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  • Writer's pictureBryan Jun

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I'll come clean from the start of this post that I've not finished this book - and to be honest, I don't know if I ever will. If you're mildly interested in statistics or psychology or have an "intellectual" group of friends who partake in book discussions in the group chat you have with them, you've probably heard of this gem of a book. My inability to finish this book (for reference, I've been gnawing at this one for 6+ years) is not a reflection of the book's quality - it's a New York Times Bestseller (which actually isn't that impressive of a title if you've seen some of the books on that list) and written by the Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. It's one of those reads where in the beginning you're amazed by the thoughts that it provokes and then it slowly (maybe fastly!) degrades into example and example of how the way that human beings think and behave is actually quite illogical and irrational and you fall into a thought spiral of "am I even real."

To give a brief understanding of what this book is about, below are two examples that Kahneman provides to show readers how wrong we are (very confidently) in our perception of statistical probability and how our behavior is swayed by such confidence:

  1. Regression to the mean - this is the idea that most human behavior, achievement and outcomes often regress to the mean. He gives an example of a flight instructor (if I remember correctly - my System 2 is asleep today) who noted that when he compliments a student who does well, they proceed to do poorly after and when he scorns one that does poorly, they proceed to do well. He concludes that because of these results, he should hold back from complimenting and side with disciplinary tones for improved performance. This is a classic example of regression to the mean - it's not that his students are being influenced by his feedback, but that their respective achievements (positive or poor) were "outlier" feats and coming back to the "norm" (doing worse than good and better than bad) is expected (at least statistically).

  2. Irrational statistical confidence (I actually don't recall the term for this but too lazy to reach into the book on my desk) - if I were to tell you that I was a reserved individual who preferred to be alone and have a deep understanding about books and asked if I was more likely to be a librarian or farmer, you'd probably guess the first. Kahneman calmly explains (I envision this old guy who's clearly smarter than you with a soft smile / smirk knowing you're going to be wrong and waiting to say YOU'RE WRONG THOUGH!) that this is a wrong approach, given that the number of male farmers (and farmers in general) far outweighs the number of male librarians and that it's literally more likely for Bryan Jun to be a farmer and his inherent qualities does not sway this statistical fact.

I probably butchered the two examples (he fills each chapter with a dozen of these) but you get the point - if you read The Undoing Project or follow Malcolm Gladwell-type of authors, you know the vibe this book gives off. Essentially, it reminds you that we are faulty thinkers, our world somehow continues to progress based on our illogical minds and being aware of such things could be a benefit or burden depending on how you look at it. I can't say I didn't chuckle at the part that discussed how fund managers are statistically no better than people choosing stocks at random and "experts" are rarely, if not ever, correct in their assumptions and predictions about the future and could be easily primed by various phenomenons like the anchoring effect. On one end I was thrilled to be reminded of the fact that no one knows anything and pretending to know gets you 90% of the way there and on the other end the book served as a constant reminder that everything could very well be meaningless.

The reason I can't finish the book (or at least the excuse I tell myself as I keep getting stuck with ~100 pages left) is that this way of thinking is tiring. There's a Korean word, 피곤해 (pronounced pee-gone-hae) that does a better job describing this feeling, but I'll stick with tiring as English is the best language ever (Korean is not very good at capturing sarcasm)! Everything Kahneman says is probably true and tested out by the brightest minds of our world, including himself. It's also no surprise that we are illogical and irrational and we don't behave based on perfected calculations - furthermore, it's evident that we are often very confident for no apparent reason and we depend on so-called experts for expertise, although their advice very well mean nothing and come from false confidence. I know all these things to be true and it's fun to think about it on a theoretical perspective, but constantly thinking this way about everything and questioning the "real correct answer" or "whether or not decisions are being made because of x or y" at every corner of our life has to be tiring. I know it is, because I've lived that way for awhile and once you start that road there's no turning back.

With full shame, I still highly recommend this book to anyone who's ready to swallow the red pill (haven't watched Matrix in awhile, hope this is the right reference) and want to have a couple mind-blowing anecdotes up your sleeve to look smart on a first date. My weird flex associated with the book is that I've had dinner with Richard Thaler, also a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who is mentioned quite frequently in the book. Whether or not my "review" anchors your perception of this book or it's primed you to unknowingly purchase it on Prime Day, I hope the best for your System 1 and 2.

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