Over the weekend I heard an NPR interview with Daniel Kahneman, a pioneer in behavioral economics. Kahneman and his colleagues demolished the basic assumption of mainstream economists: that people act in their rational self-interest. In published work up to and including 2011's Thinking, Fast and Slow he has shown how any number of cognitive biases blind us to rational self-interest. (And if you recall me writing about Kahneman before, you’re right.)
Kahneman, 84, cheerfully admits he is a pessimist. Much of what he’s thinking these days is discouraging.
Take global warming, perhaps the biggest risk facing humanity. “If you were to design a problem that the mind is not equipped to deal with . . . climate change would fit the bill. It’s distance. It’s abstract. It’s contested,” he says. One of the reasons it’s contested is that “scientists, in a way, are deluded in that they have the idea that there is one way of knowing things. And it’s you know things when you have evidence for them. But that’s simply not the case . . . . People who have religious beliefs or strong political beliefs, they know things without having . . . compelling evidence for it. And so there is a possibility . . . of knowing things, which is clearly determined socially.”
[Kahneman says “you know” a lot, so I elided the irrelevant ones.]
His suggestion for creating urgency around global warming? “It would be a milestone if you manage to take influential evangelists, preachers, to adopt the idea of global warming and to preach it. That would change things. It’s not going to happen by presenting more evidence.”
Persuade the most ardent proponents of apocalypse to preach against apocalypse? I guess we’re doomed.
Kahneman is also no fan of happiness studies, something else I’ve written about previously. “I’m disturbed by positive psychology in part because I think that making people happier is — you know, could be important, hard to do. It may not be society’s business to make people happier, but reducing suffering — that’s something else. It’s easy to agree that this is important. It’s easy to agree that society should be involved.”
Easy for me to agree, anyway. Society should create the conditions for us to pursue happiness without harming others, but it’s not society’s role to determine how each of us defines happiness — that evokes images of police officers at every corner barking “Smile, comrade!” But reducing suffering in a smart way? Job One.
Kahneman’s latest project involves analysis of what he calls noise. His definition of the word sounds similar to that of genius statistician Nate Silver: “random patterns that might easily be mistaken for signals.” Our need to make sense of life is so powerful that we draw inferences from stuff we shouldn’t — we create illusions. Like another of my intellectual heroes, Black Swan theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Kahneman wants us to grasp just how random life truly is.
Perhaps the ultimate pessimistic thought from Kahneman drew laughter from the audience — and from me. “Some people read Thinking, Fast and Slow in the hope that reading it will improve their minds. I wrote it and it didn’t improve my mind.”
Although reading Thinking, Fast and Slow didn’t improve how I respond in the moment, it did make me more aware of how my mind works. It punctured a few of my illusions. And it has helped me formulate more thoughtful responses to the human condition. So it might not have improved Kahneman’s mind, but it has improved mine.
It’s painful to confront our personal and collective intellectual limits. But when we face them with Daniel Kahneman’s wisdom and equanimity, it makes us better — even if it doesn’t make us happier.