Central to Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” are the two “agents” of mental life, System 1 and System 2, and they are summarised as such: “Most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word”. And the book details the consequences of this division of labour, for instance, on how human beings form judgements, perceive different situations, and make decisions. In explaining these biases of intuition or the errors of judgement and choice, across the five parts, Kahneman presents the two-systems, the study of judgement heuristics, the difficulties of statistical thinking, his concept of prospect theory, and a distinction between two selves (experiencing and remembering). Threading these five parts are his use of numerical examples, puzzles or experiments, references to his own research and personal experiences, and mentions of other researchers and their work.
In this vein, the book reads like a modular research paper, and as a public policy student and a social service researcher, of particular interest is the “so what?” question. With the cognisance of the range of cognitive biases, in other words, what can be done to improve policies or the way assistance is delivered to beneficiaries? Greater personal deliberation is a good start – using Bayesian reasoning, thinking like a “fox” – to “be sensitive to the power of inconsequential factors as determinants of preference” . Kahneman, furthermore, provides some actionable strategies which can be adopted on a larger scale: Trait- and dimension-based interview procedures, premortems (imagining a potential disaster, thinking about “a brief history of that disaster”), awareness of reference points during negotiations, and a day reconstruction method to ascertain “well-being”.
And at the very end – though it is alluded to too, halfway through the book, on the role of organisations, as compared to individuals, “to tame optimism” and overconfidence – he goes on to explain the power of organisations. “Organisations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to improve orderly procedures”. At the level of the institution, therefore, individuals can slowly improve their judgements and decisions, collectively. Yet, it must be acknowledged, because it is not ultimately the purpose or focus of the book, there are no extended discussions on how behavioural economics or the collections of behavioural science research may extensively influence or apply to policy-making.
On the whole, the modularity of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” means readers can go back easily to specific sections, reading the content in greater detail or even exploring the citations, though the chapters and the parts may seem disjointed. For a lay reader, like myself, the distribution of the chapters across the five parts did not appear coherent, and at times – especially towards the end – key concepts were repeated. Still, these are minor quibbles, of a highly-recommended book. “The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognise the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2”, and knowledge of this mantra and its premises will reduce the chances of falling victim to biases, and hence guide one’s future endeavours.