Daniel Kahneman Explains The Machinery of Thought

Daniel Kahneman

Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is the founding father of modern behavioral economics. His work has influenced how we see thinking, decisions, risk, and even happiness.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, his “intellectual memoir,” he shows us in his own words some of his enormous body of work.

Part of that body includes a description of the “machinery of … thought,” which divides the brain into two agents, called System 1 and System 2, which “respectively produce fast and slow thinking.” For our purposes these can also be thought of as intuitive and deliberate thought.

The Two Systems

Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking evoked by the picture of the angry woman and by the multiplication problem, and have offered many labels for them. I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

If asked to pick which thinker we are, we pick system 2. However, as Kahneman points out:

The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps . I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

System One
These vary by individual and are often “innate skills that we share with other animals.”

We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice. System 1 has learned associations between ideas (the capital of France?); it has also learned skills such as reading and understanding nuances of social situations. Some skills, such as finding strong chess moves, are acquired only by specialized experts. Others are widely shared. Detecting the similarity of a personality sketch to an occupational stereotype requires broad knowledge of the language and the culture, which most of us possess. The knowledge is stored in memory and accessed without intention and without effort.

System Two
This is when we do something that does not come naturally and requires some sort of continuous exertion.

In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately.

Paying attention is not really the answer as that is mentally expensive and can make people “effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention.” This is the point of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. Not only are we blind to what is plainly obvious when someone points it out but we fail to see that we are blind in the first place.

The Division of Labour

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine— usually.

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer, as probably happened to you when you encountered the multiplication problem 17 × 24. You can also feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains. In that world, lamps do not jump, cats do not bark, and gorillas do not cross basketball courts. The gorilla experiment demonstrates that some attention is needed for the surprising stimulus to be detected. Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will stare, and you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior—the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made. Remember a time when you almost blurted out an offensive remark and note how hard you worked to restore control. In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does: its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate. System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. As we shall see, it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.

[...]

Conflict between an automatic reaction and an intention to control it is common in our lives. We are all familiar with the experience of trying not to stare at the oddly dressed couple at the neighboring table in a restaurant. We also know what it is like to force our attention on a boring book, when we constantly find ourselves returning to the point at which the reading lost its meaning. Where winters are hard, many drivers have memories of their car skidding out of control on the ice and of the struggle to follow well-rehearsed instructions that negate what they would naturally do: “Steer into the skid, and whatever you do, do not touch the brakes!” And every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell. One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.

[...]

The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message of these examples is not encouraging. Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent. Biases cannot always be avoided, because System 2 may have no clue to the error. Even when cues to likely errors are available, errors can be prevented only by the enhanced monitoring and effortful activity of System 2. As a way to live your life, however, continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is certainly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions. The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.

Still Curious? Thinking, Fast and Slow is a tour-de-force when it comes to thinking.

(image source)

Dan Gilbert: Why do we make decisions our future selves regret?

"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished."
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

In the 7-minute TED talk (below), Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert illuminates some recent research on a phenomenon he calls the “end of history illusion,” where we imagine that the person we are today is the person we’ll be until we die. But that’s not the case.

The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.

Still Curious? He further develops the concept more in his book Stumbling on Happiness.

20 Book Recommendations from Billionaire Charlie Munger That will Make you Smarter

"In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn't read all the time—none. Zero. You'd be amazed at how much Warren (Buffett) readers—and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I'm a book with a couple of legs sticking out."
“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none. Zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads—and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

That comment is what really kickstarted my own reading habits. While my 161 books last year pales in comparison to the quality of Munger’s reading habits, it’s a start.

Munger, of course, is the billionaire business parter of Warren Buffett and the Vice Chairman at Berkshire Hathaway.

Not only is Munger one of the smartest people on the planet—his lecture on the psychology of human misjudgment is the best 45 minutes you might spend this year—but he’s put all of those brains to use in a practical way.

If you’re looking for a book to read this summer, this list of books recommended by Munger is a great place to start.

***

1. Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics

It’s a combination of scientific biography and explanation of the physics, particularly relating to electricity. It’s just the best book of its kind I have ever read, and I just hugely enjoyed it. Couldn’t put it down. It was a fabulous human achievement. And neither of the writers is a physicist.

2. Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity

… it’s pretty hard to understand everything, but if you can’t understand it, you can always give it to a more intelligent friend.

3. Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader
I remember reading this shocking book and thinking, holy shit. This book will make you sick.

4. Ice Age
Of this book Munger said: “(The) best work of science exposition and history that I’ve read in many years!”

5. How the Scots Invented the Modern World
A lot of really important stuff like: the first modern nation, the first literate society, the ideas for (modern) democracy and free markets, all originated with the Scots.

6. Models of My Life
An autobiography of Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon, a remarkable polymath who more people should know about. In an age of increasing specialization, he’s a rare generalist — applying what he learned as a scientist to other aspects of his life. Crossing disciplines, he was at the intersection of “information sciences.” He won the Nobel for his theory of “bounded rationality,” and is perhaps best known for his insightful quote “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” (Also part of five books that will change your life.)

7. A Matter of Degrees: What Temperature Reveals about the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe

… a wide-ranging exploration of how the fundamental scientific concept of temperature is bound up with the very essence of both life and matter.

8. Andrew Carnegie
The definitive biography of an industrial genius, philanthropist, and enigma. At the meeting in May of this year, Munger also mentioned the Mellon Brothers as people to study.

9. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
A book recommended by Bill Gates and Charlie Munger? Gates said, the book “had a profound effect on the way I think about history and why certain societies advance faster than others.”

10. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal

What is it about that two percent difference in DNA that has created such a divergence between evolutionary cousins? … renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning author and scientist Jared Diamond explores how the extraordinary human animal, in a remarkably short time, developed the capacity to rule the world … and the means to irrevocably destroy it.

11. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
A frequent and persistent recommendation from Munger. I believe he’s given away more copies of this book than any other. Here is a quick overview.

12. Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos
While both books are exceptional, I actually prefer Hardin’s other book — Filters Against Folly.

13. The Selfish Gene

Dawkins explains how the selfish gene can also be a subtle gene. The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues, acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature. Bees, for example, will commit suicide when they sting to protect the hive, and birds will risk their lives to warn the flock of an approaching hawk.

14. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
At 800 or so pages this is the perfect book for a week-long vacation. From humble beginnings to the height of great power Rockefeller did it all. I think you’ll find he has more in common with Marcus Aurelius than today’s billionaires.

Born the son of a flamboyant, bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world’s richest man by creating America’s most powerful and feared monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded “the Octopus” by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.

15. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor
A best-selling exploration of why some nations achieve economic success while others don’t. As you can imagine, it’s complicated.

16. The Warren Buffett Portfolio: Mastering the Power of the Focus Investment Strategy
This book has been recommended by both Buffett and Munger on a few occasions.

17. Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
Science writer Matt Ridely unfolds the genome for us. Munger recommended in 2001.

18. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
The book is one of the primary business texts in North America. So it shouldn’t surprise you that I was first introduced to this as part of my MBA program.

19. Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information
What is the meaning of life? This book takes a look at the work and beliefs of three leading American scientists: Edward Fredkin, Edward O. Wilson and Kenneth Boulding.

20. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company
Grove gives us an inside account of how he, virtually overnight, changed the path of Intel forever.

***

Of course this is a condensed list of his recommendations. Consider this a look at one of Munger’s many bookshelves.

Two others that might interest you are Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger and, one of my all time personal favorites, Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger.

And before you email me to tell me how expensive some of these books are consider this: ignorance is more expensive.

If you didn’t find anything on this list, check out Nassim Taleb’s list of recommendations.

Rory Sutherland — This Thing For Which We Have No Name

"Whatever you think about McDonald's—it's really, really good at not being bad."
“Whatever you think about McDonald’s—it’s really, really good at not being bad.”

I could listen to and chat with Rory Sutherland, the Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, for hours. This video, from edge.org, shows you why.

Here are some excerpts.

Game Theory is the Key

… The other problem in overcoming the disproportionate influence of economics is that to understand why conventional economic approaches are wrong—and to understand what is needed to replace them—you possibly don’t have to understand one thing, you have to understand about five or six different things. You probably need a bit of game theory, a bit of evolutionary psychology, a bit of behavioral economics, a bit of complexity theory. Now, the problem then is if you have a case where in order to reject the consensus you need people who know a bit about six different things, then simply by statistical averages, the number of people who appreciate all of those five or six different things is going to be a hell of a lot smaller. And that’s genuinely the case.

There are some good social scientists—Jon Elster in Explaining Social Behavior, for one—who make this point: that unless you really understand game theory, you can’t begin to actually understand human behavior.

We love brands

Whatever you think about McDonald’s—it’s really, really good at not being bad. If you understand satisficing—which would be another concept hugely important to the understanding of human behavior—we think we maximize and we describe our behavior as if we’re maximizing but most of the time we go “I want something that’s pretty good and definitely isn’t awful.” Why do we go to McDonald’s? Is it the best food in town? Probably not. The search cost of finding the best place to eat in town, given that we’ve only got one shot at having a meal in a strange town, would be pretty high. But also when you go into McDonald’s you know you’re not going to be ripped off, you’re almost certainly not going to be ill. By contrast I’ve become ill after eating at Michelin-Starred restaurants quite frequently. Once you understand the perfectly sensible evolutionary instinct to satisfice, then the preference for brands is not irrational at all: I will pay a premium as a form of insurance for the reduced likelihood that this product is appalling. Is that called a minimax approach? Someone help me out here.

Sunk Cost Bias

It’s quite a useful thing. “Sunk cost bias” is a very useful concept. Understanding it is very useful because you can correct it in yourself. One of the single moments where I realized this stuff is really useful is when I first tore up a pair of air tickets. My wife and I had some nonrefundable air tickets to go to Paris for the weekend and the day before we were due to travel, both of us went down with flu and were feeling appalling. We were there packing, thinking, we’ve bought these tickets, they’re nonrefundable, we have to go to Paris. And I suddenly said, “Hold on, we’re now going to spend another 300 or 400 pounds on hotels, art galleries, and everything else in order to feel crap in a hotel room rather than feeling mildly ill at home.” The moment when I tore up those travel tickets that was almost a little Damascus Road experience where I realized some of this thinking is practically useful in everyday life.

Stochastic Tinkering

It is true of quite a lot of progress in human life that businesses, in their blundering way, sometimes discover things before academics do. This is true of the steam engine. People developed steam engines before anybody knew how they worked. It’s true of the jet engine, true of aspirin, and so forth. People discover through trial and error—what Nassim Taleb calls “stochastic tinkering.” People make progress on their own without really understanding how it works. At that point, academics come along, explain how what works works and to some extent take the credit for it. “Teaching birds to fly” is the phrase that Taleb uses.

Loss Aversion

“No one ever got fired for buying IBM” is a wonderful example of understanding loss aversion or “defensive decision making”. The advertising and marketing industry kind of acted as if it knew this stuff—but where we were disgracefully bad is that no one really attempted to sit down and codify it. When I discovered Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and the whole other corpus on Behavioral Economics…. when I started discovering there was a whole field of literature about “this thing for which we have no name” …. these powerful forces which no one properly understood—that was incredibly exciting. And the effect of these changes can be an order of magnitude. This is the important thing. Really small interventions can have huge effects.

Progress …

Most of the progress that’s made in business is made through a kind of trial and error where you accidentally stumble on something that’s successful. Of course, the way business works quite well is that things that are unsuccessful get killed off fairly quickly and things which are accidentally successful get invested in; a very crude feedback system but it kind of works, broadly speaking.

Our Loss of Wisdom

“Practical wisdom is the combination of moral will and moral skill.”Aristotle

Barry Schwartz, author of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, on our loss of wisdom.

A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore the job duties in the service of other objectives. A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he re-washed the floor. Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

(via swissmiss)

The Psychology of Persuasion

“We all fool ourselves from time to time...to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”
“We all fool ourselves from time to time…to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”

I get a lot of emails from people asking me how they can learn to persuade others.

Learning about the ways people (honestly and dishonestly) influence you is one of the best things to learn early in life. But it’s never too late.

The go to book on the subject is Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini has spent a lifetime researching the psychology of compliance.

The book highlights six principles of persuasion, which most commonly and effectively are used by compliance practitioners.

We all employ them and fall victim to them, to some degree, in our daily interactions with neighbors, friends, lovers, and offspring. But the compliance practitioners have much more than the vague and amateurish understanding of what works than the rest of us have. … It is odd that despite their current widespread use and looming future importance, most of us know very little about our automatic behavior patterns . Perhaps that is so precisely because of the mechanistic, unthinking manner in which they occur. Whatever the reason, it is vital that we clearly recognize one of their properties: They make us terribly vulnerable to anyone who does know how they work.

These principles work via near automatic response – a “nearly mechanical process by which the power within these weapons can be activated, and the consequent exploitability of this power by anyone who knows how to trigger them.”

Reciprocation
This principle suggests people will be nice if you are. Therefore, if you do something first, by giving them something or doing something nice for them, it is more likely to come back to you. The key is to go first. And, at least in this case, size doesn’t matter. Something as small as a pen has been shown to influence people well beyond its monetary value.

Reciprocation is the basis of cashing in points, calling in a favor, owing other people one, etc.

The reason it works so well is that you have two choices, you either act in a socially approved way by giving in to a request or decline and face (perceived or real) shame. And we want to say yes because this is a way to avoid confrontation.

Reciprocation also works on multiple levels. We are more likely to trust someone who trusts us. We share secrets with people who share secrets with us.

One way to resist this is to refuse the initial favor or gift. Once you accept, it becomes a lot harder.

Consistency

Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.

It’s easier to get people to comply with requests that they see as consistent with what they’ve already said (especially in your presence.) This is the basis for one of the best interview hacks, I’ve ever seen. If you ask people to state their priorities and goals and then align your proposals with that in mind you make it harder for people to say no.

If you start to see yourself as a devil’s advocate for example, you will reinforce that idea by acting like a devil’s advocate.

Consistency is also the basis for the Ikea Effect and why a little pain makes something more attractive.

Say less at work and you’ll be more flexible when things change. Also examine why you want to comply and if things have changed. And keep a decision journal so you can see how often you’re wrong — there is no point holding on to bad ideas.

Once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this new view of himself.

Social proof

we…use the actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves.

Ever wonder why TV shows use laugh tracks. It’s so you know when to laugh. I’ll let you sit on that one for a minute.

People will more likely say yes when they see other people doing it too. This is amplified in situations of uncertainty, where we look to others for cues on what we should do. This can be dangerous. If you are in an emergency, you might look around you for clues on what to do and how to act. Others, of course, might do the same thing. This is why, in an emergency, you need to give explicit instructions. You should always point to someone in a crowd, and say, you call 911. Point to another person and ask them to do something.

Cialdini writes:

In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, however, we are likely to overlook a subtle but important fact. Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too.

Consider walking into a restaurant in a foreign city. You’re starving and have no idea “what’s good” here. Luckily, there happens to be a section of the menu labelled “most popular dishes,” and that’s exactly what you’re likely to order.

Social poof is not all bad. It’s one of the main ways we learn in life. I’ve written extensively on this one before.

Liking
You prefer to comply with requests from people you like more than from people you don’t like. Go figure. One way people exploit this is to find ways to make themselves like you. Do you like golf? Me too. Do you like football? Me too. Although often these are genuine, sometimes they’re not. One way to get people to like you is to establish quick rapport.

This is the basis for tupperware parties. Who can say no to a good friend?

You also like people more if they like you. This is why Joe Girard, the world’s “greatest car salesman,” sends every customer a holiday card with the message “I like you.” And you know what, it works. People go back to him.

Oh, and by the way, I like you.

Authority
This relates to our tendency to be persuaded by authority figures, that is people who demonstrate knowledge, confidence, and credibility on the topic. Something as simple as informing your audience of your credentials before you speak, for example, increases the odds you will persuade the audience. Beware of those wearing uniforms or engineering rings as those are rather overt signs of authority.

We’re taught from a young age to listen to those in charge. And most times this works out ok but sometimes it doesn’t.

Consider this, the co-pilot is never supposed to let the plane crash no matter what, even in a simulator. The pilot, however, is the authority figure. So in simulators they’ve had the pilot do things that are so obviously wrong that an idiot would know that what he’s doing would lead to a crash. But the co-pilot just sits there because the pilot is the authority figure and a meaningful percentage of the time the plane crashes.

Scarcity

It is easy enough to feel properly warned against scarcity pressures, but it is substantially more difficult to act on that warning.

We all want something other people don’t or can’t have. If you offer people something rare or scarce, they are more likely to want it.

I just bought a book off amazon and interestingly on the page they said “Only 2 left in stock.” That’s scarcity. I better order now, or I might have to wait. And I don’t know about you but I really don’t want to miss out.

* * *

If you haven’t already I suggest you pick up a copy of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days. In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.
Rainer Maria Rilke

Idleness is a lost art. That’s the message behind Andrew Smart’s book: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. “Being idle,” he writes, “is one of the most important activities in life.”

But all over the world something else is happening. We’re asked to do more, work harder, and strive to make every moment efficient. The message behind this book is just the opposite. You should do less, not more.

Neuroscientific evidence argues that your brain needs to rest, right now. While our minds are exquisitely evolved for intense action, in order to function normally our brains also need to be idle— a lot of the time, it turns out.

Chronic busyness is not only bad for your brain but can have serious health consequences. “In the short term,” Smart writes, “busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.”

Our brain, much like an airplane, has an autopilot, which we enter when resting and “relinquishing manual control.”

The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you. Just as pilots become dangerously fatigued while flying airplanes manually, all of us need to take a break and let our autopilots fly our planes more of the time.

Yet we hate idleness don’t we? Isn’t that just a waste?

Our contradictory fear of being idle, together with our preference for sloth , may be a vestige from our evolutionary history. For most of our evolution, conserving energy was our number one priority because simply getting enough to eat was a monumental physical challenge. Today, survival does not require much (if any ) physical exertion, so we have invented all kinds of futile busyness. Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored.

Yet, Smart agues, boredom is the key to self-knowledge.

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason . Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

A brief history of idleness.

At least since Homer we’ve been ambivalent on the subject. In the Odyssey, the Lotus-eaters lolled around all day “munching lotus” and were both hospitable and seemingly quite content. But they were a threat to Odysseus and his crew. When he arrived at the land of the Lotus-eaters, the workaholic captain sent a couple of his men to investigate the locals. The Lotus-eaters “did them no hurt” but instead offered Odysseus’s men some of their brew, which was so overpowering that the Greeks gave up all thought of returning home. Odysseus, the personification of the heroic CEO, forced the affected men back to the ship and then tied them to the ship’s benches. He recognized that if the rest of the crew got a taste of the drug, they would never leave the island, and ordered the ship to cast off. In Samuel Butler’s translation, “they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Despite the Western cliché of China as a country where work, productivity, and industry are enshrined as the greatest of ideals, during Confucian times idleness wasn’t a sub-culture but an integral part of the culture. A Confucian gentleman grew long fingernails to prove that he did not have to work with his hands. Confucianism actually disdained hard work and instead idealized leisure and effortlessness. According to Lawrence E. Harrison, a senior research fellow at Tufts, “for the Chinese, Sisyphus is not a tragedy but a hilarious joke.” Harrison writes that the highest philosophical principle of Taoism is wu-wei, or non-effort, which means that a truly enlightened person either spiritually or intellectually goes about life with the minimum expenditure of energy. In military matters, the ancient Chinese held that a good general forces the enemy to exhaust himself and waits for the right opportunity to attack, using the circumstances to his advantage while doing as little as possible. This is in contrast to the Western idea of trying to achieve some predefined objective with overwhelming effort and force. It is thus paradoxical that in spite of China’s long history of embracing idleness, it’s currently thought of as the world’s factory. This might be because, as a Chinese physicist told me recently, China has only “overcome” Confucianism in the last half century or so.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in the West, as work became mechanized, bureaucratized, and de-humanized, philosophers fought back. At that point, as the capitalist world system started an unprecedented period of expansion, Western culture popularized the concept of the “the noble savage,” one of whose particular attributes was lounging around and eating the fruit that supposedly fell into his lap. The incomparable Samuel Johnson published a series of essays on the benefits of being idle in the periodical The Idler from 1758 to 1760. He wrote that, “Idleness … may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another’s inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it.”

But the capitalists could not be stopped. The 19th century saw the advent of the global industrial economy. As human beings came to function like cogs in the complex machine called the factory, Frederick Taylor, godfather of the efficient American work ethic, introduced “scientific management” to capitalist overseers in The Principles of Scientific Management. His goal was to integrate the life of the worker with the life of business, by the means of what was then considered scientific understanding of humans. Taylor sought to increase production efficiency by minutely measuring the time and motion of tasks. Anticipating modern productivity fads like Six Sigma, Taylor looked to replace each tradesman’s knowledge and experience with a standardized and “scientific” technique for doing work. While Taylorism was and still is hugely popular among the business class, humanists of all stripes were unenthusiastic. In 1920, perhaps in reaction to increasing Taylorization, the concept of the robot— a fully mechanized, soulless worker, physically as well as spiritually dehumanized— was introduced by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The very word “robot” means “worker” in Czech. The same year, American humorist Christopher Morley published his now-classic essay On Laziness. “The man who is really, thoroughly, and philosophically slothful,” he wrote, “is the only thoroughly happy man. It is the happy man who benefits the world. The conclusion is inescapable.”

With the advent of the 1980s and Ronald Reagan, the mantra that productivity was essential to self-esteem took hold. It was good for America, it was good for business. Laziness, on the other hand, was anti-American …

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing goes on to explore the benefits and history of idleness in more detail.

A Discussion on the Work of Daniel Kahneman

Edge.org asked the likes of Christopher Chabris, Nicholas Epley, Jason Zweig, William Poundstone, Cass Sunstein, Phil Rosenzweig, Richard Thaler & Sendhil Mullainathan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Steven Pinker, and Rory Sutherland among others: “How has Kahneman’s work influenced your own? What step did it make possible?”

Kahneman’s work is summarized in the international best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Here are some select excerpts that I found interesting.

Christopher Chabris (author of The Invisible Gorilla)

There’s an overarching lesson I have learned from the work of Danny Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and their colleagues who collectively pioneered the modern study of judgment and decision-making: Don’t trust your intuition.

Jennifer Jacquet

After what I see as years of hard work, experiments of admirable design, lucid writing, and quiet leadership, Kahneman, a man who spent the majority of his career in departments of psychology, earned the highest prize in economics. This was a reminder that some of the best insights into economic behavior could be (and had been) gleaned outside of the discipline

Jason Zweig (author of Your Money and Your Brain)

… nothing amazed me more about Danny than his ability to detonate what we had just done.

Anyone who has ever collaborated with him tells a version of this story: You go to sleep feeling that Danny and you had done important and incontestably good work that day. You wake up at a normal human hour, grab breakfast, and open your email. To your consternation, you see a string of emails from Danny, beginning around 2:30 a.m. The subject lines commence in worry, turn darker, and end around 5 a.m. expressing complete doubt about the previous day’s work.

You send an email asking when he can talk; you assume Danny must be asleep after staying up all night trashing the chapter. Your cellphone rings a few seconds later. “I think I figured out the problem,” says Danny, sounding remarkably chipper. “What do you think of this approach instead?”

The next thing you know, he sends a version so utterly transformed that it is unrecognizable: It begins differently, it ends differently, it incorporates anecdotes and evidence you never would have thought of, it draws on research that you’ve never heard of. If the earlier version was close to gold, this one is hewn out of something like diamond: The raw materials have all changed, but the same ideas are somehow illuminated with a sharper shift of brilliance.

The first time this happened, I was thunderstruck. How did he do that? How could anybody do that? When I asked Danny how he could start again as if we had never written an earlier draft, he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “I have no sunk costs.”

William Poundstone (author of Are Your Smart Enough To Work At Google?)

As a writer of nonfiction I’m often in the position of trying to connect the dots—to draw grand conclusions from small samples. Do three events make a trend? Do three quoted sources justify a conclusion? Both are maxims of journalism. I try to keep in mind Kahneman and Tversky’s Law of Small Numbers. It warns that small samples aren’t nearly so informative, in our uncertain world, as intuition counsels.

Cass R. Sunstein (Author, Why Nudge?)

These ideas are hardly Kahneman’s most well-known, but they are full of implications, and we have only started to understand them.

1. The outrage heuristic. People’s judgments about punishment are a product of outrage, which operates as a shorthand for more complex inquiries that judges and lawyers often think relevant. When people decide about appropriate punishment, they tend to ask a simple question: How outrageous was the underlying conduct? It follows that people are intuitive retributivists, and also that utilitarian thinking will often seem uncongenial and even outrageous.

2. Scaling without a modulus. Remarkably, it turns out that people often agree on how outrageous certain misconduct is (on a scale of 1 to 8), but also remarkably, their monetary judgments are all over the map. The reason is that people do not have a good sense of how to translate their judgments of outrage onto the monetary scale. As Kahneman shows, some work in psychophysics explains the problem: People are asked to “scale without a modulus,” and that is an exceedingly challenging task. The result is uncertainty and unpredictability. These claims have implications for numerous questions in law and policy, including the award of damages for pain and suffering, administrative penalties, and criminal sentences.

3. Rhetorical asymmetry. In our work on jury awards, we found that deliberating juries typically produce monetary awards against corporate defendants that are higher, and indeed much higher, than the median award of the individual jurors before deliberation began. Kahneman’s hypothesis is that in at least a certain category of cases, those who argue for higher awards have a rhetoric advantage over those who argue for lower awards, leading to a rhetorical asymmetry. The basic idea is that in light of social norms, one side, in certain debates, has an inherent advantage – and group judgments will shift accordingly. A similar rhetorical asymmetry can be found in groups of many kinds, in both private and public sectors, and it helps to explain why groups move.

4. Predictably incoherent judgments. We found that when people make moral or legal judgments in isolation, they produce a pattern of outcomes that they would themselves reject, if only they could see that pattern as a whole. A major reason is that human thinking is category-bound. When people see a case in isolation, they spontaneously compare it to other cases that are mainly drawn from the same category of harms. When people are required to compare cases that involve different kinds of harms, judgments that appear sensible when the problems are considered separately often appear incoherent and arbitrary in the broader context. In my view, Kahneman’s idea of predictable coherence has yet to be adequately appreciated; it bears on both fiscal policy and on regulation.

Phil Rosenzweig

For years, there were (as the old saying has it) two kinds of people: those relatively few of us who were aware of the work of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and the much more numerous who were not. Happily, the balance is now shifting, and more of the general public has been able to hear directly a voice that is in equal measures wise and modest.

Sendhil Mullainathan (Author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much)

… Kahneman and Tversky’s early work opened this door exactly because it was not what most people think it was. Many think of this work as an attack on rationality (often defined in some narrow technical sense). That misconception still exists among many, and it misses the entire point of their exercise. Attacks on rationality had been around well before Kahneman and Tversky—many people recognized that the simplifying assumptions of economics were grossly over-simplifying. Of course humans do not have infinite cognitive abilities. We are also not as strong as gorillas, as fast as cheetahs, and cannot swim like sea lions. But we do not therefore say that there is something wrong with humans. That we have limited cognitive abilities is both true and no more helpful to doing good social science that to acknowledge our weakness as swimmers. Pointing it out did it open any new doors.

Kahneman and Tversky’s work did not just attack rationality, it offered a constructive alternative: a better description of how humans think. People, they argued, often use simple rules of thumb to make judgments, which incidentally is a pretty smart thing to do. But this is not the insight that left us one step from doing behavioral economics. The breakthrough idea was that these rules of thumb could be catalogued. And once understood they can be used to predict where people will make systematic errors. Those two words are what made behavioral economics possible.

Nassim Taleb (Author of Antifragile)

Here is an insight Danny K. triggered and changed the course of my work. I figured out a nontrivial problem in randomness and its underestimation a decade ago while reading the following sentence in a paper by Kahneman and Miller of 1986:

A spectator at a weight lifting event, for example, will find it easier to imagine the same athlete lifting a different weight than to keep the achievement constant and vary the athlete’s physique.

This idea of varying one side, not the other also applies to mental simulations of future (random) events, when people engage in projections of different counterfactuals. Authors and managers have a tendency to take one variable for fixed, sort-of a numeraire, and perturbate the other, as a default in mental simulations. One side is going to be random, not the other.

It hit me that the mathematical consequence is vastly more severe than it appears. Kahneman and colleagues focused on the bias that variable of choice is not random. But the paper set off in my mind the following realization: now what if we were to go one step beyond and perturbate both? The response would be nonlinear. I had never considered the effect of such nonlinearity earlier nor seen it explicitly made in the literature on risk and counterfactuals. And you never encounter one single random variable in real life; there are many things moving together.

Increasing the number of random variables compounds the number of counterfactuals and causes more extremes—particularly in fat-tailed environments (i.e., Extremistan): imagine perturbating by producing a lot of scenarios and, in one of the scenarios, increasing the weights of the barbell and decreasing the bodyweight of the weightlifter. This compounding would produce an extreme event of sorts. Extreme, or tail events (Black Swans) are therefore more likely to be produced when both variables are random, that is real life. Simple.

Now, in the real world we never face one variable without something else with it. In academic experiments, we do. This sets the serious difference between laboratory (or the casino’s “ludic” setup), and the difference between academia and real life. And such difference is, sort of, tractable.

… Say you are the manager of a fertilizer plant. You try to issue various projections of the sales of your product—like the weights in the weightlifter’s story. But you also need to keep in mind that there is a second variable to perturbate: what happens to the competition—you do not want them to be lucky, invent better products, or cheaper technologies. So not only you need to predict your fate (with errors) but also that of the competition (also with errors). And the variance from these errors add arithmetically when one focuses on differences.

Rory Sutherland

When I met Danny in London in 2009 he diffidently said that the only hope he had for his work was that “it might lead to a better kind of gossip”—where people discuss each other’s motivations and behaviour in slightly more intelligent terms. To someone from an industry where a new flavour-variant of toothpaste is presented as being an earth-changing event, this seemed an incredibly modest aspiration for such important work.

However, if this was his aim, he has surely succeeded. When I meet people, I now use what I call “the Kahneman heuristic”. You simply ask people “Have you read Danny Kahneman’s book?” If the answer is yes, you know (p>0.95) that the conversation will be more interesting, wide-ranging and open-minded than otherwise.

And it then occurred to me that his aim—for better conversations—was perhaps not modest at all. Multiplied a millionfold it may very important indeed. In the social sciences, I think it is fair to say, the good ideas are not always influential and the influential ideas are not always good. Kahneman’s work is now both good and influential.