Thinking or Not: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow book cover

What you see is all there is, WYSIATI, is one of the problems you have. It’s one of the problems we all have. It has to do with the  way the brain shows too strong a preference for information available in the immediate environment over information not in the immediate environment. Ever been stuck in a meeting where you are trying to to generate ideas and the same things keep popping up? That’s just our brains spinning their wheels in the immediate environment. It’s one of the heuristic techniques our brains are prone to rely on. It’s one–one of many–of our foibles as a species. And the fact that we keep running meetings in the same way suggests that we have a desperate need to become more aware of it.

But we probably won’t.

Daniel Kahneman has been researching the way way people think and make decisions for years. As a young officer in the Israeli Defense Forces armed with a fresh B.Sc. in psychology, he screened recruits for officer training using the leaderless group challenge. As they struggled under the hot sun to complete some sort of task involving getting over a barrier, he watched them and took notes on the performance of the individuals. He checked boxes and gave high ratings to kids who took charge and organized their fellow soldiers. But the artificial nature of the test, and the fact that all ratings were based on one observation made him suspicious of the limitations–or more correctly, the tendencies, the bad habits–of our minds. As a rater, he began to suspect how powerful WYSIATI is and how it muscles aside any doubts of how things could be with the same recruits on a different day. For a while he was very happy and very confident with his ratings. But that confidence itself made him suspicious. He began to see it an an illusion, an illusion of validity the mind presents us  with. It is seductive because hey, we’re busy and we’ve got an important job to do. We let our brains go with their little shortcuts. We avoid the hard work, the hard thinking. This was the first of many illusions he uncovered or encountered in his career and he goes through his experiences with each one in delightful and insightful detail.

It has been a long and illustrious career  (including a Nobel prize), and the amount of research and discovery here is impressive. This book  is more than just a pop psychology best seller. There really is a lifetime of wisdom here and you would be well to read it. A lot of the content has been covered elsewhere, that’s true (see my reviews of The Invisible Gorilla and Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, for example, or take a look at  You are Not So Smart by David McRaney). But I don’t know of any book that is as comprehensive as this one in explaining our limitations. In a series of five units he covers a lot of ground and a lot of years of research. He introduces us to the two thinking systems of the brain, the fast, automatic System 1 and the slow, careful, and reluctant (lazy) System 2. In the second part, he talks about the ease with which some thinking occurs (metaphorical thinking, associative thinking, and causality) and why it is so difficult for us to think in different ways (statistically, for example). In the third part, he really dresses humanity down. Our bad habits,  ignorance, and unwarranted overconfidence get addressed nicely and this section is great fun to read. Later sections take the book in a different direction–economics. I found them to be  less engaging than the earlier parts after a while, with the exception of the part about the experiencing self and the remembering self near the end, which is also the topic of a TED talk he made in 2010.

As a teacher and as a human I found a lot to think about here. Awareness of the tendencies we have is really our only weapon against the habits of our thinking processes. Each chapter ends with little lines of dialog, little bits of wisdom or little rules for being diligent. Print them out and pin them all over your cubicle or kitchen. It might be ultimately a little hopeless, but there are much much worse ways to make use of paper. This book will convince you of that.

A Month and a Half of MOOCs

I enrolled myself in two MOOCs through, one on gamification and one on statistics. I wanted to experience a  MOOC. I wanted to see how it compared to the self-directed exploration and research I do regularly; specifically, I wanted to see if following a structured approach with 70,000 other people could be beneficial.

These two courses ran at roughly the same time, with Gamification starting a week earlier. Gamification demanded about three hours of time each week, more later when some of the assignments got longer. Statistics demanded more than double (triple?)  that from the first week. The lectures were longer, the concepts more difficult, and the assignments required working with some rather non-intuitive open-source software called R. I found it impossible to continue both courses at the same time. I stopped trying to stay current with the syllabus and just downloaded the Statistics videos and assignments, planning to return to them when Gamification is finished. And that’s what I’m doing. It feels strange, like starting a marathon a few hours late, but it still works.

Which brings me to my first point: MOOCs are as course-like as you make them. If you want the experience of an online course, there are boards for discussion, meet-up groups, wikis, and Facebook groups you can get really active in. You can also just follow along with the videos and the assignments at your own pace. There is actually a lot of flexibility. Professor Werbach who taught the Gamification course  mentioned that only about 12% of the enrolled students were actually handing in the assignments. There are a lot of lurkers. There are a lot of participation options. And that’s not a bad thing, I think.

Next, I really didn’t have high expectations for the courses as e-learning experiences, as courses. But the ones I took were much more interactive and responsive to students than I thought they would be. I thought they would be more canned. I thought they would be finished products produced months before the actual delivery. But instead I realized that they we being constructed–and adjusted–as the course went on. There were very real changes made in response to technical problems (system outages, for example) and content challenges (extra instructional support added on the fly when learners found some things especially difficult). There were e-mail updates and previews, messages of encouragement, bits of behind-the-scenes information, and  Facebook and Twitter participation by instructors.

But were they worthwhile? I have to say yes. They were more challenging than I expected. The lectures were video-based and re-created the feel of a professor and a powerpoint (some room for improvement there, I think, but not a problem), and the assignments were well designed in that they really required application of course content. Gamification relied on quizzes and multiple peer assessments of assignments–a logistically ambitious and mostly successful idea. Statistics relied on quizzes, and assignments that generated a lot of engagement and interaction as learners scrambled to complete them and help each other. But there were things that I knew and couldn’t skip, and things that I wanted to look at more in depth but had to move on from. Course forums and wikis helped a little with this, but an extended reading/resource list would have been helpful. Gamification provided one but it was at little shallow. the biggest “problem” was perhaps the focus of the course. There was a small difference in focus between the courses and my own interests. I wasn’t in Gamification to learn about business, for example, and I would have preferred a more educational focus. But that’s a minor point.

Compared with online courses I’ve taken before, I felt more like I was going through it alone because there weren’t as many regular discussions/assignments with interaction among a group of people you get to know virtually. That was obviously missing. But as I said earlier, there were forums and Facebook, etc. interactions that I chose to not get active in. The MOOCs were more limited in the range of interaction, but they did not compare that unfavorably.

Bottom line: these MOOCs were a great resource and I plan to take more. I’ve been recommending them to everyone. I think they represent something potentially very exciting. A recent presentation by John Daniels (via Tony Bates) lists up some of the potential effects MOOCs could have. I recommend the report and trying a MOOC yourself.