amazing to have these bullet points telling us what to do and the science behind it," Moffo tells TIME. "These guys really know what makes people tick"...

Ed said...

Referencing TH's comment, the question about Linda is badly worded.

The choice "Linda is a bank teller" states nothing about Linda whether Linda is a feminist. If you interpret the statement as "Linda is a bank teller and could be active in the feminist movement, though maybe not", then the probability of the statement being true is higher than "Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement", since the second statement is a subset of the possibilities of the first statement.

But if the choice "Linda is a bank teller" means "Linda is a bank teller and is NOT active in the feminist movement", which I think is what people read into the question, then given the facts, it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement, than Linda is a bank teller and is not active in the feminist movement. Since both statements agree that Linda is a bank teller in this case, then the choice is really about whether she is a feminist.

Strictly speaking, the first interpretation is correct, but its worded in a way that normal readers will assume the second interpretation. This becomes another test question where the real question is whether you read the question in the right way, and its no wonder intelligent people get it "wrong".

AC said...

I thought you were reading it when you mentioned sample size in the post about the captains. I have been pleasantly surprised by the book so far. I agree that many of the experiments are iffy for the reasons stated, but nonetheless, there are more useful insights than you find in most psych text books.

Polymath said...

I am disappointed in Steve's review, but even more disappointed in the incredibly stupid comments to this post.

Anonymous #1: Jews have nothing to do with this topic
Anonymous #2: Under SOPA you could have just killed Steve's blog by linking to a place where the book can be illegally downloaded.
Spherical: your first principle is wrong, unless you get shifty about what you allow to be called "economics".
Wes: Read the book before dismissing it. There is a great deal to be learned which, while related to "common sense", refines and extends it both usefully and non-obviously.
TH: You're missing the point. Of course they're "trick questions", but TRICK QUESTIONS ARE STILL REAL QUESTIONS WITH RIGHT AND WRONG ANSWERS. Life is full of "trick questions", and when we fail to get them right, it is legitimate to describe our choices as true "mistakes". Critics of Kahneman go to absurd lengths to find interpretations under which the answers people give to his questions are justified, but the brute fact is PEOPLE MAKE MISTAKES, these mistakes have serious consequences, and Kahneman has gone further than anyone else in understanding why we make such mistakes.

Bill Gates of Hell said...

Actually, the irony of Kahneman's theory is it agrees with some of the assumptions of the modern right, though, of course, Kahneman's not trying to use it for liberal policies.

The Enlightenment argued for Reason and said all people could be EDUCATED to think and act rationally. This was countered by the Romantic movement but in a positive than negative way. Romantics embraced irrationality and intuition as a pathway for higher truths.
In contrast, men like Freud accepted the irrational core of man but this could be very dangerous(if repressed wrongly).
Nietzsche also understood the power of the irrational.
The modern right, especially fascists, argued political community was essentially an irrational gathering of passions, and men like Hitler tried to exploit this fact.

Communists, in contrast, argued for total materialist-rationalism and argued that all men could be trained to think rationally and scientifically. In practice, however, communist regimes were more like religious orders with its dogma and heretics.

Capitalism has both a rational and irrational side. The rational side is more with the capitalists who are keen to operate in response to market forces. But capitalists use advertising to sell their stuff to consumers, and lots of profits are made by selling people what they really don't need or may even be harmful to them, like sodapop and fast food and junk music.The trick is to use advertising and peer pressure to make people believe they must own certain things to be cool and hip or whatever.
So, capitalism, though controlled by rational operators, panders to irrational forces of consumers. But even among the sellers, irrationalism can take over since many capitalists are filled with greed, vanity, and ambition and may let their ego get the best of them--as with Enron. The rise of finance makes it worse because the finance arm can keep providing funds for crazy stuff like the real estate boom. As long as banks with lots of money provide funds for crazy schemes built more on sand than rock, capitalism will be shaky.

Anyway, it's interesting. The left used to attack the pageantry-ism and charisma-ism of fascism, but liberal Hollywood has appropriated fascist tropes for its blockbusters and Democratic Party uses fascist charisma tropes to promote Obama as the messiah. And the admiration of MLK goes beyond any rational explanation; it is worship.

And guys like Kahneman and Cass Sunstein, instead of arguing for reason, now wanna use irrational mindtricks to 'nudge' us in the direction they want all of us to take.

jody said...

i have a degree in this field. it may come as a shock to david brooks and freeman dyson that cognitive science existed before an economist wrote a book about it. turning the study of the mind into a hard science is not new. it's been around for decades and has made great strides. it is the basis for a lot of our modern research psychology and our artificial intelligence and robotics work.

in fact it's common for experts in one field, to start thinking about the brain, later in their career. roger penrose, a mathematician, published "The Emporer's New Mind" in 1989. gerald edelman, a biologist and winner of the nobel prize in medicine, published "Bright Air, Brilliant Fire" in 1993.

one of the immediate giveaways to me, that kahneman's book is being mistunderstood and wildly overpraised, is that freud is cited by dyson as one of the titans of the field - but anybody who has taken even 1 year of real psychology instruction at a good university knows that 100% of everything freud ever said is totally, completely, dead wrong. not one thing this guy ever wrote about the mind is correct, and everything he ever said has been discredited, discarded, and completely destroyed and eradicated from real research psychology - and that happened decades ago.

indeed, i've written before, that the great failure of psychology is that they haven't been able to remove freud's name from mainstream awareness and the average person's vocabulary and knowledge base. it would be no different than physics and astronomy allowing the idea that milky way galaxy is the sum total of the entire universe, to remain the dominant idea in the average person's mind, or biology and geology allowing the idea that the earth is only 6000 years old and dinosaurs don't exist to reign as the common man's conception about the planet.

both of those scientific corrections of previous, incorrect ideas, are only 100 to 150 years old. that's in the same time frame for psychology to replace freud with real brain science in the general public's mind. but somehow freud persists.

Nanonymous said...

Your previous post on Kahneman dealt with the trickery very well and many of the 125 comments were good.

Anonymous said...

The issue shouldn't be total rationalism vs total irrationalism. No man is totally rational or irrational.
Instead, the issue should be conditionalism. We all make mistakes, but when we make them, we get burned and we learn a good mistake; we get conditioned by experience. This is how dogs are learn not to do certain things. This is how children learn about life.
So, the problem is politically correctness that rewards liars and punishes truth-tellers; thus, we are less likely to learn from mistakes; mistakes and getting burned may be the most important lesson to mankind(or any living organism). Being told that fire is hot is less of a powerful and effective lesson than getting burned. When our society makes big mistakes--much of it having to do with NAM policy--, we learn nothing because PC forces us to ignore certain mistakes and instead keep waiting for superman.
So, our society is turning into a society of lies and self-deceptions.

It is true enough that people make lots of stupid decisions in buying and selling stuff. No one is totally rational or thinking in the long term sense. But when people make stupid decisions, THEY GET BURNED--or they SHOULD get burned--, and it is from the burning that they learn things(and from which they can impart good advice to others). From getting burned, we learn not to do certain stuff. Kids learn not just by being told things but getting their knees scraped, fingers burned, etc.
So, we must not rely only on reason. We must rely on the process of trial-and-error and getting-ass-kicked.
The problem is that our statist society has padded people from getting burned. So, people don't learn. Blacks acted more rationally and responsibly in the past because if they messed up, they could lose their jobs and then they had nothing. But now, what do they care? People are afraid to fire them cuz it would be 'racist' and they might get sued. Also, there's welfare and lots of other freebies for people without work or who won't work.
And from the 2008 financial meltdown, the lessons we've learned are only selective because of political correctness. Most commentators will not touch the issue of 'it was stupid to give easy loans to lots of poor morons'.
But another problem is the irrationalism of Jewish tribalism on Wall Street, academia, media, government, law, etc. Jews, though often critical of one another, will not really go after the rotten apples among them as they did with wasps at Enron. Maybe this tribalism isn't really irrational but rational in its own goal: Jewish power.
This raises a question: is every irrationality a form of rationality? It all depends on the context. In the wider context, taking meth is irrational and dangerous. But if one's goal is to have a good time and feel good, it's rational because meth gives that kick. Maybe eating a lot of food at McDonalds is irrational when it comes to good health, but it's rational when it comes to enjoyment of yummy yummy in my tummy.

jody said...

scientists who actually study this stuff for real, have known for a long time that human brains, and probably most brains, in most animals, make processing shorcuts, called heuristics, to greatly speed up decision making. it's important for survival, to make most decisions very quickly. if you sit down to cogitate and churn away on a problem, usually you die long before the solution is computed.

because these shortcuts are designed for speed and not accuracy, they're evolved to be "good enough", accurate for 99.9% of situations. yes, they can be tricked - by scenarios that almost never exist in nature. it takes a smart guy thinking up a situation to "break" the heuristic, to demonstrate that it is fallable.

this is a huge topic in robotics, because robots interact with the real world, and don't get to sit there, dead to the world, churning away as long as necessary, like IBM's deep blue did. getting a car to drive itself, involves tons of fast decision making, rather than exploring every physics solution to every new set of data coming in from the sensors.

this stuff isn't trivial, at all. it's harder than the proverbial rocket science, it's harder than discovering nuclear phenomena and then engineering nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. it's why we don't have good robots - the smartest man on earth still can't figure out how something as simple as a fly functions autonomously.

speaking of physics, a dyson sphere does not make sense. anybody who could build a dyson sphere, could build a VASTLY smaller fusion reactor with dramatically higher energy density. depending on your fusion equation (we are exploring deuterium tritium because it is easiest, not because it is best), you could build a fusion reactor only like 200 meters across that supplied the entire planet's existing energy needs. using maximum understood physics, the sun's entire output can be reproduced in a sphere only 50000 meters across or so.

no aliens are building dyson spheres, which is why our projects like the NASA kepler mission haven't found any, while at the same time, finding thousands of rocky planets orbiting stars.

Joseph said...

Steve, a lot of these "trick" questions indeed contain information meant to mislead. What is left out typically is information on "conditionality" of the probability. If you pull an ace of spades from a deck of cards, what is the probability of the next draw being the same? It depends on whether you replace the card and reshuffle or not.
This lack of clarification, purposeful or not, is what lead to the bruhaha over self-proclaimed genius Marilyn Vos Savant's questions on probability in her magazine column.

jody said...

by the way, this is how apple's siri works. you talk to the phone in your hand which can do voice to text translation "good enough", but that's as much thinking as the phone does. the phone then sends your request to a huge server somewhere, where wolfram alpha is running. and that computer has enough brainpower to quickly process and come to a fast answer. then it sends the answer back to the phone in your hand.

even then, wolfram has to use some processing shortcuts. it can't afford to "think" deeply about your question if it's not a trivial calculation or fact check query. it has to answer thousands of requests every second.

if the ARM processor inside the iphone actually had to do this stuff, run an instantiation of wolfram alpha, you might sit there for a long time as it "thinks". ARM processors are super weak, optimized for electrical efficiency and not speed.

jody said...

this is one technical reason why it's so hard to get a car to drive itself. because it can't have a supercomputer onboard, doing all the thinking. not enough space. and it can't send it's sensor information TO a supercomputer somewhere else, to do all the thinking, then send back the answer. not enough time for that.

so it has to have a small, efficient brain onboard, that executes shortcuts and reacts to the quickly changing world around it as fast as possible. now, with something like a jet, you might get a bigger computer, and with something like a tank, a big computer. a submarine could have a rather large computer running it.

this is pretty much what a human brain does seamlessly. even the dumbest IQ 75 moron's brain is doing computation and calculation every second, in the cerebellum, in the occipital lobe, in warnicke's area, enabling him to walk and talk.

personally this is the stuff of nightmares for me. a robot tank, with a nuclear reactor for a heart, a supercomputer for a brain, and a railgun for a hand.

gummy said...

Another problem with Kahneman is he defines 'rational' only in relation to material or financial reward. So, if a test among his students led some to walk away with less or no money, he'll say it's 'irrational'.

But, there is a kind of reward other than the financial: the emotional. People like to feel good, and if one takes a certain action to make oneself feel good--even if it costs him money--, there may be rational meaning to it.

For example, suppose a student is given a 100 bucks but he has to offer some of it to another student for him to keep the remainder. Suppose he offers another student $10, but the other student demands $40. Suppose he says no, and so neither gets the money. It may seem irrational, but there is satisfaction in sticking it to the greedy son of a bitch, and that satisfaction may be well worth losing $10. That satisfaction, along with the pride that one didn't give into the greedy son of a bitch, is indeed worth far more than $10.
It also has the effect of teaching the greedy son of a bitch a lesson so he will be less greedy the next time. So, there is a rational lesson there after all.

Of course, the social context is important too. If a person is starving and needs $10 to buy food just to eat, he better take the money. But if he's a middle class college student for whom $10 is chump change, it's better to maintain one's pride than give into some greedy prick who wants to keep $90 while giving a pittance to the other person.

Anonymous said...

"I wasn't aware Freeman Dyson and Michael Lewis, who praised the book to the skies, are Jewish."

Do you ever wonder why you have idiots like the first commentator reading your blog?

j mct said...

I think the thing about this guy that is important is about behavioral economics and the the demise of Marxism. Intellectuals hate capitalism, since capitalism doesn't like intellectuals. I do not know if this is a finding of social science, though it should be, but if one were to create a 'passion for ideas' statistic and a 'talent for ideas' statistic, scores for individuals would be mildly if at all correlated. Having a passion for ideas, but not much in the way of talent for them, of more colloquially, a guy who likes to think, in that he will do it for recreation, but is at best a mediocrity at the doing of it, is what the word 'intellectual' means in English. Capitalism will pay through the nose (think hedge funds or silicon valley) for talent for thinking, it won't pay a dime for mere passion though, in fact it doesn't value passion for ideas at all. Intellectual value their passion for ideas to a huge extent, and most of don't seem to realize that passion isn't talent, so they hate that.

Marxism, which is kind of fly paper for such people, Marx himself being an 'intellectual' par excellence, used to give such people a way to justify their hatred of capitalism while sounding intelligent to the uninformed (like college students or other intellectuals) at the same time. Marx doesn't work for that anymore, hence behavioral economics, which is even stupider than Marx, thus this Kahnman guy, who may be the next Freud. As if that were a good thing.

Pierre-Simon Laplace said...

These sorts of parlor games have an [almost] ancient track record in mathematics.

For instance, I think that the following riddle is at least 200 years old [and it might be 250 years old]:

A chest has two drawers, and each drawer is filled with exactly one coin, either gold or silver, chosen at random*.

If a drawer is opened to reveal a gold coin, then what is the probability that the second drawer, when opened, will also reveal a gold coin?

The NAIVE answer is: It doesn't matter - there's still a 50/50 chance on the second drawer.

However, the CORRECT answer requires one to sit down and enumerate the four equally likely possibilities as they existed before anyone opened a drawer:





Because we know that at least one gold coin is present, we can throw out the final case [SILVER/SILVER], and that leaves the following three equally likely cases:




Of those three equally likely cases, two have silver in the second drawer, and only one has gold in the second drawer, ergo the answer is not the naive "50%", but rather "33.333%".

Now the reason that this riddle fools people is because, as they read it [or as they listen to it being read to them], they see [or hear] the following:

If the TOP drawer is opened to reveal a gold coin, then what is the probability that the BOTTOM drawer, when opened, will also reveal a gold coin?

And for that [completely different] riddle, "50%" is indeed the correct answer.

*Where the supply of gold coins and the supply of silver coins are both INFINITE [for you all y'all purists].

Anonymous said...

It feels like we get this "Man not entirely governed by reasoned self-interest" piece every other month. It's true, newspapers don't print stories, they print the same story a thousand times.

Polymath said...

Laplace, you're wrong.

You can eliminate the Silver/Silver case, but that doesn't mean the three remaining cases are equally likely. You have Bayesian prior probabilities of (0.25, 0.25, 0.25, 0.25) for the 4 cases (GG, GS, SG, SS). Apply Bayes's theorem properly and you get posterior probailities of (0.5, 0.25, 0.25, 0) not (1/3, 1/3, 1/3, 0). You applied it incompletely, changing the probability of the Silver/Silver case from 0.25 to 0, but not changing the other probabilities.

Your namesake resents the appropriation.

Ray Sawhill said...

A question that always comes up for me when I read about these topics is, "Who gets to define what's rational?"

Don't I get to define what's rational for me, for instance? If not, why not? And sez who? I have my own purposes, priorities and values, after all. As far as I'm concerned, a rational answer to a problem is one that suits me (my purposes, my priorities, my values, heck my moods). And there are times when I opt for an "irrational" response just for the hell of it. (Also because I've learned that throwing out the occasional irrational response 1) amuses me and gives me a mood boost, which I enjoy, and 2) sometimes pays off in unexpected ways). How can Daniel Kahneman claim to to be able to evaluate any of this?

It's breathtakingly arrogant for anyone to declare that he's got what it takes to declare what's rational and what's not-rational in some objective way. I'm instinctively, and maybe even rationally, wary of taking any such person's judgments seriously.

Pierre-Simon Laplace said...

Laplace, you're wrong.

God in heaven, there's one in every crowd.


NOTA said...


There are places in logic, math, and probability theory where we can get known-correct answers. Many of these violate our intuition, which is why we needed to create logic, math, and probability theory in the first place--we couldn't trust our intuitions.

Anonymous said...

White calls out on 'leftist racism'.

Florida resident said...

Dear Mr. Sailer !
1. I got lost, who was the first to make the claim at your blog, that Freeman Dyson is Jewish.
Anyhow, Freeman Dyson is _not_ Jewish, neither ethnically, nor religiously.

2. In my very humble opinion, Freeman Dyson deserved 1965 Nobel Prize for Quantum Electrodynamics, including Renormalization theory, much more than Sin-Itiro Tomonaga (the latter gentleman have shared the Prize with two Americans, R. Feynman and J. Schwinger.)

2. I am half-way through my reading of “Fast and Slow Thinking” book by Kahneman. For that reason I will refrain from commenting on its contents. But the style of writing by Kahneman seems to me somewhat arrogant.

Respectfully, F.r.

Anonymous said...


yes, one or two people in every crowd know and can apply bayes' theorem. if only there were more.

navin said...

Laplace and Polymath:

If the Top Drawer has a Gold coin,
why can't the Silver/Gold outcome be eliminated too? This would leave Gold/Gold and Gold/Silver as the remaining possibilities. How is this not a fifty/fifty proposition?

Anonymous #2 said...

@ Polymath,

I doubt Steve would allow a comment that would kill his blog under a yet-to-be-voted-on legislation.

Anonymous said...

Giving this guy an economics Nobel is like giving a medicine and physiology Nobel to the author of those Magic Eye illusion books.

France said...

Daniel Kahneman, adept at psychological sleight of cognition, gives us a two tier system that is inherently flawed. This is so because quantitative research holds that correlation does not imply causation.

Rahul said...

What is making this book more compelling is the interesting experiments and its nearly unbelievable results that provides strong support to the underlying theories.

The theory on influences of the preconditioning on the mind (priming as the author calls it) and how it subtly and unconsciously affects the decision making process is revealing and shocking.

A must read ...