How often do you think about thinking? Not often, I suspect. In part this is because the act of isolating and then mapping thoughts requires a sort of focus that undermines the act in the first place. But, more importantly, it is challenging because we lack the language to describe the process of thinking in the first place. This is the problem that opens Daniel Kahneman‘s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and one of his aims is to ‘enrich the vocabulary that people use when they talk about the judgements of others…’ The book that follows is a concentrated effort to explore the process of thinking in a detailed way and it is likely that, having read this book, you won’t quite think in the same way again.
Thinking, Fast and Slow has been on the bestseller list for much of this year and it is easy to understand why. Deconstructing the thinking process is not straightforward but Daniel Kahneman manages to do so in an engaging, intelligent way without resorting to the sort of impenetrable language that puts the casual reader off. His central contention is that we think in two ways. Firstly, our brains are able to make instant decisions, ones that feel right very quickly. Such decisions, however, are instinctive and can be wrong (or, at least, inaccurate) but reaching these decisions has the benefit of using very little energy. In other words, their broad-brush inaccuracy of these choices is balanced by their efficiency. The second type of thought is more energy intensive and much more accurate but requires time. There is a sacrifice to be made with each thought. At the same time, though, these two systems must fight each other for attention. Some of us are more likely to rely on system one, others on system two.
One of the problems that Kahneman uses to illustrate this situation has popped up in various forms over the last 12 months. It is this:
A bat and a ball cost $1.10
That bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
The instinctive answer, the one that may have popped into your head when reading it, is that the ball costs 10c. But, give it a little more thought — and let system two engage — and it becomes evident that this is not correct (if the ball is 10c the bat, at one dollar more, must be $1.10 therefore the total would be $1.20). In fact, the answer is that the ball cost 5c.
It is a simple problem but one that effectively illustrates the tug of war going on in our minds between an efficient and inaccurate answer and an accurate, more wasteful one. And the way the book explores the impact of this simple, fundamental issue, is astonishing. Indeed, the way that Kahneman delineates the processes of thinking is truly fascinating and, ultimately, addictive. Not only will it show you how decisions are made but it will give you the necessary vocabulary that helps you describe the process. Careful readers may have noticed some of Daniel Kahneman’s phrases cropping up in political discussions already.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is, without doubt, one of the books of this year and was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. It didn’t make it on to the shortlist but, to be frank, it doesn’t need the extra attention. I suspect it will is a book that will be well read for years to come.