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Review of Thinking, Fast and Slow

Title:
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Author:
Daniel Kahneman
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date:
2011
ISBN:
978-0-374-27563-1
Pages:
499
Price:
$30.00

Reviewed by Nick Christenson, npc@jetcafe.org

December 11, 2012

Daniel Kahneman, especially when paired with his late research partner Amos Tversky, has been one of the most influential research psychologists of the last half century. His contributions to what has come to be called cognitive psychology are almost innumerable. The fields of study that he has influenced have been profound, ranging from economics to decision theory, to neuroscience, to politics, and beyond. Thinking, Fast and Slow represents his own summary of his work in the field, and how his understanding of the ways in which the human brain works deeply influences all our lives.

Let me bottom line this for you. Our brain receives signals from the outside world, processes them, and passes them on to our reasoning centers for analysis. This process is fraught with problems. One big one is that our signal processing tells us things that aren't true and our reasoning center doesn't bother to check the results. Consequently, we perceive and feel lots of things about the outside world that just aren't true and don't make any rational sense, and this has far reaching consequences. This book is about the many ways in which this whole process goes wrong.

I've reviewed a pile of books based on outside fields that have ties to gambling, such as Fooled By Randomness and The Wisdom of Crowds. Clearly, Thinking, Fast and Slow belongs in this category as well. Honestly, it's connection is even more tenuous than the rest of the books of this sort. Nonetheless, I add a review of it to my collection because I believe the topics discussed within its pages are absolutely critical to understanding how we operate as gamblers. Even though I'm pushing the boundaries considerably in associating this book with gambling, I expect that those who have read it will immediately understand why.

As an example of what can go wrong in the human brain, people tend to be risk averse when it comes to achieving gains, and risk seeking when it comes to avoiding losses. We all know gamblers who hit and run to book a winning session, but who will play for hours to try to dig themselves out when they're losing, despite knowing that "it's all one long session." Why do people do this, as well as suffer from countless other similar fallacies and delusions? This book is the single best layman's explanation of these near universal facets of the way humans make decisions that I've ever read.

The gambling mind set is just one facet of what is covered in Thinking, Fast and Slow, but it turns out to be a useful and common avenue to exploring how we make decisions. Consequently, gambling examples, both abstract and concrete, are used throughout the book. Kahneman isn't a gambler himself, and doesn't personally posses what I would call a "gambling mind set", but his insights into the way the human mind works are nothing less than astounding, and he quite properly was awarded a Nobel prize (in Economics) for his work.

Kahneman's book is a pleasure to read. As a writer myself I am moved not only by his understanding of the material, but by the precision in which he communicates his ideas. I really admire the clarity of his language without providing any trace of ambiguity in what he is trying to say. It demonstrates a complete mastery not only of the subject matter, but also a crystal clear understanding of both the points he is saying now and how it ties together with surrounding paragraphs to form a coherent idea. It's rare that I read someone who writes with such command, and I really enjoy myself when it happens.

I had read many sources that referenced Kahneman and this particular book before I finally got around to reading it. I'm a bit ashamed that it took me so long, as it's arguably the most ground-breaking and provocative book on any topic that I've read in several years. For whatever reason, descriptions of Thinking, Fast and Slow just didn't grab me. Having read it, I regret not reading it sooner, but I find it difficult in a limited number of words and without summarizing large chunks of the book to convey its attraction. So, I'll leave it at this. Anyone who has any interest in understanding how the brain works, and doesn't always work the way we might expect, should read this book. It's phenomenal.

Capsule:

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel prize winning psychologist responsible for many of the breakthroughs of the last several decades in understanding how human being make decisions, especially irrational ones. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a survey of the field of human decision making, and is absolutely fascinating. The ties to gambling are admittedly tenuous, but they are also critical, and Kahneman does an incredible job of communicating his findings to us. His book explains so much of the irrational behavior we see from our fellow human beings, and ourselves, in the outside world. Mapping his findings into a casino setting to understand gambling behavior is easy and revelatory. This is a fantastic book, and I couldn't recommend it highly enough.

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