How thinking works

The inner workings of the brain is highly mysterious. While we may think we know how our brains work and “who’s in control,” there are numerous systems and processes at play constantly, even in the simplest decisions. In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, pulls back the curtain and gives a compelling analysis of human judgements, biases, and decision making.

Kahneman has had a long and distinguished career in the fields of psychology and economics, but most of his work has focused on what is covered in this book: How do we make decisions? How do our conscious and unconscious thought processes interact? Why does habit or familiarity have a tendency to override logic and reason?

The basic model that he outlines in Thinking, Fast and Slow is that human cognition is divided into two fundamental systems. System 1 is fast, reactive, and non-reflective. It’s our reflexes, intuition, our automatic responses. System 2 is slow, logical, and calculating. It activates whenever we are in unfamiliar territory or working through a particularly challenging problem or obstacle.

Methodologically, Kahneman personifies these two systems and engages them in dramatic tension with each other. Neither system is reducible to a particular function of the brain’s structure. And neither are they actual personalities, “little people inside your head.” However, he writes about the systems as if they were personified in order to make the concepts in the book more engaging and memorable.

Of course, the brain’s tendency to latch on to personality and narrative is itself a function of System 1. The brain evolved to think in terms of drama, as a way of highlighting crucial information.

After laying out the two systems early on in the book, Kahneman proceeds to go through a myriad of ways in which this duality of System 1 and System 2 plays out in human behavior and cognition. These range from heuristics and cognitive biases to economics to how we should properly study statistics. The book is bold, dense, and thorough. While not inherently geared towards self-help or leadership—it’s a bit more academic—Thinking, Fast and Slow is still full of great psychological insight with real-world application.

The only major drawback to the book is its poor readability. Lengthy descriptions of experiments weigh the book down and obscure the big picture conclusions. The book will pile on data point after data point, analyzing a phenomenon from every possible angle with the result that the reader can get lost. But this is a fairly minor quibble on what is a monumental and extremely in-depth look at human psychology. With patience, Thinking, Fast and Slow can teach you a lot.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is available for purchase here.

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