Daniel Kahneman changed the way we think about human nature – the memory of the psychologist by a former student

The death of Daniel Kahneman at the age of 90 left a great void in the field of behavioral science and in the intellectual community in general.

Her scientific contributions, many made in collaboration with cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky, changed the disciplines of psychology and economics. They also had major influences on philosophy, political science and many other disciplines.

I first met Danny in 1984, when I was a student. I moved to Vancouver, Canada to study in his laboratory at the University of British Columbia, which he shared with psychologist Ann Triesman. Although Danny was not yet as famous as he was destined to be, his genius was widely recognized.

Three current or future Nobel laureates have visited the class. Young Richard Thaler spent a year with us and Thomas Schelling and Francis Crick came around. Despite this, Danny had time for everyone. Even today I sometimes give the advice Danny gave me to my students and colleagues.

In 2002, Danny received the Nobel memorial prize in economic sciences. He was perhaps the most influential and popular writer in the behavioral sciences (second only to his close friend and collaborator Richard Thaler). Danny’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow is a classic in popular science writing.

He popularized and developed the idea of ​​two systems of thought. One of the two systems is fast, efficient, reliable and error-prone (system one), while the other is slow, resource-intensive, full of doubts and perhaps slightly less error-prone (system two) .

These systems work together. System one tells us that the dessert is likely to be tasty and worth considering, and system two may (maybe) step in to check the calorie count before we dig in.

In academia it would be difficult to pinpoint Danny’s most important contribution, but the theory of expectations, set out in his 1979 paper with Tversky, is by far the most cited. The paper challenged the mainstream economic view that people are inherently “rational” even if prone to error.

Many scientists realized that this could not be right. But Danny and Tversky showed that many strange ideas about human nature could be explained by incorporating important psychological principles into economics.

The psychology of gambling

The prospective theory paper also provided over a dozen experimental demonstrations of their claims. Teachers (like myself) still use these displays in the classroom, so the results they report are reliable.

A simple example: given a choice between a certain £100 and a 50/50 chance of £200, most people will take the £100. But when given a choice between losing £100 for sure and a 50/50 chance of losing £200, people will take the 50/50 chance. People are risk averse for gains, but risk seeking for losses.

Expectancy theory continues to generate new research, and is the basis of the science of “nudging”. Nudge theory is the notion that we can successfully influence our behavior through “soft” interventions. One of its central principles is loss aversion, which means that people are more sensitive to losses than gains of equal size.

If you want people to bring their own mug to a coffee shop, it’s more efficient to charge them for a paper cup (a loss) than to give them a discount for bringing their own cup (a gain). The idea that these biases can influence behavior has become part of the bread and butter of behavioral science.

Other prospective theory findings included the tendency for people to be “anchored” when making quantitative judgments. For example, if you place an offer on a house, the seller’s valuation will likely change towards your offer. Danny also described the planning fallacy, the tendency for projects to cost more and deliver less and take longer than expected.

Another interesting work by Danny explored how a person’s feelings and judgments about events depend on their imagined choices other than those events. One way the imagination works is to “undo” events. The easier it is to undo them, the greater the effect they have on us. This rule was central to norm theory, a 1986 paper by Dale Miller.

One example of how cancellation works: if a car crashes into the wall one meter from where we are standing, we believe that we missed being killed, and we are relieved. But if tomorrow a car hits the exact spot where we are standing today, we probably give it less thought. Our imagination automatically creates a situation where we are standing one meter to the left now, but not a situation where we are standing in the same place tomorrow.

The science of well-being

Danny was also a pioneer in the analysis of well-being. Our interpretation of them is more likely to influence our thinking about experiences than the positive or negative feelings we have during an experience.

The rule of thumb, for example, is that how much we like a past experience depends on the best or worst part of that experience, and how it ended. Danny showed that men receiving colonoscopies would report a better experience if the painful interruption was a longer period of moderate pain, rather than one that ended sooner but with more pain.

One way Danny stood out from other researchers was that his work was based on a desire not only to contribute to a field of research, but to create new fields. And then, if possible, answer all the questions they ask. That’s why his research, even published many years ago, continues to serve as the basis for new ideas and debates.

I met Danny less than a year ago. I visited his house in New York for dinner. At one point during the evening Danny said people were coming to see him to say goodbye.

His eyes were smiling and he held his hand up when he said it – a smile and a gesture I’ve often seen him use, a combination of “I’m not scared”, “you shouldn’t be my beauty waste” and “let. explain to me”. I didn’t want to face what he was saying but I understood. He was wide-eyed at the prospect of death. He was not afraid of death, he was not afraid of anything.

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Daniel Read does not work for, consult with, or own shares in, or receive funding from, any company or organization that would benefit from this article this, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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