Friday, January 13, 2012

Psychology of a novel kind

I hastened to read Thinking, fast and slow by the Israeli-born Daniel Kahneman after coming upon a description of the Princeton professor by Steven Pinker:

Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind.

Another enthusiastic reviewer described Kahneman's book as "a big slice of sober pie". Today, having completed a first reading of the book, I'm intrigued by Pinker's appraisal. Admittedly, Kahneman's book often aroused my curiosity, but many parts of it bored and indeed irritated me. In any case, I remain convinced that if any individual deserved to be thought of as "the most important psychologist alive today" (an excessive description whose fuzziness also troubles me), it would surely be Pinker himself rather than Kahneman. But I prefer to avoid unnecessary evaluations of that kind.

The basic theme of Thinking, fast and slow is trivially simple. When humans are thinking—for example, when they're faced with questions or problems—they actually behave at two complementary levels. First, they "think fast", immediately, automatically and instinctively. Then they "think slow", calling explicitly upon reasoning processes. At the start of his explanations, Kahneman (who seems to get a thrill out of of coining new expressions) has introduced a terminological gimmick, which also annoys me. He designates "fast thinking" as System 1, and "slow thinking" as System 2. OK, fair enough. But was it necessary to write an entire book on the basis of this obvious hierarchy, which has been been a constant preoccupation of researchers for ages in fields such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence and brain research?

At times, I had the impression that the subject of Kahneman's book was closer to elementary statistics, decision-making (as in business) and games theory than to psychology. Many of his explanations are based upon personal anecdotes in various professional and academic environments, where Kahneman often seemed to arrive on the scene like Zorro, eager to correct all the mistakes perpetrated by the numbskulls who had been there prior to him. For example, there's a chapter entitled "Regression to the mean" which starts out by explaining that the author had "one of the most satisfying eureka experiences of [his] career while teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force about the psychology of effective training". A seasoned instructor pointed out that praising an exceptionally high-quality flight performance served no useful purpose, because the pilot would inevitably fly much worse the following day. On the other hand, this instructor considered that it was a good idea to scream at a pilot who had flown exceptionally poorly, because he would inevitably improve his performance the following day. Now, on the surface, that situation might appear to have something to do with the question of rewards and punishment in the domain of human psychology. But Kahneman's "eureka experience" consisted of his realizing a very banal fact that has nothing to do with psychology. If a pilot flies exceptionally well one day, then he's likely (for purely statistical reasons) to fly less well the next day. And if a pilot flies exceptionally badly one day, then he's likely (for the same statistical reasons) to fly a little better the next day. So, what else is new? Kahneman is so excited about this personal revelation that he introduces another example, summed up in the following sentence:

Highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are.

Is this banal observation a pretext for getting involved in reflections about the reasons that might push a bright girl into wedding a dumb guy? No, there is no reason whatsoever to tackle the question at that level. The elementary theory of probability provides a total explanation of the situation. There are only so many highly intelligent women looking for husbands, whereas there are hordes of numbskulls ready to be chosen. So, it's inevitable, statistically, that most bright girls end up marrying relatively dumb guys.

I was a 17-year-old student back in Australia when I heard about regression analysis (the name of the approach that started out as "regression to the mean") and correlation. Admittedly, Kahneman introduces these cases of regression as counter-examples, which have nothing to do with genuine human psychology, but I find it amazing that a Nobel laureate in economics could get excited today about such everyday stuff.

Something about Kahneman's style makes me consider his book as a specimen of popular psychology of the kind you often meet up with in magazines and training seminars. He reminds me of Edward de Bono and his thinking hats, or Nassim Taleb and his black swans. In any case, one of these days I promise to reread Kahneman's book, to see if I maybe missed out on something during my initial reading.

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