Lit Crit

The Irrational Agent

January 18, 2012

Multiple Pages
The Irrational Agent

Perhaps the most lauded book of 2011 was Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel (or, to be technical, Nobelish) Prize in Economic Sciences. The Wall Street Journal, Economist, and New York Times all anointed it one of the year’s top books. David Brooks declaimed, “Kahneman and his research partner, the late Amos Tversky, will be remembered hundreds of years from now.…”

In the New York Review of Books, elder statesman of physics Freeman Dyson announced that Kahneman’s “great achievement was to turn psychology into a quantitative science,” which might have come as a surprise to Wilhelm Wundt, who opened an experimental-psychology lab in 1879. Dyson concluded on a wistful note about Kahneman’s present supremacy:

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fine book, lucid and informative. But it can’t possibly live up to its hype as The Origin of Species of the 21st century.”

Admirers of [Sigmund] Freud and [William] James may hope that the time may come when they will stand together with Kahneman as three great explorers of the human psyche, Freud and James as explorers of our deeper emotions, Kahneman as the explorer of our more humdrum cognitive processes. But that time has not yet come.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fine book, lucid and informative. But it can’t possibly live up to its hype as The Origin of Species of the 21st century.

Often, a thinker is exalted for the impact of his charisma and confidence on his contemporaries. Freud had such an overwhelming presence—he said of himself that he was “not really a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, and not a thinker. I am nothing but by temperament a conquistador.…”

But the 77-year-old Kahneman is a modest observer and experimenter who must be a little puzzled by his current adulation. Instead, Kahneman’s recent apotheosis is for undermining the rational-agent theory in economics by showing that human beings aren’t wholly rational. Anything that takes economists down a peg is OK by me. Still…

Thinking, Fast and Slow’s basic idea is helpful, if not terribly startling: Acts of human cognition can be pictured as falling along a continuum from intuition (which is fast and fun) to logic (which is slow and tiring). Snap judgments work well enough much of the time, especially by avoiding paralysis through analysis. Not surprisingly, fast thinking is susceptible to various shortcomings, as Kahneman has shown over the decades via countless experiments of the kind in which psychology majors pick up a spare ten bucks. 

If Kahneman’s basic finding—you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time—wasn’t so obvious already to those who aren’t economists, a reader might sometimes wonder about his methodology. For example:

You are offered a choice between two bets, which are to be played on a roulette wheel with 36 sectors:

Bet A: 11/36 to win $160, 25/36 to lose $15

Bet B: 35/36 to win $40, 1/36 to lose $10

Five minutes’ slow thinking with Microsoft Excel shows that the expected payoff per spin of Bet A is $38.47 versus $38.61 for Bet B. I don’t know which generous wager the sophomores preferred, but my intuition in either case is that I want to party at that casino. 

Most of the experiments recounted in Thinking, Fast and Slow aren’t as prima facie silly, but Kahneman, a literal-minded soul, often seems to miss the fundamental point of why his subjects fall for his little hoaxes so often:

Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure and a passion for detail.

Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

Wrong! Kahneman scoffs at your intuition: “Did it occur to you that there are more than 20 male farmers for each male librarian in the United States?” 

Did it occur to Kahneman that anybody who isn’t trying to deceive us would have added, “So, Steve’s just not cut out for his life of slopping hogs” or the like? As con men, conjurors, and comedians demonstrated long before Kahneman, most people trust in the speaker’s good faith. They play along and try to guess what is being implied. So it’s easy to pull the rug out from under us.

Heck, in their less arrogant moments, most economists realize that the idea of the rational agent is just a handy conceptual device. Perhaps the secret of Kahneman’s success is that he took the economists seriously enough to write papers for economics journals documenting that humans aren’t really homo economicus. He’s the economists’ house heretic.


Daily updates with TM’s latest