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am 1. Dezember 2013
It's not that often that a book falls into your hands which makes you stop and think, reassess, consider and smile in recognition, and most certainly not a book which could be considered a textbook rather than a view of life as we see it in our day-to-day lives. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is that famous exception which attempts to prove the rule that not all is as it seems. It is a textbook which appeals to the masses, written in a free-flowing and easy style which appeals, which draws the reader into ever complex ideas, into a deep spiral of realization that our lives and thoughts, our actions and reactions are not quite as simple as we may wish to believe.
We are subjected to a vast array of situations each and every minute of the day, whether we realize it or not, which require some form of decision. Some are seemingly automatic, some require more thought. Many can change the way our life goes from one moment to the next, can alter our opinion, can bring drastic financial, emotional or other major changes depending on the information we have, the information we consider in forming our judgement. Let me give you a current example:
A young gay woman posts a service receipt to the Internet which shows a refusal to give a tip because the customer does not agree with her way of life.
Many people will have immediately formed an opinion on what has happened simply from this one-sided statement, this public action. Reading through Kahneman's book, however, we get to see that our opinion is based on a lack of information, on information which has also be augmented by recent events, memories of similar actions, personal feelings. We see that our opinion is formed and accept it as such without necessarily knowing why we came to this decision, or even how. We also learn that our decision, since we have no other information than that which is contained in one statement, could well be false, formed through misinformation or a lack of appropriate information.
Decision making based on information received is a far more complex act than many appreciate. For most it appears to be a very easy matter: we read what is presented to us and base our final reply, our actions and reactions upon what we already know coupled with what we have been given. In fact, as Kahneman points out, there are several levels involved in good decision-making, and we do not always take advantage of all the possibilities. We take, automatically, the easy way out. Sometimes we do not even address the problem at hand, but seek out a simpler, related problem which can be answered quickly, without too much thought. We do not delve into the depths of a problem, but take it at face value.
With a wealth of examples, Kahneman takes the reader through many different scenarios covering how we think, how we make decisions, what we use to arrive at our decision and how this process can fool us. He does it, however, in a manner which is easy to understand, taking us gradually one level after the other towards the more complex problems of risk and reward. Each stage is covered with plain examples, then completed with more information, and a solid explanation of how we arrived at our first decision, how further information, even a slightly different wording of a problem, might have changed the manner in which we think, the result of our thoughts.
Let me return to my example (above). The information we have, at first glance, is that a young gay woman has been refused a tip despite her service as a waitress. There is nothing to suggest that the level of service received by the customer was bad, their refusal to tip is based exclusively on the fact that she is gay, and they do not agree with her lifestyle. If the service was not bad, we reason, then there must be another excuse for not tipping: this is given to us. We automatically imagine a very conservative family, straight-laced, set in their ways, not in tune with modern society and the acceptance of different lifestyles, different personalities, different sexual orientation. We recall that there have been many examples in recent months of people refusing tips to waitresses for the most obscure and irrational reasons. Coupled with this, we remember that many waitresses - and other customers - have picked up the bills for others who they felt either needed financial assistance, or who had, through service to their country and fellow citizens, earned it in one form of another.
This background knowledge influences our decision. We feel offended that anyone could refuse a tip for someone doing their job properly simply because of who they are. Some will feel the need to comment on the family involved, even though they know neither the waitress nor the other people. Some will feel the need to compensate the waitress, who has done nothing wrong. With his clear examples, Kahneman shows us that this is not unusual. We have reacted to the information presented, coupled with what we already know from elsewhere, and come to a decision. We take some form of action, even though we have very little information to go on. Our reaction requires very little thought, it is, in effect, a very shallow reaction and absolutely normal.
What when we receive further information, though, could this change our attitude? Two more pieces of news may have reached us after we had initially reacted:
The waitress is prone to excessive lying.
The family concerned publish another copy of the same receipt without a handwritten comment, but with a tip.
Our available information has been greatly enhanced, and our decision about the whole course of events changes drastically. There is more than a shadow of a doubt cast upon the original story. Our thought processes go beyond the shallow level with this new information and, in all probability, our opinion of the waitress and the family she served changes: we side with the family.
Decision making is an everyday part of our lives, even for the smallest things. It is automatic, in most cases, and requires little apparent thought, even though our thought processes must be active. Decision making, so clear-cut and easy, is far more complicated than we had first imagined, taking more information - present, past, learned, heard-of - into account in a fraction of a second. In his highly accessible work, Kahneman takes us, one step at a time, through the thought processes involved across several different levels and shows us how we work, where, through a lack of information or just pure laziness (on the part of the mind) we might be failing ourselves, making errors which could haunt us for years to come. He brings complex psychological thought across in a factual and fascinating manner, and makes us, the reader, consider what we are doing, how we made a decision, and whether it was, after all, the right one.