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Thinking, fast and slow

by Daniel Kahneman

  Book  |  1st ed

Acting before thinking   (2012-09-11)

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by dacase

This is a very well written report and discussion of a huge number of scientific observations and personal stories.  Unfortunately, it is also misleading about issues at the heart of psychology.  I will discuss one in detail to illustrate the need for readers to make careful distinctions lest they be fooled by a well-meaning, silver-tongued researcher.

Central to Prospect Theory's analysis of risky choice is the precept that losses outweigh gains in decision making.  While this can explain several biased choices in the verbal responses of experimental subjects, it has no validity when tested using actual experienced consequences--I omit references to the primary literature.

Kahneman claims that predator evasion trumps foraging (preying), at least in terms of which action must occur more quickly at the point of critical choice.  Ignoring that this may confuse punishment (loss) and negative reinforcement (avoidance of loss), of course both eating and not  being eaten are needed for survival (not to mention reproductive activity)--the devil is in the details as to which (if either) is more urgent or adaptive in the evolutionary sense.  Kahneman's highly disputable claim in no way adequately substantiates his precept.

There is an abundance of relevant research evidence on preference for informative stimuli.  This can be summed up as a bias towards "good news" along with aversion to "bad news" (properly defined) as compared with "no news."  If losses outweigh gains, when subjects can attain both welcome and unwelcome information with equal probability, they should prefer "no news".  They don't.  This is solid science.  So, now the trick is to apply these facts to Kahneman's risky choice biases, to give a counter-interpretation that is consistent with the direct tests showing that losses actually experienced do not carry more weight than gains.

In gain risks, subjects say they prefer a sure thing over a gamble (not considering lottery playing, etc.--Kahneman invokes other principles for exceptions to the central precepts).  But this can be explained by noting that the "good news" of the certain gain (or status quo) is preferred over the "no news" of the uncertain gamble (when either no reward or a loss is possible).  Conversely, in loss risks, subjects say they prefer a risky option over a certain loss (not considering the exception of buying insurance).  But this can be explained without Kahneman's precept by noting that the "bad news" of a sure thing is less preferred than uncertainty of the "no news" loss gamble.   The facts about preference for informative stimuli account for both the main tendencies and the exceptions in verbal risky choices.

Kahneman entirely omits discussion of a huge literature on risky choice in non-humans, researched by both psychologists and biologists.  These studies show rather different patterns of data than his including variable risk aversion/proneness involving reward AMOUNT risk (sometimes consistent with the energy budget rule), but strong, reliable risk proneness when reward DELAYS are studied.  It seems quite apparent that Kahneman's interest is a relatively limited one, to the verbal responses and cues of people.  This is interesting material, just probably not so very crucial.

Psychological science has long established the frequent disconnect between what people will say and do, and several causes of it.  It is the same thing with "thinking", judgements, and decisions.  For example, we see commonly in addictive conduct promises to change for the better along with precious little change.  What is worth noting is that Kahneman displays the derivative, flimsy nature of cognition with several examples and yet his fascination begins (and ends) with it, not with the foundational concrete actions, contexts, and consequential effects that strongly influence much more than answers to his questions.




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