There is a video on Youtube of a tightly-knit group of people passing a ball between them. You are told to watch carefully and count how many passes there are during the clip. In the middle of the clip, a man dressed as a gorilla walks through. There is a very high chance you did not notice the big, hairy ape. This is an experiment familiar to most people (if not, sorry for ruining it for you), but it is, according to Kahneman, author of the phenomenon Thinking, Fast and Slow, only the tip of the iceberg. He states that humans are not as logical and clever as we’d like to think, and that, far from being in control, our unconscious mind governs the vast majority of what we do; he likens our conscious mind to a supporting actor convinced he’s in the lead role.
Khaneman announces that, for the sake of simplicity, we should imagine that our brains contain two systems of thought, named 1 and 2. 1 is impulsive, intuitive and in charge; 2 is slow, thorough and utterly lazy. 1 is used for basic tasks: driving on an empty road, making a cup of tea, walking on a flat path. 2 is used for complex thought processes: solving maths sums, writing an essay, choosing a book to read.
Khaneman then outlines the various ways the two are manipulated. 1 is by far the most gullible, liable as it is to a vast array of biases and tics (to give some technical names: the halo effect, the framing effect, the florida effect, and so on). It can give a razor-sharp retort, save your life in a car accident and tell you immediately that your boss is in a terrible mood and therefore should be avoided, but the speed comes at a price. Decisions made by 1 are fairly likely to be illogical on some level. So why not use 2? Namely because 2 is extremely lazy – try 56 x 17 and see what happens. Khaneman refers to a process called ego depletion, whereby 2 literally gets tired and a little bit rubbish.
In outlining the various ways in which our brains can be tricked and worn out, Khaneman makes them avoidable, like being shown the secret compartment of a magician’s hat. You could therefore call Thinking, Fast and Slow a self-help book, although to do so would be hopelessly derivative. It is also a leap in understanding of the brain for its own sake, for although there are many books on psychology and neuroscience, few are as comprehensive, irrefutable and well-told as this one. Kahneman rarely relies on brain scans (which are generally accepted to be vague and sometimes contradictory when dealing with psychology) and never drifts into vague, umbrella statements (unlike another psychology bestseller, Quiet). The author instead relies on fascinating studies and tests.
To be frank, the book’s brilliant. Brilliant because it can change the way you think, and brilliant because it does so with such a warm and witty voice that you won’t immediately realise just how much of a game changer the book is.
By Gabriel Smith, Bookseller at Jaffé & Neale.