Goethe once said “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” This line is popularly invoked in political contexts. But, the quote is equally powerful in personal ones. Instead of the state, imagine it’s our minds that exert a powerful influence over our lives in myriad significant ways, of which we are totally unaware. This is the sort of revelation I felt myself having while reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow over winter break.
A few weeks ago, we read (or maybe not) that the number of new students at Cornell reading for pleasure has declined. Well, let me tell you what they’ve been missing. The Goethe analogy might seem grandiose, but I’m not the only one making such comparisons. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose own book The Black Swan has been called one of the twelve most important books since World War II, calls Kahneman’s book a “landmark ... in social thought, in the same league as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.” A review in The Economist went so far as to state “as Copernicus removed the Earth from the centre of the universe and Darwin knocked humans off their biological perch, Mr. Kahneman has shown that we are not the paragons of reason we assume ourselves to be.”
What is so earth-shattering about the book and why should you read it? First, its penetrating insights come from an intellectual giant. Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, describes Kahneman as “the most important psychologist alive today.” Second, Kahneman, who by the way is also a Nobel laureate, gives us a framework that is a broad but useful blueprint for understanding how the brain works. The crux of this framework lies in the dual process theory. Kahneman says the mind can be divided into two systems — System 1 and System 2 — the first, “fast, intuitive and emotional,” the second, “slower, more deliberative and more logical.” Using that framework, Kahneman explains how the mind you thought you had complete conscious control over actually functions in ways that you probably would not have imagined or, in some cases, wanted. This is not to say that the mind is kludge of irrationality — in fact, Kahneman says he cringes when his work is summarized in this way. The “arrangement,” he remarks, “works well most of the time,” but is still prone to “systematic biases” and can, subtly and without asking permission, alter our behavior. For instance, arranging sets of words associated with old age, like “Florida,” “wrinkle” and “bald,” into sentences causes people to walk down a hallway significantly slower than those who arrange words unrelated to old age. Are you dumbfounded by these findings? I am. And I’ll tell you why.
First, a lot of these revelations are relatively recent news. But second, they are striking because we have been taught so little about our minds. Since elementary school, we have learned and relearned the various branches of the government, their functions, founding and importance. By comparison, think about how little we’ve been taught about the instrument that allows us to learn and understand all that information, the tool upon which we rely to make all our decisions and the machine which controls virtually every single action we take. Kahneman’s book helps narrow that huge gap in our knowledge.
The lessons from the book aren’t just scattered factoids. They are part of a larger picture and often have clear implications in our everyday lives. One such section of the book is the last one, in which Kahneman deals with our assessments of our lives. He makes a sharp distinction between our “two selves”: the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” Our minds do not lead us to remember experiences as they actually occurred, causing us to make some peculiar choices about our well-being. For example, Kahneman recounts a study in which he had participants dip their hands into cold water. One hand they dipped in cold water for 60 seconds. The other hand, they dipped in cold water for 90 seconds — consisting of 60 seconds in which the water was just cold as the water in the first instance, followed by an additional 30 seconds in which the water, while still cold, was made warmer by one degree Celsius. After having experienced both conditions, rather than put their hand in the water for the 60 second condition, most participants chose to put their hand in the water for the 90 second condition, voluntarily subjecting themselves to more total pain. This happens because the remembering self tends to focus on peak and concluding experiences, while ignoring duration. The implications of such an insight are far reaching. For example, even if the first two thirds of this article was excruciating, as long as the last third is just bad, you’ll probably be more likely to reread it than another article of two thirds the length which is excruciating throughout.
This is consequential stuff and I’ve barely even skimmed the surface. It really should make us reconsider the decisions we make and how we make them.We often express sophisticated opinions about the effects of things like the Federal Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing policies or the role of religion in our public education system. But when we talk about our minds and their decisions –— which certainly exert more influence on our lives than federal, state and local governments combined — we are reduced to driveling idiots. He didn’t think good. Wrong decision. Well yes, but why? And how might we prevent it? If nothing else, let’s at least develop a lexicon to describe what went wrong. This is one of Kahneman’s goals. 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.”
Kahneman’s book can’t fix all our brains’ quirks, but even if just gives it us a vocabulary to describe them, then, in the grandiloquent words of Goethe, he has made us a little more free.
So read up, slaves.
Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester