Penn Manor High School
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Author: Daniel Kahneman
APA Style Citation
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York; New York: Farrer, Strauss and Giroux.
Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) book exposes the human mind’s frailties and cognitive biases. It includes various errors in judgment in reference to sampling, heuristics, and anchoring – to name just a few. Kahneman’s book also provides insight into the ways in which empirical research is prone to these errors. Kahneman categorizes the quick, effortless, snap judgments of our mind as “System 1” thinking. This type of thinking includes habits, first impressions, associations, instincts, and impulses. In Chapter 4, Kahneman describes a study in which people were primed to be more cooperative. Normally, people in an office used an honesty policy to pay for the amount of coffee/tea taken. However, when researchers placed a poster with photographed eyes near the collection box, individuals felt as though they were being watched and were more likely to pay for the number of drinks served.
Kahneman provides many examples of reciprocal priming- that is: our body language can unconsciously influence our thoughts. The facial feedback experiment is a familiar example. In their personal connections to the book, one of my students noted that there is an “alarm app” for smart phones in which the person must genuinely smile in the camera frame of the phone in order to shut off the alarm clock. The facial feedback experiment suggests that if one smiles, they can automatically influence their emotions to be more positive. In another experiment, Kahneman noted that simple gestures could impact someone’s willingness to accept or reject a message. By nodding in agreement, subjects were more likely to concur with researchers, while subjects who were asked to shake their head from side-to-side were more likely to disagree with the same researchers.
While “System 1” thinking often dominates our actions, Kahneman also addresses our lazier, slower, more effortful “System 2.” This is exemplified by the Stroop test. Our automatic “System 1” thinking is difficult to turn off: In the traditional Stroop test, we are likely to say the words as they are spelled rather than the color in which they are presented (which do not match to the color spelled out. We do not routinely say colors when reading, so the self-control and effortful energy of “System 2” must be activated, and this takes more time than defaulting to “System 1”. Here is a variation of the stroop test that Kahneman uses: Say whether the following words are lowercase or uppercase. Complete this task as fast as you can.
Did you sense the conflict between “System 1” automatic ability to read the word rather than using “System 2” to follow the directions – especially with the words uppercase and LOWERCASE.
According to one experiment conducted by Kahneman himself, the pupils were shown to dilate when “System 2” is activated. Subjects were asked to perform complex mental arithmetic by calculating six to seven digit numbers. When the pupil is dilated, the body is responding to a task that is mentally and physically demanding. Because “System 2” thinking requires energy and blood-glucose to thrive, we are more likely to resort to effortless “System 1” which relies on impressions.
Using the halo effect, Kahneman said that “System 1” often makes a “coherent” view of a person as either good or bad. Additionally, “System 1” attempts to consistently maintain this impression, whether true or false. Kahneman was quick to point out his own predispositions toward “System 1” thinking by using an example that most teachers and students can relate to: grading. When Kahneman graded his own students’ work, he often found that his first impression of a student influenced the grades they received on an essay. For example, if Kahneman graded two different essays for the same student, one after another, the second grade often matched the first. When “System 1” biases permeated, a student who received a good grade on the first essay often earned a good grade on the second. However, if Kahneman graded the first essays of the whole class, he was much more likely to be independent in his evaluation of each student. Therefore, a student who earned a bad grade on the first essay would not be impacted by the professor’s impartiality and may very well earn a good grade on the second essay. If teachers recognize the power of “System 1” impressions, they would be mindful of the order in which student work is evaluated in order to provide students with more objective and “fair” grading.
When it comes to a complicated self-evaluation like lifetime happiness, Kahneman argued that researchers failed to capture accurate results due to the interference of heuristics. To show how happiness can be arbitrarily reported, one German study asked subjects "How happy are you these days?" and then "How many dates did you have in the last month?" In this scenario, subjects reported on life satisfaction without considering the progress of their love life. The same study also reversed the questions. When participants first considered their dating life, the resulting affect heuristic or mood influenced their reported life satisfaction. Those who had fewer dates felt rejected and lonely, hence their life satisfaction ratings were lower. It is difficult for participants to objectively report on lifetime satisfaction without letting an event or mood impact results. Participants’ apparent lifetime satisfaction varies with unconscious influences or with the first circumstances that come to mind.
Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky gained fame from their experiments in the early 1970s on the availability heuristic. When making conclusions about the likelihood of an event, we often rely on “System 1” conclusions that come to mind quickly or easily. For example, in California after an earthquake, people are more likely to buy home insurance. After an incident such as an earthquake, the ease with which images of the tragedy come to mind causes us to overestimate the likelihood of the event occurring again in the future. Yet, after the images and memory of a salient event fade, humans underestimate the tragedy’s frequency and are not as worried. Acts of terrorism also speak to our “System 1” emotions and judgments. For example, Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist, noted that there are more traffic deaths in Israel than cases of terrorism. This goes against the images that easily come to our mind when we think of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The book has 38 chapters even examining a couple of excerpts with your psychology students is a worthwhile endeavor!
Other Related Resources
Asap Science Brain Tricks - This Is How Your Brain Works January 31, 2013
Thinking Fast and Slow “Minute Video” January 29, 2015
Daniel Kahneman “BigThink” and the contributions of his research
Examples of small sample size in baseball: small samples show EXTREME results
Psychological Figures and Concepts:
Chapter 1: Invisible gorilla (selective attention); Stroop effect; Muller-Lyer illusion
Chapter 3: Flow, ego-depletion; Walter Mischel’s delayed gratification
Chapter 4: Priming; reciprocal priming (facial-feedback hypothesis)
Chapter 5: Robert Zajonc’s mere exposure effect
Chapter 7: Confirmation bias; halo effect; overconfidence; framing
Chapter 10: Sampling; randomness
Chapter 11: Anchoring
Chapter 12, 13: Availability heuristic; affect heuristic
Chapter 14: Representativeness heuristic