Book Review: Thinking Fast and Slow By Daniel Kahneman

Thinking Fast and Slow I spent the last 3 months reading a great book Thinking, Fast and Slow By Daniel Kahneman. I read the book and found it so gripping on the topic of decision making that I also purchased and listened to the audio version in an effort to help me grasp the concepts. I short I highly recommend this book as its implications on your thoughts about decision making will be influenced in a positive way.

A few years back I wrote “Critical Decision Making Under Pressure” an article that was eventually published with The Homeland Security Review. My focus was to bring attention to the ideas of COL John Boyd and his OODA decision making process, as well, as the research of Gary Klein and his outstanding work on Recognized Primed Decision Making, all in an effort to improve upon law enforcement decision making. I attempted to answer several questions: what is implicit and explicit information? How are decisions made in the law enforcement context, do we always need to be reacting implicitly or can we use time, even a little of it to think and make more explicit decisions?

Information unfolds in various ways, linear as in when you investigate a case in there aftermath and nonlinear as when you are handling rapidly changing and emotionally driven dynamic encounters. As we gather information time and risk have a great impact on the implicit or explicit nature of how we decide. Which type of information and decision making models should we use? Is it one versus the other or a combination of both types of information received and processed? How does the lack of understanding of conflict and decision making affect decisions that are made in the real world while under pressure? After these decisions have been made, how are they explained to all affected by those decisions (leadership, citizenry, organization, juries)? How and who gets trained and educated so that there is a clear understanding of the decisions that were made? Finally, how will this educational/training process enhance the abilities of law enforcement and security professionals to perform under pressure and become better decision makers?

Thinking Fast and Slow get into all these questions, I had asked and many, many more, although not specifically focused on law enforcement and security its benefits to our professions are many. The books main focus is on two systems of decision making. System one; is emotional, fast, and intuitive, system two; rational, slower, more deliberate and explicit.

“Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of system 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.”

In order to understand how decisions are made, it is important to understand the nature of how our mind, thinking and decision making works. We must gather both explicit and implicit information, and combine the two systems of information gathering and thinking when making decisions. When you think about how we respond which is often in an emotional way with little or no thought to strategy or tactics, look at the number of cops killed in the line of duty, of the 536 officers killed, 2000-2009, 115 were ambushed. Then look at the huge reduction in deaths “29” when officers knew prior they were walking into dangerous and hence tactical situation. It becomes clear when we are thinking about the circumstances we are more effective and safer. Brings to mind, decisions without actions are pointless. Actions without decisions are reckless as, Boyd often said. You cannot just be reliant on one way of deciding, becomes clear.

We must learn to balance the implicit fast moving world with the more explicit and slower moving world. In law enforcement time is critical and risk is often high, so we must learn to take advantage of time, even small amounts of it so we position ourselves to enhance our observations, hence improving our orientation, which effects our decisions and actions. There is a time for solely implicit decisions and a time for explicit decisions but often times we need both if we are to be fully effective.

Thinking Fast and Slow is packed full of relevant information on decision making. It discuses attention and effort, cognitive ease, heuristics and bias, experience, norms, surprise and causes, judgment, and intuition verses formulas and availability cascades. He cites research from numerous others such as Paul Slovic, who probably knows more about the peculiarities of human judgment of risk than any other individual.

“His work (Slovic’s) offers a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Citizen that is far from flattering: guided by emotion rather than by reason, easily swayed by trivial details, and inadequately sensitive to differences between low and negligibly low probabilities. Slovic has also studied experts, who are clearly superior in dealing with numbers and amounts. Experts show many of the same biases as the rest of us in attenuated form, but often their judgments and preferences about risks diverge from those of other people.”

My favorite chapter is 22 “Expert Intuition: When Can We Trust It?” Here Kahneman discusses professional controversies and how they often times bring out the worst in us as sharply worded and biting critiques and sarcasm based on emotion and our own biases, that only separates. In this chapter Kahneman also discusses the positive side of critiques, and his adversarial collaboration with Gary Klein.

“My most satisfying and productive adversarial collaboration was with Gary Klein, the intellectual leader of an association of scholars and practitioners who do not like the kind of work I do. They call themselves students of Naturalistic Decision Making or NDM, and mostly work in organizations where they often study how experts work. The N DMers adamantly reject he focus on biases in the heuristics and biases approach. They criticize this model as overly concerned with failure and driven by artificial experiments rather than by study of real people doing things that matter. They are deeply skeptical about the value of using rigid algorithms to replace human judgment…

…This is hardly the basis for a beautiful friendship, but there is more to the story. I had never believed that intuition is always misguided. I had also been a fan of Klein’s studies since I first saw a draft of a paper he wrote in the 1970’s, and was impressed by his book Sources of Power, much of which analyzes how experienced professionals develop intuitive skills. I invited him join in an effort to map the boundary that separates the marvels of intuition from its flaws. He was intrigued by the idea and we went ahead with the project-with no certainty that it would succeed. We set out to answer a specific question: When can you trust and experienced professional who claims to have an intuition? It was obvious that Klein would be more disposed to trusting, and I would be more skeptical. But could we agree on principles for answering the general question?”

This adversarial collaboration between Kahneman and Klein over seven or eight years with many discussions, resolved many disagreements, almost blew up more than once, wrote many drafts, became friends and published a joint article with a title that tells the story: “Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree.”

Thinking Fast and Slow although not written specifically for law enforcement and security has many lessons we can apply to the spontaneous and/or progressively unfolding conditions we find ourselves in. Understanding how we think and decide can have profound effect on your safety and how you perform your duties. I highly recommend you pick up a copy and read it.

Stay Oriented

Fred