Discussion Questions for “Thinking Fast and Slow” with some of my own answers

I’ve now finished “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Probably more than any other non-fiction / scientific book, I found it so informative and interesting that I could hardly put it down. Yes, it was not easy reading, requiring a lot of thought and remembering, but for me each section brought new insights that fundamentally changed my view of myself and the world.

I sent out (through Ron) a note telling everyone how I would run the discussion. When we meet, I won’t even attempt to summarize the book and give a lecture on its contents. Rather I will ask you to give your personal reactions to the book, perhaps by addressing the questions below.

Here are the questions I asked you to think about:

1. What did you learn from this book about how you think, make judgements, decisions? How active/accurate is your “System1”, is your “System 2” energetic or lazy?

2. The author discusses many research studies concerning what influences our minds such as “Priming”, “Anchoring” (think of negotiations), and many others. Which of these phenomena was most interesting/surprising to you? Why?

3. Were you always convinced by the author’s description of the various scientists’ methods, or did you sometimes doubt their conclusions? Give an example of strong or questionable conclusions.

* For example: would you pay more for a set of dishes containing some broken cups and saucers or an identical set with no cups or saucers at all?

* Consider the experiment where a person chokes and very few people offer to help. Is it because they suspect it’s part of the experiment? (Reverse Hawthorne Effect?)

  1. Are you convinced that “highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are”?

  2. Does his finding that professional financial firms do no better in returns than the long term market average make you want to rethink your retirement investment strategy?

I’ll add a 6th because I found his discussion of happiness so interesting.

6.  Studies have shown that our memories of what we have experienced are a function only of the peak part of that experience (e.g. the point of most pain in a colonoscopy) and the end of the experience. In particular he found that the duration of the experience was unimportant to how we remember it. If we had a vacation in which we saw something spectacularly beautiful and the vacation ended with everyone feeling happy then our memory of it will be good even if it rained and was cold most of the rest of the days. For some reason Kahneman thinks our minds are wrong when it forms memories this way. He says “Duration neglect and the peak-end rule in the evaluation of stories…are equally indefensible.”

I find it incredible that a Nobel prize winning psychologist could discover some aspect of the way humans function, then judge it to be wrong. In doing so he is putting himself in the role of a god, above and beyond the scientific results he has produced. He thinks for some reason he has earned the right to judge creation. I don’t think he has earned that right and his attempt to claim it diminishes him in my mind.

I’ll briefly say a bit about some the questions I asked you to address. I will elaborate more when we get together.

1. What did you learn from this book about how you think, make judgements, decisions? How active/accurate is your “System1”, is your “System 2” energetic or lazy?

This part of the book was devastating to how I understood myself. I had taken lots of psychology tests at work and learned that I was deliberate and logical. Yet in reading this section I could see that most of the time I accept what my system 1 tells me, and that my system 2 is quite lazy. There are times when I can make my system 2 dominant, but they are the exception not the rule. Most of the time I’m impulsive based on what System 1 tells me.

3. Were you always convinced by the author’s description of the various scientists’ methods, or did you sometimes doubt their conclusions? Give an example of strong or questionable conclusions.

I thought there were many cases in which the result might have occurred because the subjects knew they were in a psychological test and not in the real world. For example in one experiment one of the students started to choke and received very little aid. If I had been there I would have immediately assumed that the choking was part of the experiment and I would not have reacted like I would in real-life.

4. Are you convinced that “highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are”?

I am convinced that my wife is smarter than I am. I am also convinced that very few people really understand what “regression to the mean” is and how powerful a force it is.

5. Does his finding that professional financial firms do no better in returns than the long term market average make you want to rethink your retirement investment strategy?

My financial portfolio is made up of funds like the one that mimics the performance of the Standard and Poor 500. I buy and hold for a long time. I tried an experiment once taking a “small” sum of money and doing active buying and selling of single stocks. It didn’t take me long to lose more than half of it. 

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5 Responses to Discussion Questions for “Thinking Fast and Slow” with some of my own answers

  1. Kelisha says:

    Thanks for what you had to say. The Book Report featured this book this week, I really enjoy listening to the show online at http://www.bookreportradio.com.

  2. pmunrafp says:

    This is a comment from Neil about the conclusions Kahneman makes regarding experiencing life and how we remember it.

    Part of our disagreement may center on how we view the entire book and the author’s motivation in writing it. Here’s my take. First, it is not a research paper. While he reports on a variety of experiments and their findings, he avoids discussion of specific methodological procedures or statistical analysis methods that we would expect to find in a dissertation or a journal paper. It is definitely a step up from books like Blink or Tipping Point, which gives it added weight to me. Kahneman is a social scientist; Gladwell is not.

    Kahneman describes a number of ways that biases and mistakes can cause us to make poor judgments and decisions, hoping this knowledge will help us improve the quality of those judgments and decisions and, thus, improve the quality of our lives (our feeling of well-being, our happiness) and also that of the groups and organizations to which we belong. In so doing, he tries to make two specific points: l) “. . .it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.”(p. 3) Later he expresses the hope that by gaining greater understanding of the biases and mistaken thinking of others that we become more facile at identifying them in ourselves. 2) There is a difference in how we think and how we think we think and that often this difference can lead us astray. Even though the mind might most often work in a certain way, that does not mean it does so with our best interests a heart.

    If I take your point correctly, your saying Kahneman, on the basis of scientific study, concluded at one point that the peak-end rule and duration neglect, two System 1 biases, explain how our memory works and then, at a later point, disagrees with that. Furthermore, it is your contention that this ‘flip-flop’ diminishes his image as a scientist and creates doubt in your mind regarding other findings reported in the book. That may not be exactly what you mean but it appears to be a close approximation, does it not? Anyway, that is what I’m attempting to respond to.

    My view of the section you are objecting to parallels a research study that finds that driving a car at 60 mph into a bridge abutment will do serious damage to not only the car but to its driver and concludes that doing so is not good for your health and well-being. Kahneman is saying that duration neglect and/or the peak-end rule work in a certain way but to conclude that the result will always be good for you is a mistake. To suggest that we blindly depend on their results in making judgments and decisions is indefensible is his point.

    I think that conclusion can be supported by the following. On page 10, he makes a major point related to his motivation for writing the book. “My main aim here is to present a view of how the mind works that draws on recent developments in cognitive and social psychology. One of the more important developments is that we now understand the marvels as well as the flaws of intuitive thought.” On page 13, he says, “A goal is to introduce a language for thinking and talking about the mind.” On page 14, “I return to the virtues of educating gossip [making gossip a more accurate representation of an event, decision or judgment] and to what organizations might do to improve the quality of judgments and decisions that are made on their behalf.” And one last quote, this one for very near the end (p. 410): “A theory of well-being that ignores what people want cannot be sustained. On the other hand, a theory that ignores what actually happens in people’s lives and focuses exclusively on what they think about their life is not tenable either. The remember self and the experiencing self must both be considered, because their interests do not always coincide. Philosophers could struggle with these questions for a long time.”

    To me, he is describing what we know at this time about some aspects of how the mind works and cautioning us about making decisions solely on what we think we think. Recognize the potential flaws, take time to reconsider before moving on. But at the same time, he recognizes (and so should we) that intuitive thinking might actually save our lives from time to time. When to think before we act is an issue we will always wrestle with—when we have time.

  3. Ron Boothe says:

    Peter,
    Have wanted to make a few comments about your selection for a while, but have not had the time to do so until now. Great book, and your posted discussion questions and comments were very thought provoking.

    I was amused by the reactions of some of our book club members to this book. No one, including me, enjoys being informed that some of our most cherished beliefs are demonstrably wrong. And paraphrasing the biblical quotation, it is much easier to see the microscopic mistaken conception in someone else’s mind than the humungous cognitive fallacy in my own mind. So it is a natural reaction to react negatively (“blame the messenger”) to those parts of the book that challenge our own beliefs. But Kahneman is no ideologue. He is not pushing a particular set of ideas. He is simply playing the role of a scientist, informing us of what the empirical evidence has to say about the fidelity of our thought processes. And the scientific evidence often isn’t very pretty — it demonstrates that some of what we think we know (“what we strongly believe to be true”) is wrong.

    I am going to quibble with your reaction:
    “I find it incredible that a Nobel prize winning psychologist could discover some aspect of the way humans function, then judge it to be wrong. In doing so he is putting himself in the role of a god, above and beyond the scientific results he has produced. He thinks for some reason he has earned the right to judge creation. I don’t think he has earned that right and his attempt to claim it diminishes him in my mind.”

    My own take is similar to the earlier comment by Neil, but let me state it somewhat differently. As you rightly point out, most of the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. However, the one prominent exception is when Kahneman discusses the empirical findings relating to duration neglect and the peak-end rule. He states that using the empirical results about these topics to make judgements about how to behave would be “indefensible.” However, I do not think he intends this statement to be interpreted as his own prescriptive moral judgement. Instead I think he means it in the sense “I can not imagine that anyone would argue that these empirical results should be used to guide our decisions about how to act.” Perhaps he is wrong about that but lets use an example to make it perfectly clear what he is referring to.

    Suppose you had to make a decision about which of two medical procedures will be administered to someone you care about (yourself, spouse, child, grandchild, close friend, etc). The details regarding why you happened to be placed into the unenviable position of being the one responsible for making this decision are unimportant for this gedankenexperiment. The point is that you have (only) two options to choose from: 1) the person will undergo a procedure in which they will have to suffer indescribably intense pain for 10 hours followed by 5 minutes of only mild discomfort, or 2) 5 minutes of indescribably intense pain that then stops abruptly. Whichever you decide, you will be forced to sit in the room with the person undergoing the procedure.

    Empirical results regarding duration neglect and peak-end rule would suggest you should pick alternative 1. When Kahneman asserts that using those empirical findings to make that choice is “indefensible”, I think he means it in the sense that he does not think any reasonable person would make that choice. I think he is probably correct in this assertion, but the empirical answer to the validity of his assertion is that if you (or any other reasonable person) disagree, then Kahneman is wrong in his assertion.

    This book obviously caused several of us to think hard about some of our own deeply held beliefs, something that seldom happens. Thank you for selecting this book and guiding our discussion of it.
    Ron

  4. pmunrafp says:

    There is a real-life story behind why I took the position I did regarding Kahneman’s judgmentalism concerning the peak-end function of our memories. I took a strong position because I feel strongly as a result of the story I’m about to tell.

    I have a friend who, decades ago, was in a horrific car accident. He was driving a compact import car through a green light when the driver of a huge car going in the perpendicular direction ran the red light and smashed into the car my friend was driving, leaving it destroyed. What I know of what happened is totally from my friend’s memory and is therefore relevant to our discussion.

    Needless to say, my friend almost died and spent a long time (I don’t know how long but it was at least weeks if not a month) in a hospital. (I don’t know if my friend knows how long he was in the hospital, I never asked, he never volunteered.) When I asked him about the accident all he remembers is two things. Waking up while still lying on the ground at the accident scene and being aware that people (probably Emergency Medical Technicians) were drilling into his chest with one of those huge hand-powered drills that look like the crank on an old car. You know, they have a round handle on one end and a big bit of the other end of the drill. The shaft makes 4 right angle turns between the handle and the bit forming a squared off “U” which the operator turns creating a lot of leverage when he has to drill through something hard. In this case the something hard was my friend’s chest bone (sternum). Evidently his lungs had both been punctured and this was part of the emergency treatment. My friend’s memory is just fleeting because he immediately fell back into unconsciousness.

    Then my friend jumps to the end of the story. He is in the hospital and, because his lungs have been so badly damaged, he has to exercise them. There is this tube he blows in and his breath turns some kind of wheel. If he blows hard enough and the wheel spins fast enough then he gets a dose of laughing gas. A reward for having pushed himself to really stretch the functionality of his lungs.

    Now that is all my friend tells of the story. If he has other memories he has never shared them.

    So this short story, which is in effect my friend’s whole memory, just has one peak moment – the sight of the drill being forced into his chest (which he saw but does not remember feeling) and which I believe is his realization that he is alive; and an end, the happiness of getting the laughing gas. A peak and an end. Sound familiar?

    Now suppose the world were like Kahneman apparently thinks it should be. Suppose our memories recorded and stored what was measured moment by moment by the hedonimeter. If this were true then my friend would remember all those weeks of excruciating pain, and his constant worry about whether he would live or die. He would remember his parents by his bed and their shock and worry. He would still remember the drill and the laughing gas but they would be only details, short parts of the whole long experience, and they might not be perceived to have much importance at all. I don’t know what his memories would have been like, but I’m thankful that he does not have to experience the full hedonometric history of those weeks.

    But suppose he still had that complete memory, what would he be like now? Wouldn’t there be a good chance he would be suffering from PTSD? Would he be having flashbacks of the horror of the experience? Would that complete memory be better for him now than the peak-end memory which is apparently all he still carries?

    My reaction to Kahneman’s judgments is simply this: be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

    I’d suggest that it is possible that we were made to have “only” peak-end memories for a reason. Yes, we lose something, lots of things, from our memories, but how can we be sure that we really would be better off possessing those memories rather than having lost them.

    In short I am very leery of being judgmental about how “nature” made us. Perhaps all those years of selection through evolution produced an “us” that is better off than other “us’s” that we, e.g. Kahneman, can imagine might have been. All I know is that I don’t wish that my friend had lived in the “better world” Kahneman apparently prefers. I’m very happy for him that his memory works the way it does, the way Kahneman discovered in his experiments, and not in the way that Kahneman imagines would be better.

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