The 'godfather of behavioural science' - and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow - on how we can hone our decision-making skills in a world turned upside down.
Despite being described by Steven Pinker as "the world's most influential living psychologist", Daniel Kahneman hates the idea of being viewed as a guru. His most famous work, the worldwide bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, has just turned ten years old and he's still not entirely sure if he really likes it. Yet as we plunge further into this fractious and confusing era, Kahneman's steely analysis of the human mind and its many flaws remains perhaps the most useful guide to remaining sane and steady.
I meet the perpetually gruff Nobel prizewinner at the fag end of 2021 — he in his apartment in New York, me a very empty office in London. I want to reflect on his famous book and how it changed the way we think about our own minds. But I also want to mine his remarkable brain for ways to navigate this time of uncertainty and the year ahead. Can he help?
"I don't feel the burden of responsibility to offer solutions to the world's problems," he responds tersely. "The words 'public intellectual' worry me, in the sense that it's someone who has solutions to all the world's problems, regardless of what they are." Yet of course it's this very humility, a willingness to say "I don't know", that makes him such an invaluable public intellectual, whether he wants to be one or not.
Now 87, Kahneman is considered the godfather of behavioural science, which in turn spawned the popular field of nudge theory: today, governments around the world use insights from behavioural economics to try to nudge their citizens gently into paying taxes, eating less sugar and weeing more accurately. His renowned collaboration with Amos Tversky (the two have been called the Lennon and McCartney of social sciences) won him the Nobel prize in economics in 2002, six years after Tversky's death.
It was Thinking, Fast and Slow, though, that made Kahneman famous outside academia. Published in 2011, the book kept selling and selling, permeating business, sport and government. Its central idea is that humans have two broad systems for thinking. System one is impulsive, instinctive and effortless. System two tends to be more controlled and reflective. Both systems have their flaws, but Kahneman argues that we often tend to think we're being much more rational than we actually are. Instead of applying the more deliberative and effortful system two, we regularly allow our more instinctive system one to take over, leading us into trouble.
"People really recognised themselves in that, it clearly resonated," Kahneman says.
Beyond just systems one and two, there is a wealth of other insights about flawed thinking to be found in Kahneman's writing that can help us navigate the modern world. Ideas such as the peak-end rule, which shows how people tend to overestimate the end of an experience when judging its overall quality. (Thus the eternal damnation of Game of Thrones.) Another is the availability bias, which shows how people tend to make decisions based on easily available anecdotes or attention-grabbing TV or social media stories, rather than carefully assessing facts and statistics. We have all been guilty of this during the pandemic.
When it comes to responses to Covid, Kahneman believes his more recent book, Noise, published last year and written with Cass Sunstein and Olivier Sibony, has more to offer. Noise, which Kahneman says will be his last book, is an investigation into why different people's judgments tend to vary so dramatically, even when they ought to agree. Not just because of the kinds of biases explored in Thinking, Fast and Slow, but also due to other, random issues that interfere with our judgment: imagine, for example, the old (and broadly accurate) cliché about judges doling out harsher sentences just before lunch. Or doctors making wildly different diagnoses over the danger posed by a tumour.
"Facing the same risk, governments and individuals have responded to the pandemic in vastly different ways," Kahneman says. "What has been evident in the response has been noise in decision-making." The not very encouraging conclusion here is there's far more randomness at play in our pandemic management than we would like to think.
One suggestion he has is to draw on the wisdom of crowds, surrounding yourself with people who know you well and can call you out on the kinds of flaws that typically arise in your thinking. "We may be better at seeing flaws in other people's thinking than our own," he says. He believes large organisations have a better chance of improving their decision-making than individuals: "Because of their size, organisations start by thinking slow. So there is time to impose procedures and logic."
Despite his fatalism, Kahneman says he has seen a huge amount of progress in the world since he was a boy, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. His family spent the war hiding in France, narrowly escaping capture by the Nazis. His father died of natural causes in 1944. Yet the postwar world he grew up in was one of optimism about the future. "My impression is that this is much less true today," he says. "What people see are threats more than promises. Climate change is a threat, artificial intelligence is a threat, increasing polarisation is a threat. In general, people no longer expect to be happier or better off than their parents. There is less hope."
How might we respond to this loss of hope? "The alternative to hope is to live in the day-to-day, to focus on the present because the future is not attractive," he says. This makes life more manageable, but probably isn't that useful if we want to mobilise in response to climate change. "Humans are not well equipped to deal with this kind of threat," Kahneman says. "We would be responding a lot better if there was an asteroid coming our way, if we knew exactly what date something terrible would happen. You would mobilise humanity to an extent that is just not occurring with what could be an equally dire threat. Climate change is delayed, it's diffuse, it's contested, it's vague. Those are the kinds of threats people find easy to ignore." (He clearly hasn't yet seen the film Don't Look Up, which suggests humanity would be just as useless dealing with an apocalyptic comet.)
One life hack that Kahneman does offer is that we are better off focusing on long-term satisfaction than short-term happiness. He used to think our daily lives, moods and emotions were the most important measure of our wellbeing. Now he believes we should focus less on fleeting pleasures and more on achieving goals that satisfy our ambitions and life expectations. "When you look at what people want for themselves, how they pursue their goals, they seem more driven by the search for satisfaction than the search for happiness," he says.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that in Kahneman's own life he has achieved great satisfaction but not always great contentment. "I've been very lucky," he reflects. "I couldn't say I'm not satisfied with my life, because I am. But the thing that is striking about happiness is the extent to which it is determined by character rather than circumstance."
Some of us are born with happy natures; others tend to be naturally more gloomy. And there isn't all that much we can do about it. "I'm more on the pessimistic side," he says. "But at least I'm a cheerful pessimist."
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is available now.
Written by: Josh Glancy
© The Times of London