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Saturday, March 14, 2020

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW-- A book review by Sutton




Daniel Kahneman, 

Reviewed by

 Geoffrey W. Sutton

Kahneman’s analysis of thinking in Thinking, Fast and Slow, is close to a metatheory of human nature. In highly readable prose he explains how numerous psychological experiments document the interplay of two ways human brains process and act upon the myriad of stimuli encountered in daily life. Many reviews have extolled the brilliance of the book and its Nobel-prize winning author. My skeptical bias against excessive public endorsements was on high alert until I began to read. My copy has so many notes that it was hard to condense them for this review. I must confess, this was one of the best psychology books I have ever read. 

Daniel Kahneman is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His work with Amos Tversky on decision-making earned him the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. If Amos had not died in 1996, he would have shared the prize. I have included two primary references (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) cited by the Nobel committee as examples of research articles you may wish to obtain.

Return to the title for a moment. The four words aptly describe the way we think and the sequence matters. Fast thinking is the norm. We quickly orient to the sound of a loud bang. If it’s July 1st in the USA, we easily attribute the BOOM to a partying neighbor rather than some mischief-maker. On a drive, we speedily process a garish image and a few inviting words writ large on a billboard. Almost without thinking, we detect a hurt facial response in a partner and quickly search available memory for an answer to the internal prompt, “What did I say?” 

The second concept in the title is slow thinking. Slow thinking is that arduous process most of humanity avoids most of each day. It is the thinking that requires cognitive effort to focus carefully on a set of stimuli whilst ignoring other internal and external distractions so we can search memory and employ other resources to solve a problem. Sometimes the problems are not incredibly difficulty but the answers do not quickly arise in our consciousness like recalling our telephone number or slowing down and scanning more carefully when guiding our car into a narrow parking slot. The components of the thinking process appear to be organized into these two major systems, simply labeled System I and System II. 

System I is automatic and works well enough for most daily activities. People cannot be vigilant all day, Kahneman points out. System II seems to engage as needed to address more complex situations. The effort required by System II does not come easy and seems to slow down not just thought, but the entire person as we might interrupt a walk to formulate an answer to an unusual question. This story of thinking unfolds in 38 chapters organizing diverse dimensions of cognition into five parts: Two Systems, Heuristics and Biases, Overconfidence, Choices, and Two Selves.

Most of us seem to get along pretty well most of the time. But there are those moments when mistakes are costly. Truth is, many decisions are adequate but hardly based on refined decision-making models that employ logical analyses or even well-defined probability models. Heuristics and biases appear to account for the link between thinking and human behavior. Our propensity to respond based on available cues in our environment or memory, to assess situations based on plausible causes, and erroneously predict behavior can lead to significant difficulties for individuals, groups, or even nations. Part II offers a broad review of these cognitive errors.

Overconfidence is the essence of Part III. People tend toward excessive optimism and overconfidence. We experience illusions of understanding and validity. We are prone to excessive and often misplaced trust in experts. In Part IV, Kahneman reviews choice theory, which he explains using everyday examples. We leave this part of the narrative better equipped to detect factors apt to lead us astray. In part V, Kahneman offers a helpful review and leaves us with thoughts about life.

It is easy to see how Kahneman’s work would be of interest to academicians and researchers. But the implications for psychotherapists are far reaching and illustrate how hard it is to interrupt error-prone cognitive-behavioral patterns to apply some new cognitive frame or employ a new behavioral response. Rituals and responses often labeled as spiritual or religious appear to be System I responses except when interrupted by troubling experiences that place our scripts on pause an induce a search for resources. An awareness of biases and the role of heuristics and overconfidence is relevant to clinicians, clinical supervisors, consultants, and clients. There’s a time for System I and a time for System II.


Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1985). Choices, values, and frames. American Psychologist, 34, 571-582.

Sutton, G. W. (2012). [Review of the book Thinking: Fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31, 373-375. ResearchGate Link    Academia Link

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-31.


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