Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Feeling Rational? Think Again

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Feeling Rational? Think Again

Article excerpt

An investigation into our behaviour shows we're not as logical as we imagine, Miriam Teschl discovers.

Thinking, Fast and Slow By Daniel Kahneman Allen Lane, 512pp, Pounds 25.00 ISBN 9781846140556 Published 3 November 2011

Daniel Kahneman's latest work is more than just a book written by a psychologist and behavioural economist on the ways that people think. It reads like a detective story, but with each chapter offering up a discovery that completely changes the plot we will have had in mind up to that moment. Only here, the plot concerns not a crime but us, the readers of his book: we are the main characters of Kahneman's story. We cannot be innocent readers of his narrative; we are immediately drawn in and discover more about ourselves as we turn each page. Moreover, we cannot escape it: those biases and heuristics, ie, simple procedures that help us to find satisfactory, but often imperfect, answers to difficult questions, stick with us. The book's suspense lies precisely in the fact that we may have to surrender to the post-Enlightenment idea of our own imperfection - we are not perfectly rational individuals in the way that most economic theory, for example, wants us (and describes us) to be.

Let me give some telling examples. According to Kahneman, we are prone to an optimistic bias that is a driving force of capitalism. In general, we believe we will succeed with our endeavours, even where statistics tell the contrary. For example, only 35 per cent of new small businesses in the US survive for five years, and only 40 per cent of new restaurants are still in business after three. Not only are we overconfident about our qualities and prospects, but we also see some of our traits as good qualities when they are anything but. Kahneman describes an experiment that tests people's inclination to help others: a man (played by an actor) cries for help as he gives the impression of choking as he has a seizure. Of a group of 15 participants in the experiment, Kahneman recounts, only four rushed to help. The exercise suggests that individuals feel relieved of responsibility when they know that others have heard the same plea for help. There may be other explanations for their behaviour, too, but the fact remains that more often than not, people do not come forward.

These people who fail to help are, of course, us. We need to accept that we may be eager to open our own business and still fail, and that we may also fail to help others in need even though we contend that we obviously would come to their aid. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.