Monday, May 21, 2012

Thinking that We Know and the Science of Thinking

by Gary Berg-Cross

2002 Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman delivers the free 12th Annual Sackler Lecture tonight at 6 at the National Academy of Sciences Building - 2101 Constitution Avenue NW - Auditorium (Washington). The talk is called "Thinking that We Know". Kahneman got the Nobel Prize for research that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making. Steven Pinker, who I hope is know to this group, called him "one of the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today."

For those who have not read his recent book (“Thinking, Fast and Slow”) the talk should covers some of his ideas on different modes of thinking and the search for the truth. Here is the abstract for the talk:

Truth is a philosophical concept, and the shared search for agreed and objective truth is the central mission of science. But the sense of truth is a subjective experience, which falls in the domain of psychology. Carefu
lly reasoned argument is one way to induce a sense of truth, but it is not the only way, or indeed the most common. The distinction between different modes of thinking – fast and automatic vs. slow and controlled – provides a framework for understanding the variety of experiences of truth.

The New York Times review of
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” noted this:

Human irrationality is Kahneman’s great theme. There are essentially three phases to his career. In the first, he and Tversky did a series of ingenious experiments that revealed twenty or so “cognitive biases” — unconscious errors of reasoning that distort our judgment of the world. Typical of these is the “anchoring effect”: our tendency to be influenced by irrelevant numbers that we happen to be exposed to. (In one experiment, for instance, experienced German judges were inclined to give a shoplifter a longer sentence if they had just rolled a pair of dice loaded to give a high number.) In the second phase, Kahneman and Tversky showed that people making decisions under uncertain conditions do not behave in the way that economic models have traditionally assumed; they do not “maximize utility.” The two then developed an alternative account of decision making, one more faithful to human psychology, which they called “prospect theory.” (It was for this achievement that Kahneman was awarded the Nobel.) In the third phase of his career, mainly after the death of Tversky, Kahneman has delved into “hedonic psychology”: the science of happiness, its nature and its causes. His findings in this area have proved disquieting — and not just because one of the key experiments involved a deliberately prolonged colonoscopy.
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” spans all three of these phases. It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value. It is consistently entertaining and frequently touching, especially when Kahneman is recounting his collaboration with Tversky. (“The pleasure we found in working together made us exceptionally patient; it is much easier to strive for perfection when you are never bored.”) So impressive is its vision of flawed human reason that the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently declared that Kahneman and Tversky’s work “will be remembered hundreds of years from now,” and that it is “a crucial pivot point in the way we see ourselves.” They are, Brooks said, “like the Lewis and Clark of the mind.”

Daniel Kahneman,
P.h.D., is a Senior Scholar and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Emeritus, at Princeton University. His bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, was selected by The New York Times as one of its Best Books of 2011. A 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences, Dr. Kahneman has laid the foundation for a new field of research, called behavioral economics.


Keith said...

I wish I had known about the talk earlier! I've started his book, and it looks like it might be the ideal path to skepticism for our literate but credulous friends. The cognitive biases are presented in a way that repeatedly gives the reader exciting insights into the way they themselves are prone to bias. It's fun in a way that is likely to turn them into enthusiastic skeptics. Or, at least, I hope so!

How was the talk?

Hemant Shah said...

Wonderful summary, Gary, of Kahneman's work. It was a pleasure reading it.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

The talk was great and when I have a chance I will write a summary for the Blog. They were actively taping/filming the talk, so I expect it to pop up on some NAS site eventually and will provide that if I find it.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Some notes on the talk and a link to the video is available on my later blog at