The BEST: “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

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THE BEST: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Reviewed by Chaim Strauchler

Summary: Thinking, Fast and Slow examines how we, as human beings, think. The book popularizes the research of cognitive psychologists / behavioral economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Tversky died in 1996. Kahneman would go on to earn the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for their collaborative work. 

Kahneman and Tversky posit a dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive, and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. System 1 is able to operate quickly because of mental habits (short-cuts) that are baked into its operation – called heuristics. Neither system is inherently bad nor good; both are necessary. We could not function effectively without “System 1”; we live what Socrates described as an “unexamined life” if we do not make regular use of “System 2.” The book presents cognitive biases associated with fast thinking, starting with Kahneman’s own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to people’s tendency to replace a difficult question with an easy one, the book highlights several decades of academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in their own judgment.

Interestingly, Kahneman does not expect his work to actually improve human decision-making. Cognitive biases cannot be magically exorcised. He writes, “I hope to enrich the vocabulary that people use when they talk about the judgments and choices of others, the company’s new policies, or a colleague’s investment decisions. Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others that to recognize our own” (3).

Consumption Time: 512 pages ~ 16-17 hours.

Why this is The BEST: In the world of Torah study, we have long distinguished between limmud b’iyun – in-depth study, which progresses at a slow pace – and limmud bekiut – covering ground quickly for the sake of greater knowledge, if not understanding. This distinction reflects an appreciation for the different ways that people can not only learn but also think. Kahneman and Tversky take the difference in thinking outside the beit midrash (not to suggest that they arrived at their discoveries from Torah learning). They examine the gaps in how we think – not just the nuances of formal study but also in the day-to-day operations of our minds.

While Kahneman might soft-pedal the usefulness of his research, the implications for moral and religious development are vast. While traditionally we have understood the moral battle as between the good and evil inclination, modern research on decision making provides a useful framework for reinterpreting this struggle. Just as modern economics has been blinded by its vision of a rational homo economicus (economic-man), much of our thinking about religious life has been impeded by our vision of a rational homo religiousus (religious-man). If we more deeply appreciate the irrationality of our decision-making on a religious level, we can learn to counteract more of our shortcomings. We might understand repentance in terms of examining moral biases and re-educating our “System 1” toward better religious and ethical habits.

This column is part of TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” series, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people — click here for the series introduction and links to all entries in the series.

[Published on December 12, 2019]

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