Daniel Kahneman

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The media was flawed, Facebook irresponsible, the FBI reckless and Russia devious, but it’s still the American people mostly to blame for electing as President an unqualified, bigoted sociopath, thereby creating the single biggest threat in more than half a century to our liberty (an admittedly unevenly distributed good throughout our history). It was an unforced error, a self-lacerating act, and we will pay for it dearly, not just for four years but for decades.

Unburdened by shame and unhampered by facts, Donald Trump is at best a robber baron and at worst an American Mussolini. If the former unfolds, we’ll be dining on little more than bread and Kardashians. Should the latter become reality, we’ll have retroactively lost World War II and the Cold War.

Wondering how nearly 63 million citizens could have behaved boneheaded enough to make Brexit seem a bad hair day, Gary Silverman of the Financial Times interviewed Michael Lewis about his new book, The Undoing Project, which analyzes the work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and may help explain our Election Day massacre.

Lewis believes the human desire for exaggerated stories over cool statistics is in part responsible for the political ascent of the Simon Cowell-ish strongman, though the author, an admittedly wonderful writer, has sometimes himself been known to err on the side of narrative.

An excerpt:

The two psychologists are known for their work on “heuristics”, mental shortcuts that enable people to process all the information coming our way but can cause us to make mistakes. They are the cognitive equivalents of optical illusions — tricks played by the mind rather than by the eye.

A classic case involves what the psychologists dubbed “anchoring”. People given five seconds to estimate the product of 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1 will provide far higher numbers than those asked to multiply 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8 in the same time period. Seeing the bigger numbers first skews their thinking. A similar result is obtained if subjects are asked whether Mahatma Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died or 35. People in the first group will provide a higher estimate of his age at death.

To Lewis, Trump has been dropping anchors like a battleship commander. After the election, for instance, Trump not only alleged that his opponent Hillary Clinton had received illegal votes, but that she had received “millions” of them. He offered no proof, but he used a big number. Putting all those zeroes in people’s heads can pay off later on, Lewis says, in much the same way as a lawyer seeking astronomical damages in a lawsuit can expect a larger pay-off than a litigant taking a more measured approach at the outset. “Trump anchors everything in this crazy number. He will always say the crazy number because the negotiation happens around the crazy number.”

Trump’s frequent use of violent imagery takes advantage of what is known as the “availability” heuristic. People make decisions based on memories. But more vivid information — the name of a celebrity, for example, as opposed to that of another person — is easier to recall, giving it greater weight in decision-making. When Trump speaks of gruesome Isis executions or murders committed by undocumented immigrants, he is providing voters with more memorable information than dry facts and figures. 

“A vivid story about something an illegal immigrant did is going to have much more of an effect than statistics about illegal immigrants and crime,” Lewis says. “People don’t want the right answers. They want a story. They don’t think in statistical terms.”•

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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It’s possible I could read a better book during the rest of 2015 than Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Edge.org made my day as it often does with “Death Is Optional,” a dialogue between the Israeli historian and the psychologist Daniel Kahnemananother great thinker. Harari argues (as I have here many times) that computer consciousness is nowhere near a reality, but that Weak AI can displace and disrupt us regardless. The two consider the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even death, may not be an egalitarian affair (though it never was completely). An excerpt:

Daniel Kahneman:

Do you get to a broader view by becoming more differentiated, that is, by having more detailed views? Or is it just that you get people to consider a possibility that wouldn’t occur to them?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Mainly, the second way. The main thing, and my main task as a historian is to get people to consider the possibilities which usually are outside their field of vision, because our present field of vision has been shaped by history and has been narrowed down by history, and if you understand how history has narrowed down our field of vision, this is what enables you to start broadening it.

Let me give you an example that I’m thinking about a lot today, concerning the future of humankind in the field of medicine. At least to the best of my understanding, we’re in the middle of a revolution in medicine. After medicine in the 20th century focused on healing the sick, now it is more and more focused on upgrading the healthy, which is a completely different project. And it’s a fundamentally different project in social and political terms, because whereas healing the sick is an egalitarian project … you assume there is a norm of health, anybody that falls below the norm, you try to give them a push to come back to the norm, upgrading is by definition an elitist project. There is no norm that can be applicable to everybody.

And this opens the possibility of creating huge gaps between the rich and the poor, bigger than ever existed before in history. And many people say no, it will not happen, because we have the experience of the 20th century, that we had many medical advances, beginning with the rich or with the most advanced countries, and gradually they trickled down to everybody, and now everybody enjoys antibiotics or vaccinations or whatever, so this will happen again.

And as a historian, my main task is to say no, there were peculiar reasons why medicine in the 20th century was egalitarian, why the discoveries trickled down to everybody. These unique conditions may not repeat themselves in the 21st century, so you should broaden your thinking, and you should take into consideration the possibility that medicine in the 21st century will be elitist, and that you will see growing gaps because of that, biological gaps between rich and poor and between different countries. And you cannot just trust a process of trickling down to solve this problem.

There are fundamental reasons why we should take this very seriously, because generally speaking, when you look at the 20th century, it’s the era of the masses, mass politics, mass economics. Every human being has value, has political, economic, and military value, simply because he or she is a human being, and this goes back to the structures of the military and of the economy, where every human being is valuable as a soldier in the trenches and as a worker in the factory.

But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

And once most people are no longer really necessary, for the military and for the economy, the idea that you will continue to have mass medicine is not so certain. Could be. It’s not a prophecy, but you should take very seriously the option that people will lose their military and economic value, and medicine will follow.•

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In an attempt to wring absolutely all the magic from romantic crushes, John Allen Paulos of the New York Times looks at the science and statistics behind human desire. We’ve been doing it all wrong! An excerpt:

“Let’s begin by imagining a person to be an assemblage of traits. Many are personal — our looks, habits, backgrounds, attitudes and so on. Many more are situational: how we behave in the myriad contexts in which we find ourselves.

The first relevant statistical notion is sampling bias. If we want to gauge public feelings about more stringent gun control, for instance, we won’t get a random sample by asking only people at a shooting range. Likewise, a fleeting glimpse of someone, or a brief exchange with him or her, yields just a tiny sample of that person’s traits.

But if we find that sample appealing, it can lead to a crush, even if it is based on nothing more than an idealized caricature: We see what we want to see. In the throes of incipient romantic fog, we use what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls System 1 thinking — ‘fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious.'”


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Death is death, but many of us have way more fear of a horrible demise that’s unlikely than a comparatively “benign” one which has a greater probability of occurring, even if the physical pain involved is equal. It’s an utter lack of control that seems to haunt us most.

U.S. commercial airlines almost never crash, but MH-370 floating mysteriously into oblivion has awakened fears of death by air when we know logically that a fatal car accident is much more likely. These same anxieties will likely play a role in determining how quickly we adopt driverless autos, which will save so many lives but will ultimately fail on occasion and kill someone who had no authority over the incident. That will seem scarier to some.

These fears don’t only govern our own decisions but can influence the creation of policy as well–policy that can end up costing more lives than it saves. An excerpt from Steven Pinker’s comments which appear in an Edge feature about Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman:

“As many Edge readers know, my recent work has involved presenting copious data indicating that rates of violence have fallen over the years, decades, and centuries, including the number of annual deaths in war, terrorism, and homicide. Most people find this claim incredible on the face of it. Why the discrepancy between data and belief? The answer comes right out of Danny’s work with Amos Tversky on the Availability Heuristic. People estimate the probability of an event by the ease of recovering vivid examples from memory. As I explained, ‘Scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.’

The availability heuristic also explains a paradox in people’s perception of the risks of terrorism. The world was turned upside-down in response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But putting aside the entirely hypothetical scenario of nuclear terrorism, even the worst terrorist attacks kill a trifling number of people compared to other causes of violent death such as war, genocide, and homicide, to say nothing of other risks of death. Terrorists know this, and draw disproportionate attention to their grievances by killing a relatively small number of innocent people in the most attention-getting ways they can think of.

Even the perceived probability of nuclear terrorism is almost certainly exaggerated by the imaginability of the scenario (predicted at various times to be near-certain by 1990, 2000, 2005, and 2010, and notoriously justifying the 2003 invasion of Iraq). I did an Internet survey which showed that people judge it more probable that ‘a nuclear bomb would be set off in the United States or Israel by a terrorist group that obtained it from Iran’ than that ‘a nuclear bomb would be set off'” It’s an excellent example of Kahneman and Tversky’s Conjunction Fallacy…”

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In a new Financial Times article, Tim Harford looks at all angles of behavioral economics, which has reached its ascendancy in the years since Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize win in 2002. In Kahneman’s hands, the discipline seems to have a lot of merit, but all too often with others its feels like shaky narratives supplanting other shaky narratives. There are so many variables in the world that easy answers can obscure complex situations. Did the Broken Windows Theory really lead to a reduction in crime in NYC when other cities that didn’t implement it experienced similar decreases? Is the answer more complicated? Is it not completely knowable? Does just replacing shattered glass make it easier to not address why we’re producing criminals? From Harford:

“In 2010, behavioural economists George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel wrote in The New York Times that ‘behavioural economics is being used as a political expedient, allowing policy makers to avoid painful but more effective solutions rooted in traditional economics.’

For example, in May 2010, just before David Cameron came to power, he sang the praises of behavioural economics in a TED talk. ‘The best way to get someone to cut their electricity bill,’ he said, ‘is to show them their own spending, to show them what their neighbours are spending, and then show what an energy-conscious neighbour is spending.’

But Cameron was mistaken. The single best way to promote energy efficiency is, almost certainly, to raise the price of energy. A carbon tax would be even better, because it not only encourages people to save energy but to switch to lower-carbon sources of energy. The appeal of a behavioural approach is not that it is more effective but that it is less unpopular.

Thaler points to the experience of Cass Sunstein, his Nudge co-author, who spent four years as regulatory tsar in the Obama White House. ‘Cass wanted a tax on petrol but he couldn’t get one, so he pushed for higher fuel economy standards. We all know that’s not as efficient as raising the tax on petrol – but that would be lucky to get a single positive vote in Congress.’

Should we be trying for something more ambitious than behavioural economics?”

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In a New York Review of Books essay, Freeman Dyson writes with his typical grace about a new volume which argues that erroneous scientific theories are a natural and necessary thing. An excerpt:

Brilliant Blunders, by Mario Livio, is a lively account of five wrong theories proposed by five great scientists during the last two centuries. These examples give for nonexpert readers a good picture of the way science works. The inventor of a brilliant idea cannot tell whether it is right or wrong. Livio quotes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman describing how theories are born: ‘We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true.’ A theory that began as a wild guess ends as a firm belief. Humans need beliefs in order to live, and great scientists are no exception. Great scientists produce right theories and wrong theories, and believe in them with equal conviction.

The essential point of Livio’s book is to show the passionate pursuit of wrong theories as a part of the normal development of science. Science is not concerned only with things that we understand. The most exciting and creative parts of science are concerned with things that we are still struggling to understand. Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science. They are a central part of the struggle.

The five chief characters in Livio’s drama are Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. Each of them made major contributions to the understanding of nature, and each believed firmly in a theory that turned out to be wrong.”

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While normally you wouldn’t link candy and colonoscopies, an NPR story by Shankar Vendatam does just that in trying to explain the mystery of happiness. In a nod to Daniel Kahneman’s classic study about the painful medical procedure, researchers used Halloween candy to prove that satisfaction isn’t dependent just on quantity but also on order of experience. An excerpt:

“What makes trick-or-treaters happy is candy. And more candy is better, right?

Well, it turns out that might not actually be the case. A few years ago researchers did a study on Halloween night where some trick-or-treaters were given a candy bar, and others were given the candy bar and a piece of bubble gum.

Now, in any rational universe, you would imagine that the kids who got the candy bar and the bubble gum would be happier than the kids who got just the candy bar. George Wolford, a psychologist at Dartmouth College, and his fellow researchers, Amy Doe and Alexander Rupert, found something quite different.

‘Those children that got both the full-sized candy bar and the bubble gum second, rated how delighted they were to get these treats lower than those people that got the candy bar only,’ Wolford says.”

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From Spiegel, Daniel Kahneman explaining how “priming” prompts behavior:

SPIEGEL: Professor Kahneman, you’ve spent your entire professional life studying the snares in which human thought can become entrapped. For example, in your book, you describe how easy it is to increase a person’s willingness to contribute money to the coffee fund.

Kahneman: You just have to make sure that the right picture is hanging above the cash box. If a pair of eyes is looking back at them from the wall, people will contribute twice as much as they do when the picture shows flowers. People who feel observed behave more morally.

SPIEGEL: And this also works if we don’t even pay attention to the photo on the wall?

Kahneman: All the more if you don’t notice it. The phenomenon is called “priming”: We aren’t aware that we have perceived a certain stimulus, but it can be proved that we still respond to it.

SPIEGEL: People in advertising will like that.

Kahneman: Of course, that’s where priming is in widespread use. An attractive woman in an ad automatically directs your attention to the name of the product. When you encounter it in the shop later on, it will already seem familiar to you.” (Thanks Browser.)


From a Guardian article about superstar psychologist Daniel Kahneman, an example of the type of questions he asks to poke holes in our seemingly natural proclivity for favoring narrative over rational thought:

“Kahneman’s approach to psychology spurns heart-sinking tables and formulae in favour of short, intriguing questions that elegantly illustrate the ways our intuitions mislead us.

Take the famous ‘Linda question’: Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that’s logically impossible. (It can’t be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the ‘conjunctive fallacy,’ whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.”


In “The King of Human Error” in Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis has an excellent profile of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who inspired the Moneyball revolution–even though Lewis realized Kahneman’s influence only in retrospect. An excerpt in which the journalist explains the surprising reach of Kahneman and his late professional partner, Amos Tversky:

“Kahneman and Tversky were psychologists, without a single minor-league plate appearance between them, but they had found that people, including experts, unwittingly use all sorts of irrelevant criteria in decision-making. I’d never heard of them, though I soon realized that Tversky’s son had been a student in a seminar I’d taught in the late 1990s at the University of California, Berkeley, and while I was busy writing my book about baseball, Kahneman had apparently been busy receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics. And he wasn’t even an economist. (Tversky had died in 1996, making him ineligible to share the prize, which is not awarded posthumously.) I also soon understood how embarrassed I should be by what I had not known.

Between 1971 and 1984, Kahneman and Tversky had published a series of quirky papers exploring the ways human judgment may be distorted when we are making decisions in conditions of uncertainty. When we are trying to guess which 18-year-old baseball prospect would become a big-league all-star, for example. To a reader who is neither psychologist nor economist (i.e., me), these papers are not easy going, though I am told that compared with other academic papers in their field they are high literature. Still, they are not so much written as constructed, block by block. The moment the psychologists uncover some new kink in the human mind, they bestow a strange and forbidding name on it (‘the availability heuristic’). In their most cited paper, cryptically titled ‘Prospect Theory,’ they convinced a lot of people that human beings are best understood as being risk-averse when making a decision that offers hope of a gain but risk-seeking when making a decision that will lead to a certain loss. In a stroke they provided a framework to understand all sorts of human behavior that economists, athletic coaches, and other ‘experts’ have trouble explaining: why people who play the lottery also buy insurance; why people are less likely to sell their houses and their stock portfolios in falling markets; why, most sensationally, professional golfers become better putters when they’re trying to save par (avoid losing a stroke) than when they’re trying to make a birdie (and gain a stroke).

When you wander into the work of Kahneman and Tversky far enough, you come to find their fingerprints in places you never imagined even existed.”


Daniel Kahneman at TED, 2010:

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