What a treat to see Daniel Kahneman here in London on Tuesday night at the beautiful Methodist Central Hall, just next door to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.
image from How to: Academy
Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and a charismatic speaker who explains complex ideas in a very accessible way making them relevant to a wide audience. Regular readers of the Social Brain blog will probably already be aware of the key concepts in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, including that we can be thought as having two “systems” of thinking.
For those not familiar with his work, there are many summaries and reviews of the book available online; this recent article out earlier this week gives a quick overview of the main idea of TFaS. And a very over-simplified explanation of these systems follows: Our System 1 is fast and automatic, these are gut reactions. Our System 2 is slower, requires effort, and is more deliberate. System 1 does a wonderful (or at least good-enough) job most of the time. System 2 often ‘endorses’ or goes along with System 1’s judgement or decision, although sometimes System 2 overrides our initial reaction. Kahneman’s decades of research has illustrated that while for the most part this job-sharing works quite well for us, problems can crop us when System 1 makes mistakes in its haste and then when System 2 fails to recognise and override them.
The book also describes other areas of closely-related research, including Prospect Theory and the difference between our Experiencing Self and Remembering Self. Prospect Theory offered economists a fresh way to understand utility, and one of its key ideas is that we are loss averse – losses sting more than gains feel good - a concept on which we based our headline and somewhat provocative recommendation in our recent publication Everyone Starts with an A, published last week.
The event on Tuesday was not the typical economics talk. The chair, comedian and TV personality David Baddiel, asked more philosophical questions than typically asked about the book (at least in the talks I have attended!), and the conversation turned towards such topics as dementia, atheism/religion, and wellbeing.
For example, using the ‘two selves’ distinction explained in the book, the effects of dementia could be thought of as a shift in balance from our remembering self to our experiencing self. Regarding religion, Kahneman and Baddiel discussed how our yearning to create stories or narrative, along with the confirmation bias, might play a role in adherence to religions (including atheism). Kahneman continued by explaining that we have two ways of perceiving causality: physical and intentional. The conviction that intentions can have physical effects may provide an interesting way of looking at religion.
The discussion on wellbeing was particularly timely as this week was also the second annual International Day of Happiness (March 20). Kahneman explained that over the years he has reviewed his definition of wellbeing. He used to think that wellbeing was the sum of the quality of someone’s lived experiences. Now this has shifted to take both the experiencing and remembering selves into consideration: our subjective reflection on our everyday experiences and major life events matter too. People want to have good stories about themselves, which depends both on how you experience something in the moment and also how you remember experiencing it.
The 2000-seat hall was completely packed and the event was sold out. I think I spotted Lord Richard Layard, economist and founder of Action for Happiness, in the audience, and there is an unconfirmed rumour that Richard Dawkins was in attendance as well. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a video recording of the event, but if you can find one it would be well worth a watch. In Kahneman terms, my experiencing self enjoyed the evening, and my remembering self enjoyed and continues to enjoy it.
Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the RSA's Social Brain Centre.