Why We Contradict Ourselves and Confound Each Other
Daniel Kahneman is best known for his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He's the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, professor of psychology and public affairs emeritus at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, and a fellow of the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Krista Tippett, host: With his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has emerged as one of the most intriguing voices on the complexity, the outright contradictoriness of human thought and behavior. He won the Nobel Prize in economics for his part in creating the field of behavioral economics. It acknowledges, as classic western economics did not, that we are not always logical and rational in our economic lives. Kahneman’s groundbreaking work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making with his late friend and fellow psychologist Amos Tversky has also influenced medicine, law, and business. And it is fun, helpful, and slightly unsettling to explore human psychology and behavior in this moment of political and social tumult.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Daniel Kahneman: When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs much too seriously.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Daniel Kahneman was born in Tel Aviv but spent his childhood in Paris, where he and his family became caught up in Nazi-occupied France. He is a self-described and well-documented constant worrier, and his continuous questioning of himself and others is also a source of his creativity, warmth, and humility. I experienced this when he first sat down a little late for our 2017 interview with the very reasonable excuse of New York City traffic.
Mr. Kahneman: Hi, Krista. This is Danny. I apologize. I’m normally — I’m pathologically punctual, so this really shouldn’t be happening.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I believe you. And not to worry. I’m glad we have been able to make this happen, and it’s really an honor to sit down with you.
Mr. Kahneman: Come on.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] It’s true. But I won’t embarrass you anymore.
Mr. Kahneman: Yeah, thank you.
Ms. Tippett: I think we can begin. I have a question I always ask whoever I’m speaking with, which is about the religious or spiritual background of one’s childhood. When you talk about how you became a psychologist — here’s something, someplace, you wrote: “I was discovering I was more interested in what made people believe in God than I was in whether God existed, and I was more curious about the origins of people’s peculiar convictions about right and wrong than I was about ethics.” I found that really interesting.
Mr. Kahneman: Yeah, I couldn’t say it better. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I have to say, I’m also very intrigued about how you talk about — your mother was a very intelligent gossip and that that, also, was a way that you came to this experience, this sense that people are endlessly complicated and interesting.
Mr. Kahneman: My mother was really a very strong influence on me really through gossip, I think. I mean there was a lot of intelligent conversation about people, and people seemed to be surprising and interesting, interesting to talk about. In fact, it was politics or people were the subjects that I was exposed to — or Germans.
Ms. Tippett: Right, and that background of your family was steeped in that drama of the Holocaust. You even have told quite a few stories about discovering the many sides to every person in interactions that your family had with Germans before the liberation.
Mr. Kahneman: The main story I’ve been telling, which was in Paris — actually, in Neuilly, which is close to Paris — and that was 1941. I was seven. The Jews were wearing the yellow star, and a curfew had been declared for 6:00, I think, for Jews. I’d gone to play with a friend, and I was late. So I turned my sweater inside out, and I walked home. And very close to home — actually, I went back to that place last year, out of curiosity, to match it against my memories — I saw, on that street, a German facing me, coming towards me, and the street was otherwise deserted. And that German was wearing a black uniform, and that was the uniform of the SS, and I knew enough to know that they were the worst of the worst. He beckoned me and picked me up, and I remember being quite afraid that he would see inside my sweater that I was wearing a yellow star. And then he hugged me very tight, and he put me down and took out his wallet, showed me a picture of a little boy, and gave me some money. And we went our separate ways. That was an impressive story, for me.
Ms. Tippett: I like to consider all kinds of questions of our time with a long view of time, and starting with the Enlightenment, with this particular intensity, we wanted to insist that we are rational, logical creatures. It’s fascinating for us to be talking about all the things that happened — and there was much more, especially in the mid-20th century — which bespoke our irrationality. And yet, even this idea of rationality and many of our disciplines formed around that presumption — certainly, economics.
Mr. Kahneman: Well, the concept of rationality is a technical, mathematical concept. It’s a logic. And it is actually completely not possible for a finite human mind to be rational or to obey the axioms of rationality. You’d have to know too much. The difficulty of being consistent in all your beliefs is impossible. And if you are not consistent in all your beliefs, you can be trapped in an inconsistency, and then you are not rational. So the concept of rationality, the technical concept of rationality, is psychologically nonsense. And I don’t think we ever claimed to have demonstrated that people are irrational. I really don’t like that label.
Ms. Tippett: That’s interesting, because that word is really thrown around in how people write about you. But would you say — it seems to me that what you did in social-scientific terms is, you articulated cognitive rules, not for human irrationality, but perhaps for, let’s say, this reality that we do contradict ourselves, that we are complicated creatures.
Mr. Kahneman: Well, actually, the cognitive rules are, to a large extent, simplifying rules. They are shortcuts. Our examples were sort of amusing and clever, and they impressed people because they were highly quotable. They could be summarized in one-liners. So we earned that label of being prophets of irrationality by doing psychology in an amusing way.
Ms. Tippett: I guess what I’m pointing at is, as a non-economist, as a citizen, I think that the economy and that cultural and economic events, especially around 2008, made it very clear — although everybody doesn’t stop to analyze it this way — but made it very clear that we weren’t dealing with a merely rational part of our collective life together, so that behavioral economics had a resonance, if anybody was interested to pay attention to that in the larger culture.
Mr. Kahneman: That’s interesting, because I would say my view of 2008 is that it didn’t demonstrate irrationality. The bankers, they were acting as rational economic agents in their own self-interest. What 2008 did, in the eyes of the public and, I think, in the eyes of many economists — it reduced the hubris of the economics profession. It was a failure to predict. The failure to predict it is what, I think rightly, impressed many people about the limitations of economics.
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Ms. Tippett: In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman brought a core idea from academic psychology into mainstream cultural dialogue: the notion that human behavior at any given moment is an interplay between two forms or systems of thinking.
The so-called System 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, and completely unreflected, things we do automatically or have learned so that we do them as it feels without thinking. For example: walking, talking, reacting emotionally, knowing the answer to two plus two, driving a car.
System 2 is the brain’s slower, more deliberative, and analytical mode. It doesn’t do two plus two, but it picks up 17 times 24. It gets involved in difficult life decisions, in self-control, and sometimes, in checking and correcting intuition. The main thing about System 1, Daniel Kahneman says, is that it can’t be turned off. The main thing about System 2, even though we might imagine it to be the “real,” conscious us, is that it’s lazy. It’s very capable of endorsing and rationalizing what our fast thinking is telling us to do and say.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Before he wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for helping create the field of behavioral economics.
Ms. Tippett: You note that there’s something quite miraculous about how so much of what we do becomes automatic, but that this effortful thinking, this ability to be deliberative, is more rare, but we pay more attention when we do it, and we think we do it more often — in our imaginations.
Mr. Kahneman: It’s the only thing we know — that is, effort and attention are very closely related to consciousness, so what you’re conscious of, what you’re aware of. And with System 2, when you multiply 17 by 24 in your head, or even not in your head, you are operating in sequence, and you are aware of the sequence, so you are aware of your thinking.
But in System 1, you are not aware of the thinking. This is one of the definitions of intuition: It is that it’s knowing something without knowing why you know it. I have no doubt — most of my work has been to question intuition, but some people have it. Drivers have it. All of us have it in many social situations. So we become skilled, and when we are skilled, what used to be effortful and System 2 becomes automatic and System 1.
Ms. Tippett: Right, what used to be slow becomes fast. I have felt like as we move through this century — it was hard to argue, after 2008, that economic behavior and, also, the discipline of economics, is entirely logical. And I think it’s impossible to argue that about our political lives, as well, globally, now. And I think, also, our lives with technology privilege fast thinking and reacting. I’m just so curious about how you inhabit this moment with the scientific perspective that you have.
Mr. Kahneman: Well, that was a big question, and there is a lot to say about it. In the first place, I’d like to observe that the term “behavioral economics,” as it is used today, the kinds of things that behavioral economists are supposed to do, that’s really social psychology. It’s principles about how to affect behavior. It is remarkable, and some people find it sad, that social psychology had to disguise itself as economics before it had an impact on the culture.
Ms. Tippett: To be taken seriously.
Mr. Kahneman: That’s because economics has a better brand than psychology. So that’s one thing, one remark I wanted to make.
A completely different one, which occurs to me because you mentioned politics, is that one of the important realizations that come from thinking of the world in terms of System 1 and System 2 is that our beliefs do not come from where we think they came. And let me elaborate on that sentence. When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the way that I would see this is that the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs.
So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.
Ms. Tippett: Right, and we duel with them, and we’re not actually talking about —
Mr. Kahneman: Yeah, and it’s a game because even if you did destroy the arguments that people raise for their beliefs, it wouldn’t change their beliefs. They would just find other arguments.
Ms. Tippett: You still have the same human drama.
Mr. Kahneman: That’s a perspective which is saddening in some ways. But it’s about what happens in the world of ideas and in the world of politics, that we have a lot of illusions about the role of reasons — and I mean “reasons,” plural — about the role of reasons in our beliefs and decisions. It’s smaller than we think.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, and something that comes up a lot in your work and as people write about you is, one of the things you are arguing on the basis of what I would say is your deep, profoundly reality-based approach to us, is that if we kind of accepted that there’s a lot that’s incomprehensible and unreasonable, we would be surprised less of the time. One feature of the present, I feel, politically and on other levels, is, we have a complicated dynamic that has been before us for a while and been deepening, and yet, I feel that people are constantly surprised by it, over and over again.
Mr. Kahneman: My perspective on this is that we’re really not surprised nearly often enough, because one of the things that really happens, as soon as an event occurs, we have a story. That’s automatic, that System 1 generates stories. It looks for causes; it looks for stories; and it generates its tentative stories that, if endorsed by System 2, become beliefs and opinions. But the speed at which we find explanations for things that happened makes it difficult for us to learn the deep truth. And the deep truth is that the world is much more uncertain than we feel it is. We see a version of the world that is simplified and just a lot simpler and a lot more certain than the world really is. So that’s the way I would talk about it.
And notice, in our conversation, you are using the word “rational” much more often than I, because when people use the word “rational,” I think, what they mean by this is that there is a good reason for what you believe and what you do. If there is a good reason for it, you believe in what you do, then you are rational. But if we accept that in general, our more important beliefs are not rooted in arguments, that there is no good reason for why we have this religion or that religion or this politics or that politics; it’s just something that happened to us — that changes the nature. We shouldn’t be looking for rationality so much, because by using the word, we seem to expect it to happen. And I think that’s just not the way the mind works.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I appreciate you pointing that out too, because actually, I also feel like the word “rational” carries a sense of judgment, that I would say what is rational, and somebody else would say what is rational. And I don’t actually know that it’s a word I use — I mean I think I would use the word “logical.” And one of the things I’ve been saying a lot to people in conversations in this last political year is, we’re not logical creatures. And being mad at the other side for not being logical is just not a good use of your rational brain. I don’t know. There, I used the word again.
Mr. Kahneman: It is not, because you do not appear rational to them. And the fact that arguments that feel irrefutable come to our mind so easily doesn’t mean that those arguments are the real cause of our beliefs and doesn’t mean much of anything about the validity of the argument. The way that the mind works, very frequently, is that we start from a decision, or we start from a belief, and then the stories that explain it come to our mind. And the sequence that we have when we think about thinking, that arguments come first and conclusions come later, that sequence is often reversed. Conclusions come first, and rationalizations come later.
Ms. Tippett: But isn’t it interesting that the discipline — or, at least, the idealized discipline of politics or political science — the way we think you have a debate, and then, somehow, the best idea will appear right to everyone [laughs] That’s not, in fact, the way — as you’re saying, that’s not even the way our brains work.
Mr. Kahneman: Absolutely. I mean certainly, what is happening in the United States in the last six months is — it’s really a testimony to that sort of process. You have people on the left, possibly the majority of the country, certainly the people that Donald Trump calls “elites” — and they cannot believe what they see in the polls every week, which is that behaviors that appear to them to be crazy have absolutely no effect on the popularity of the president among a group of his supporters. You read The New York Times, and you feel that everybody who writes there cannot make their peace with the fact that the support is stable, in spite of things that strike them as —
Ms. Tippett: Right, that’s what I mean — they’re always surprised by the same thing, over and over and over again, shocked.
Mr. Kahneman: Absolutely. “Why don’t they change their mind?” And the reason they don’t change their mind is that facts don’t matter, or they matter much less than people think. And people on both sides believe that there are facts that support them. But those beliefs should not be taken too seriously.
Ms. Tippett: I’m not over-oriented towards President Trump. I’m very oriented, though, towards the human dynamics that brought us to this political moment. And maybe this is just not a fruitful path to go down, but I wonder if you have thought about, how do you read the newspaper, and what do you do with — I doubt that you read the newspaper every morning and are continually surprised by this. So how do you think people who want to step back, who want to activate the deliberative part of our capacity — do you have any very practical thoughts towards that?
Mr. Kahneman: What is disappearing, or seems to be disappearing, is a culture of debates between diverse opinions. Whether there is anything that can be done about it, I would say there is something that can be done, but nothing deep can be done, I think. What can be done is superficial, can be very, very useful. Teaching statistics to the young would be useful; teaching economics to the young would be useful; teaching self-critical thinking, or better yet, how to criticize other people, because this is more pleasant and more interesting — those things can be done. You could educate intelligence analysts; you could educate people who feed information to decision makers, to some extent, to improve their product. But those are very marginal improvements. When it comes to the big issues, I’m not very optimistic.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK.
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Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with psychologist Daniel Kahneman. You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — now with occasional bite-sized extras wherever podcasts are found.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with Daniel Kahneman, a great psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his part in creating the field of behavioral economics. His book Thinking, Fast and Slow has entered the American conversation. His insights into why we think and act the way we do, and how at odds that can be with how we like to think of ourselves, are fascinating, unnerving, and increasingly relevant.
Ms. Tippett: Let’s talk about some of the ways you help us understand ourselves. You’ve talked about the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” These are some of the dynamics that go into the contradictory way we process reality. Describe what you’re talking about there.
Mr. Kahneman: To describe this, I’ll describe an experiment, which — we did it, and it was quite influential in my own thinking. So this is what you do: You invite people to participate in an experiment, and the subject of the experiment is pain. So they know that. And you ask them to stick their hand in cold water for a while, until they’re told to take it out. In one condition, you hold your hand in cold water for 60 seconds. In another condition, you hold your hand in cold water for 60 seconds and then, without any break, for 30 additional seconds. But during the last 30 seconds of your experience, the temperature of the water is raised by 1 degree Celsius, about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Then you ask them, which of the two experiences you had, with your right hand or with your left hand, would you like to repeat? And they pick the longer one — not “they,” a significant majority of people pick the longer one.
Now, that’s absurd, because the longer one contains the 60 seconds of pain that the short experience contains, plus 30 additional seconds of diminishing pain. It’s more pain, the 90 seconds, and yet, people don’t actually store their experience in that way. They form an impression of the experience they had, and in that impression, there are two moments that play a significant role, and that’s the peak of your pain and the pain at the end of the episode.
Ms. Tippett: Right, how it ended.
Mr. Kahneman: And how it ends, it ends better for the 90-seconds hand than for the 60-seconds hand. That’s the thing that people want to repeat. And associated with it is something that is really crazy, but it’s a fact: We call it “duration neglect.” That is, people in those kinds of situations are radically insensitive to how long the experience lasts. We have done that with actual medical experiences.
Ms. Tippett: So this translates into real life crises.
Mr. Kahneman: Oh, yeah, it’s been tested with people who are having their kidney stones broken up or with patients having a colonoscopy, so it’s for real. People who have had 20 minutes of pain can say that they had a better experience than people who had five minutes of pain if the 20 minutes ended well.
Ms. Tippett: To me, the classic example of that is childbirth. [laughs]
Mr. Kahneman: That’s right. Well, childbirth is a bit complicated. In childbirth, there is duration neglect in memory when you just remember that it was long, but your evaluation of the experience is very much colored by the fact that, for most women, it ends well.
Ms. Tippett: Right, how it ended. You have this new life.
Mr. Kahneman: How it ended, yeah. That’s why women have more than one child.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Exactly. And you correlate this dialectic in us between the experiencing self and the remembering self as part of this ongoing way the past makes more sense in hindsight than it perhaps actually did, and also, that we don’t really recall it, that the sense we give it isn’t necessarily logical. That gives us this illusion as we move through the world, that the world in general makes sense, even when it didn’t make sense and hasn’t ever made sense.
Mr. Kahneman: Well, you’re going a bit far here, further than I would. In one sense, well-being is something that you experience every second of your life: You are more or less happy. You are in a better or worse mood. You can recall that continuously, and that’s the well-being of the experiencing self. But then, there is another way of measuring well-being, which is to stop people and to ask them to think about their life and to say whether their life is good or bad. It’s completely different. That’s the well-being of the remembering self. It’s an act of memory and construction. The two are quite different.
Ms. Tippett: Does one of these, the experiencing self or the remembering self, always trump the other? Or is that a different dynamic in any given life?
Mr. Kahneman: No, that’s the interesting part, I think. When I started out in this line of research, I started out as a strong believer that the reality of life is what the experiencing self is. It’s what happens as you live. And I thought that’s vastly more important than what people think about their life, which, after all, is a construction.
I went about defending the experienced well-being as the more important one. And eventually, I had to change my mind. I had to change my mind and to conclude that there is no way you can ignore remembering self or life evaluation because what people want is not the well-being of their experiencing self. What people want is more closely associated with the remembering self. They want to have good memories. They want to have good opinions of themselves. They want to have a good story about their life.
Ms. Tippett: One thing you’ve also said is that if you had a magic wand, overconfidence is the thing you would banish. Would you explain that?
Mr. Kahneman: I did say that, but I’m not sure I was right. What I meant to say was that when you look globally at people’s actions, overconfidence is endemic. We have too much confidence in our beliefs, and overconfidence really is associated with a failure of imagination. When you cannot imagine an alternative to your belief, you are convinced that your belief is true. That’s overconfidence. And overconfidence — whenever there is a war, there were overconfident generals. You can look at failures, and overconfidence had something to do with them.
On the other hand, overconfidence and overconfident optimism is the engine of capitalism. Entrepreneurs are overconfident. They think they’re going to be successful. People who open restaurants in New York think they’ll succeed; otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. But at least two-thirds of them have to give up within a few years — more than two-thirds, probably.
Ms. Tippett: Well, and too, what’s also baked into that is, we reward overconfidence. We celebrate it.
Mr. Kahneman: Absolutely, we want people to be overconfident. We want our leaders to be overconfident.
Ms. Tippett: I want to just run through a few phrases that you use, which also just feel very informative to me — this idea of the availability heuristic, “What you see is all there is” — that we are really not aware of the information that we don’t have.
Mr. Kahneman: Yeah, that’s a very difficult principle to grasp, this idea that actually, what I don’t know matters enormously, and what I can’t see matters enormously. There are so many manifestations of this. For example, something that I’m very interested in these days is how people — how much people, even professional experts, disagree in their view of specific cases. In fact, the differences are huge. They are much larger than people anticipate, and this is because it’s very difficult for us to imagine how anyone could see the world in a way that’s different from the way we see it. The interpretation of the world imposes itself on us, and the idea that there are other ways of seeing it, that there are alternatives, that there are things that you do not see, and they’re important — that is impossible to bring to mind, effectively.
Ms. Tippett: So we create a story. We have a sense of what is real that is just always based on impartial understanding. But we then naturally believe in it, and it feels more whole than it is?
Mr. Kahneman: Yeah, I think you got it. At least, you got “it” — you got my thinking about it. I think that mostly, we go through life with the impression that we see the world as it is. And mostly, we don’t have much doubt.
Now, I’m going to tell you a story that you can either keep or drop, depending on who your audience is. It will take me a minute, but it makes a point. My wife and I, we had dinner with a couple of friends some years ago. We came back, and we talked. We went to bed, and we talked about our experience. And my wife said of the man with whom we’d had dinner, “He is sexy.” And then, immediately after that, she said something that struck me as completely bizarre. I mean, in fact, it is bizarre. She said, “He doesn’t undress the maid himself.” And I turned to her, and I said, “What on earth are you saying? What do you mean, ‘He doesn’t undress the maid himself’?” What she actually had said was, “He doesn’t underestimate himself.” And I heard as “He doesn’t undress the maid himself.”
Ms. Tippett: I see. [laughs] I see.
Mr. Kahneman: This illustrates how the mind works, and it illustrates how ready you are to produce some interpretations, rather than others. But one of the striking aspects of this story was that it didn’t occur to me at the time that because it was such an unlikely thing for her to have said, she hadn’t said it. That did not occur to me because I heard it. I “knew” what she had said. The only question was why she had said such a crazy thing. Our mind works like that a lot of the time.
[music: “An Inappropriate Valentine’s Day Gift” by Lullatone]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, a founder of behavioral economics.
Ms. Tippett: You mentioned the word “consciousness” very early on in our conversation, about how connected all these systems and this thinking about fast and slow thinking and intuition — it’s all somehow connected with consciousness, which we are circling around in a new way in many of our disciplines, but also as aware as ever before that we don’t really know what it is. I’m curious about how you think about consciousness, how you’ve come to think about consciousness.
Mr. Kahneman: My take on consciousness is different from that of most of my colleagues.
Many people think that the question of what consciousness is, is the cardinal question. Philosophers think that. Computer scientists think that, and they ask the question of whether artificial intelligence is going to be conscious or not.
And for the life of me, I can’t get excited about this question because when people are raising the issue of whether a robot will be conscious or not, I ask them, “How on earth will you know?” How will you know whether the robot is actually conscious or is just pretending to be conscious? And if there is no way of knowing, I don’t find it very exciting. I must be wrong because so many brilliant people are fascinated by this question. But for some reason, I’ve never understood their fascination for it.
Ms. Tippett: You’re very cautious about the application of what you understand to how we might change the world. But I’m very much drawn to some ways you’ve talked about the virtue of not “changing your mind,” but “thinking again” as perhaps something that’s more achievable for us. Do you know what I mean, that distinction? Can you just talk about what that distinction is for you?
Mr. Kahneman: When you’re thinking, the context — I tend to be very concrete in my thinking. So for me, for example, a good question is, “How would you improve the thinking of analysts at the CIA?” What would it mean to improve their thinking, and how would you do it? I’m not inclined to believe that you can train people to de-bias themselves. I think that’s difficult. But I think it’s probably much easier, or, at least, it could be feasible, to train people to detect biases in other people’s thinking, because when you are thinking for yourself, you are too busy making the mistake to recognize that you are making a mistake. An observer with less stake in the thinking and less involved in the process of generating the mistake may be more likely to discover it. So developing critical thinking, not in the sense of criticizing yourself, but in the sense of criticizing other people, real criticism, may be a good way to go. At least, that’s the way I would be inclined to go at the moment.
Ms. Tippett: But I think that what you mean when you say that is so utterly different from the way we criticize each other in political life or in cultural life now. I think there’s so much nuance to what you’re saying that might not immediately occur with those words.
Mr. Kahneman: Yeah, there are various ways of criticizing somebody’s position or somebody’s beliefs. I was talking about a specific type of critique, and it’s a critique that is based on understanding of the biases to which thinking is prone and the conditions under which those biases are most likely to occur. There is rich knowledge in this, but in the 40 years since Amos Tversky and I wrote about this, in all those years, not a lot has been achieved in de-biasing. There isn’t much. There are some people who have claimed that they can do it, but have they really changed the way intuition works, or have they really enabled people to find the correct solutions to problems in completely new contexts, which is the proper test? I’m a skeptic.
Ms. Tippett: I agree with you, and I do feel like the one thing that may have changed in recent years is just that we see that bias is present, that that reality is more undeniable on the surface of our life together, not that we necessarily know what to do with that reality.
Mr. Kahneman: You bring to mind something that I’m very concerned with these days. In fact, I’m sort of, in a desultory way, I’m trying to write a book about it with a colleague. And this is the idea that we very much overuse the term “bias.” When I started my career, you mentioned the word “error,” and the association would be “random” or “motivated” or “Freudian” error. 50, 60 years ago, that’s how people thought about error. Now you mention error, people are very likely to say, “What’s the bias that caused it?” But in fact, it need not be a bias. A lot of error is random, and there is a radical underestimation of the amount of random error in people’s thinking, and I would like to restore the balance because I think our work, Tversky’s and mine, was, in a sense, too influential. It led people to exaggerate the importance of bias in human affairs and in human thinking, but there are many other ways in which people go wrong than biases.
Ms. Tippett: And I suppose you’re suggesting, also, that if we took that in, that just that distinction would make us just that much — that “random” is not always motivated and malicious. Do you feel like the word “bias” is so much more charged, and that it charges things on top of…?
Mr. Kahneman: Certainly, that’s the case, but also, the fascinating thing about random error, what I call noise, is that it’s invisible, that we’re not aware of it. We studied an insurance company, and we found that underwriters really didn’t agree among themselves to, I would say, almost a catastrophic degree, in what premium they should assess — to the point they would disagree so much that you wondered why the company bothered to use underwriters. They should be almost entirely interchangeable. And they differ, and their difference is noise. And this is a problem which reduces the accuracy and, actually, reduces the bottom line of the organization. That problem is invisible to the organization. Nobody knew it existed until we pointed it out. That’s my passion these days.
Ms. Tippett: OK. This capacity we have to think again, to do better thinking, but very incrementally — you have, in a couple of places in our conversation, mentioned a place where you have changed your thinking. I’m curious about that, and perhaps you’ve been speaking to that now, but how your thinking is evolving, even as we speak. And within that, this interest you had early in life about, I think, your own way of coming in at the question of the human condition. Is there evolution in the way you think about that, reflect on that?
Mr. Kahneman: I have been shifting positions all my life. I like changing my mind, and I look for ways of changing my mind. This is what I’m doing now in questioning the importance of biases. But as I said, I don’t believe — I’m certainly less smart than I was when I was younger. I’m in my 80s, so — but it’s not only that. I haven’t become more sensitive to biases. I really haven’t improved my thinking in any way, I think. And if I have, it’s accumulating experience. It’s not by learning better ways to think.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Well, where is your thinking evolving now? Is there anything you’re in the midst of changing your mind about, as we speak?
Mr. Kahneman: Yeah, I’m really in the midst of that noise project. I am involved in a project about improving reasoning, which I interpret as improving the ability to criticize other people’s thinking. Those are the two main projects I’m involved with at the moment. I do other things, but those are the main two.
Ms. Tippett: Well, I think especially that latter, creating some tools and even some reflection around reasoning in that way, is certainly much needed, so I’m very glad that you are in the world thinking and offering these ideas up to us. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much for making the time.
Mr. Kahneman: Thank you very much. You’re a penetrating interviewer. It was a pleasure.
Ms. Tippett: Thank you.
Mr. Kahneman: Thank you.
Ms. Tippett: Bye-bye.
[music: “There Is a Number of Small Things” by Múm]
Ms. Tippett: Daniel Kahneman is professor of psychology and public affairs emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University, where he’s also the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus. And he’s a fellow of the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He’s best known for his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
[music: “Cité radieuse” by Saycet]
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