Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Jill Suttie | January 31, 2012 | 0 comments

Three new books explore psychological change and the science of decision-making.

Mindfulness. It’s everywhere these days, at least in the book world. In the last few years I’ve seen a lot of books on mindfulness meditation cross my desk, all of them touting its mental and physical health benefits. A secularized version of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness has been shown to reduce depression, pain and anxiety, and to increase attention and decrease stress in school kids, among other benefits.

But if, like me, you sometimes long to go to the source and dig deeper into Buddhist philosophy and practices, Jack Kornfield’s latest book, Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are, may be the book for you. Kornfield is one of the most famous monks to bring Buddhist teachings to the West, and his book provides a detailed introduction to the history of meditation and how you can incorporate a practice into your life to feel better and improve your relationships.

Kornfield is an inspiring and engaging writer. But, I must confess, I know myself well enough to anticipate the many ways I will procrastinate to avoid beginning a meditation practice. That’s when a book like Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change comes in handy. Written by University of Virginia professor Timothy D. Wilson, Redirect makes a case for redirecting one’s self-concept as a way of encouraging positive change in one’s life, and he supports this approach with research on its effectiveness.

According to Wilson, many social science and psychological interventions are based on faulty science or, worse yet, on the “common sense” assumptions of their proponents. He makes a case for why we shouldn’t let policy makers or mental health professionals implement interventions that have not been adequately tested, and provides examples of interventions that seemed to make sense at the time, but which were later shown to be harmful or ineffective.

For example, we learn why study skills and test-taking workshops provide little benefit to struggling college students, and why psychologists should not implement a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing model when working with victims in a disaster situation, even though many do. The book is well-written, counterintuitive, and entertaining, a little like Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. And, for anyone interested in influencing positive behavior in themselves or others, or who just want to understand social science research better, this is a provocative book to read.

But while Wilson’s book may make you optimistic about science’s ability to influence positive social change, Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, will show you how complicated it can be. Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his seminal work on uncovering the irrational way people make decisions, has written an in-depth view of decision-making and how it is determined by two modes of thinking—one he calls “fast” or intuitive and one he calls “slow” or deliberate.

According to Kahneman, the fast mind, when confronted with new data, quickly searches through emotional and experiential associations with similar data in order to arrive at an almost instantaneous and largely unconscious evaluation. The slow mind, on the other hand, takes a more cognitive approach to new data, scrolling through memory banks and engaging the rational mind before coming to conclusions. The existence of these simultaneous systems of evaluating our experience, he writes, helps explain many interesting phenomena, such as how the brain “fills in the blanks” when faced with ambiguous or incomplete information and how our associations and biases affect our evaluations of people or events.

If you are interested in why people do the things they do—and how they can be so darn irrational when making decisions in love, economics, and politics, for example—this book is for you. It’s full of entertaining examples of how these two systems duke it out in our brains, sometimes leading us to make false evaluations and misread sensory data.

But, be warned: The book is a long haul at nearly 500 pages. You may need to reel in your fast mind when it tells you to run, and give your slow mind a chance to convince you it’s worth reading about this prize-winning psychologist’s work.

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About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.


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