Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) — Abbreviated Book Review

© 2012 Peter Free


08 March 2012



Recommended in the print (but not Kindle) version — and only with significant caveats


This book makes a detailed case for the human mind’s irrational heuristic character.  Dr. Kahneman emphasizes the unsuspected pitfalls that our dominant — assuming, short-cutting, and often bogus story-telling — mind leads us into.


This theme is not new.  But Kahneman’s presentation of extended evidence for the now proven proposition is.


For that reason, the print version of the book is worth reading for intensely curious people.


Dr. Kahneman is especially skilled at presenting vignettes showing how people completely miss the rational implications of probability choices based simply on:


(a) the words with which they are presented




(b) the contexts in which these choices appear.


His book has quite a few examples of identical probabilities that are presented in slightly different ways.  The subtle differences in presentation encourage people to make choices in self-contradictory fashion, based solely on cues that have nothing whatsoever to do with making a “rational” choice.


Dr. Kahneman’s very simple vignettes force us to see our own “delusions” at work in real time.


If you want to know how advertisers, con-men, and politicians mislead us into making often silly decisions, read Thinking, Fast and Slow.



On the other hand, there are two reasons not to read even the printed version of Thinking, Fast and Slow


These two negatives are important:


(1) Dr. Kahneman lacks gifts for concise synopsis, organization, and integration.


(2) His footnotes are not usefully linked to the text they cover, so they might as well not be there at all.



Negative One — disorganized, rambling writing style


After page 300, I began to experience impatience at:


(a) Dr. Kahneman’s often apparently un-aimed rambling




(b) the repetition of previously presented ideas under yet another (often poorly chosen) label.


Author Kahneman appears not to understand the utility of summarizing each section and each paragraph with an introductory topic sentence that sums what is to follow.  I often had to read a ridiculous number of words to get a glimmer of where the author was trying to go — and whether I wanted to go along for the ride.


In pursuing this sometimes annoying writing style, Kahneman partially emulates modern journalistic writing (which I detest).


Consequently, busy people — with facile and knowledgeable minds — may find completing the 400-plus page book drudgery.




This tedious quality, incidentally, is not because the book is too academic — as some of the Amazon.com reviewers accuse — but because it is not concisely written and integrated.  To the author’s undying credit, academese is almost absent.



Negative Two — useless footnotes


Dr. Kahneman’s lack of direct, textually linked footnotes is a blunder of massive proportion.


Because the notes are not linked by a number incorporated into the text they refer to, readers have no idea that a supporting or modifying footnote even exists.


One has to go to the footnote section at the back of the book to look for the documentation that one has to guess might be there.  Equally silly, these endnotes are referenced by quoted phrases from the text, not by footnote numbers or page numbers.


“Stupid” is too mild a word for this bit of publishing stone-headed-ness.


The footnote-finding process is annoying in print.  On my Kindle, it was so ergonomically inept that I immediately gave it up.



How should footnotes be done?


Properly done, in print materials, footnotes are numbered in the text.  And the footnote itself appears at the bottom of the page it references.


I can excuse lay publishers, who number the notes in the text, but put content of the note at the end of the chapter or book.  This practice makes it easier and less expensive to properly format print publications.


However, in electronic media, one should be able to click on the footnote number in the text and be taken directly to the note itself.



Last criticism — the Kindle version, running on the second generation (non-tablet) reader, is trash


The Kindle version of Thinking, Fast and Slow is hampered by:


(1) the ergonomic deficiencies of the second-generation (non-tablet) Kindle




(2) the publisher’s own disregard for accurately translating the print version’s formatting into the electronic version.


I will skip discussing the Kindle’s frustrating ergonomics.  Just understand that books with footnotes, graphs, and tables may be better suited to either print and more elegantly executed electronic media.


Pertinent here, Kahneman’s publisher did not care enough to properly integrate the tables and graphs into the Kindle version’s electronic text.


Consequently, one finds oneself reading about graphical presentations without being able to see them.  It often takes absurd amounts of back and forth page turning to find the referenced graph or table.


And — when one does find the appropriate representation, unlike the book’s main text, one cannot magnify it.  This defeated one of my main reasons for buying a Kindle.


Another bit of publishing laziness showed up at the end of each of the book’s chapters, where Kahneman lists several statements or questions in quotation form.  The purpose of these is initially a mystery in the Kindle version.


These quotations are not differentiated in any way from the foregoing text.  And they clearly have nothing specifically to do with the last paragraph of each chapter.


Nevertheless, I quickly realized that Kahneman was using what each speaker says to underscore how the lessons of the chapter might be effectively translated into real world action.  This is a brilliant twist because it demonstrates how we might teach ourselves how to avoid the booby traps that our automatic mind perennially creates for us.


According to Arden R. Hall, who wrote a review of Thinking, Fast and Slow on Amazon.com, the print version of the book formatted these quotes uniquely, so that readers immediately comprehend their purpose.



Thinking, Fast and Slow is recommended for very interested readers — but don’t buy the Kindle version


My guess is that only people who are deeply interested in how our minds work will find the full length of Dr. Kahneman’s book worth reading.


Motivated though I am, Kahneman’s ambling style almost did me in.  Less intensely curious people should probably stay away.