Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli psychologist whose work became the foundation of behavioral economics, which is one of the hottest fields in all of academia. The British government formed a “nudge unit” to put his (and other’s) ideas into practice. Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns used behavioral economics. Kahneman has been compared to Copernicus and Darwin (by The Economist) and Adam Smith and Freud (by Nassim Taleb). And to top it off, the summary of his life’s work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is written in an avuncular and humble tone.
His fundamental idea is that there are two main systems in the brain; System One is fast, consumes little energy, performs without conscious effort, and is pleasurable to use. When presented with an easy math problem, like 2+3, your brain screams “5!” System Two is slow, uses more energy, and is uncomfortable to use. The problem is that System One, while fast, is prone to grave errors.
As with other brilliant ideas, your view of everyday reality changes immediately. Ever turn down music in your car when you get lost or need to parallel park in a tight spot? That is because you are engaging your System Two. My iPhone has become slow and takes about a second to react when I push a button. Because System One “sees causality,” I get dizzy every time I press one of the buttons: my brain expects to see the screen shift.
A rich set of conclusions follows from this two-system view of the brain. My favorite was the idea of reframing a question in terms of losses rather than gains and how that alters the answers of even educated responders. (“Should the child tax exemption be larger for the rich than for the poor?” vs. “Should the childless poor pay as large a tax penalty as the childless rich?”) The point is to question the “rationality” assumption of economics: that humans are clear thinking, on average.
An idea relevant to education is the idea that we, or our Systems One, will substitute an easy question when confronted with a hard question. When asked to contribute money to save an endangered species, people will judge the cuteness of the animal and how its death would make them feel right now rather than more complex considerations of cost and benefit. How do students make choices about careers and majors? In my experience, it is an equally vapid process.
Also relevant to education is the idea that smart people are also prone to these cognitive biases, and the important distinction that he and another researcher draw between rationality (or being engaged, or using System Two) and intelligence.
Kahneman describes “two selves” towards the end of his work, the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” He describes an experiment in which people experienced two painful episodes: one had consistent discomfort for 60 seconds; the second reproduced the first 60 seconds and then gradually reduced the pain for the next 30 seconds. Most people (their “remembering selves”) preferred the second, 90-second, episode.
Kahneman says that this preference is irrational; the total quantity of pain is larger in the second episode than the first. He refers to graphs of painful situations and discusses the integral of, or the area under, the pain curve. A rational person should prefer a smaller total quantity of pain.
The idea of the “total quantity of pain” is intelligent-sounding nonsense. People care about the first derivative, or slope, of pain. More clearly, they care about how quickly pain is changing, because pain is information. If you fall and hurt your ankle, and the pain doubles every few seconds, it is alarming because you know real damage has been done. (The total quantity of pain over these few seconds would be small.)
Similarly, you would prefer the 90 seconds of pain in which the final 30 seconds have a gradual reduction in pain because it feels like the problem is disappearing. This reaction is entirely rational.
A concerning assumption about human nature is revealed by this analysis: only that which is pain minimizing and pleasure maximizing is rational. Kahneman discusses Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism, but this assumption is more like pure hedonism. The reality of human nature is far different: we seek meaning and relationships. We freely and happily choose large quantities of suffering in order to achieve our goals and make many sacrifices for our loved ones.
This focus on pain minimizing and pleasure maximizing suffers two problems: one, it is amoral. Is murder wrong because it produces displeasure? Two, it atomizes humans. Are we in relationships solely because they produce pleasure? The reverse is true; we find those things that attach us to others pleasurable. We find things that isolate us from others painful.
Kahneman’s analysis of “loss aversion,” which is the core idea in his “prospect theory,” needs to consider the social consequences of losing resources. Most healthy relationships are “positive sum:” members of the relationship are getting more out of being in the relationship than they are putting in. It is not irrational, therefore, to be averse to a loss if that loss can sever a bond. Admittedly, it would be irrational to be averse to losses that have no social penalty, but these may exist only in a lab.
Kahneman married two disciplines, psychology and economics, both of which focus on the individual. The result, albeit a richer view of the individual, neglects the social significance of all human behavior. People have accused economists of having physics envy because the desire to have clean math and the aura of science results in these simplistic assumptions about human nature. Perhaps they can move on to chemistry envy?