Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I compare the impact of this book to being introduced to someone in the neighborhood you have never met before. Upon having met them you become convinced thereafter that you spot them often. Is it just because I know her that I see her all the time? Thinking, Fast and Slow received a lot of acclaim in 2011 for successfully bringing to non-academics the lifetime of work of Daniel Kahneman in the areas of psychology and behavioral economics. Business writers, journalists and bloggers have already fully embraced it and I have come across references to it in a half dozen other articles over the last two months. Stranger yet, I have read several articles where the author was referencing terms such as anchoring, framing or priming that were discussed in this book. They did not directly reference him but I could not help but believe they were applying aspects of his study to their own subject matter. Is it just because I know these terms now that I recognize Kahneman behind them? The subjects addressed in the book are not new and have been around for decades since Mr. Kahneman and his scholastic partner, Amos Tversky, were passing Sundays together crafting various puzzles to be tested in psychological experiments.

The personal impact of this book was twofold. The first was a feeling of selfish frustration. It is one of those books you wish was published for your eyes only. With so much fascinating content in the area of judgment I found myself wanting to be in sole possession of it, like a secret you want to prevent from getting out. The second effect was the desire to read it again. It is not a difficult text but to truly grasp the concepts requires a second read. While reading it I was often eager to share one of the groundbreaking experiments mentioned in the book only to find myself having trouble deciding where to begin. To truly synthesize the text requires a second review of the material.

The central thesis is that the brain is comprised of two modes of thinking; System 1 and System 2.  Both of which impact humans in how they apply judgment. System 1 operates automatically and quickly - thus the impulsive instinct of the brain. System 2 is the slow, calculated and concentrated thought process. The main premise lies here. We attribute decision making to be done in a conscious, well-thought out manner when in reality we are often not aware that System 1 is really acting in its place. The issue with System 1 is that it is prone to countless, non-rational biases which often impede correct judgment.

The first section of the book introduces what remains the main theme throughout - how previous events, impressions, patterns or emotions affect non-related choices. The System 1 mode of thinking acting in its impulsive manner will quickly and subconsciously rely on the non-related past at the moment of the decision. These inaccurate decisions can also be greatly impacted by how information is presented. The Framing effect - the presentation of identical information in different manners impacts judgment ; The Priming effect - increased sensitivity to past stimuli effect future beliefs; Storytelling - the impact on beliefs, and later judgment, that can be made based on the quality of the story told.

The second section begins to branch out by examining the types of decisions likely to be impacted. He also brings in more real life examples in the areas of finance, project planning and making estimates. He introduces how our ability to properly make estimates is affected by non-related numbers presented prior to the estimate (The Anchoring effect). He brings in another anecdote from when he was planning to write a book with several academics. Their planning was driven almost completely by best-case scenarios of each person. No one considered looking into base cases of other similar type projects and the time required to complete them. In numerous situations like this we ignore or grossly underweight the statistical base case and instead rely on personal experience or very small sample size.

The final section looks more towards judgment within a very human context. He does so by making a clear distinction between two "selves". The "remembering self" and the "experiencing self". How people remember events varies drastically from how they experienced them at the moment they were actually happening. As it should be clear by now, people tend to overweigh recent or specific events when judging how happy they are intrinsically. Our response to pain is no different. When recalling pain we underweight the duration as well as the average pain levels and instead base our judgment of pain on its level when it terminated. In one of the most memorable quotes he describes the two selves in relation to vacationing, an excellent example of the two selves of happiness:

"Tourism is about helping people construct stories and collect memories. The frenetic picture taking of many tourists suggests that storing memories is often an important goal, which shapes both the plans for vacation and the experience of it. The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored but as a future memory to be constructed"

In the end, it is the System 1 which leads to many of the errors humans make in decision making. It is what has received the focus of many of the engaging experiments conducted by Kahneman over the years. However, it is also the system that has allowed humans to survive on earth. We need to active on impulsiveness at times like when we are being chased by a lion. We also need System 1 to survive in today's consumer driven world. You would not be able to make it out of the cereal aisle if System 1 was not guiding you. It recalls back to a story I heard of someone who was in an accident and lost the ability to make System 1-like decisions. He essentially could not function. The success of the book is how it brings to light these errors in judgment. It is up to us to spot them in our own life and apply System 2 when it is needed.


Endurance by Alfred Lansing

Monday, May 21, 2012

It is hard not to wrap your blankets a bit tighter around yourself when reading about the incredible voyage of Ernest Shackleton and his crew in 1914.  The title of this book, and name of the ship, captures in one word what it took for the twenty eight members of this Antarctic-bound vessel to survive over 400 days stranded, for the majority of the time, on large pieces of floating ice.  

The original intent of the trip was to traverse Antarctica, arriving with the Endurance on one side of the continent.  From there the crew would have crossed the land mass on dog sleds where upon completion a second ship would have been awaiting them.  They never made it to Antarctica but were instead trapped by a pack of ice which brought the journey to halt and continued to slowly crush the ship itself.  They were forced to abandon the ship and remain on the ice until being able to set sail on smaller boats to the nearest land mass 850 miles away.  What ensues is nothing less than incredible. 

Boredom and wetness.  To overcome these two feats were to me there most incredible accomplishment.  When I find myself without an umbrella or enough bedding at night, I will only have to say "Endurance".

The perseverance of the crew warrants praise as does the leadership ability of their captain.  Leadership provides order when without it chaos would exist.   What continued to emerge throughout was how the men remained positive and loyal to their captain in a place where no laws, rules, or codes really existed any longer.

From Shackelton, I learned the following about being an effect leader (at least when stranded on a floe of ice):

1.  Know the weak traits of those in your organization and have measures in place to prevent them from diffusing further.

2.  Manage moral.  Without it you can not face adversity in a group.

3.  Scrutanize your decisions but once they are made do not second guess yourself - at least not publicly.

4.  A dominating presence is not a prerequisite for a leader.    


The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

It was not my intention to inaugurate my return with a book review on World War II.  However, it happened to be the first book I finished among the four I am currently juggling and I could not wait any longer to get back to writing.

There are two aspects of World War II I find particularly fascinating.  The first is how so much continues to be written about it.   Atkinson's book is the second in a dense trilogy he has composed over the last ten years.  Is there new material coming to light that was not known before?  Atkinson makes good use of many of the U.S. commanders' personal diaries.  However, I do not believe that these diaries were not available or referenced before.

Instead, the main reason is because there continues to be a large audience of readers interested in this subject.  World War II remains one of the greatest representations of U.S. supremacy and it therefore appeals to a broad readership who find great satisfaction and pride in its outcome.

I brought this argument up to a friend of mine who studies U.S. history.  What he described to me about the U.S. historical narrative proved very interesting.  Roughly speaking, the historical academics divide into two camps.  One is based on a cohesive, all-encompassing narrative that justifiably  declares all groups in society have a right to have "their" history shared.  These include includes the more marginalized in American history including women, Native Americans, and immigrants.  The historian, Howard Zinn, comes to mind as the flag bearer for this camp.

The second camp holds the belief of a history based on victory and success.  How can a country establish hegemony if it reflects too much on its occasional failures?  It is better to glorify its greatness in continual forms of declaration than wallow over a few mistakes made throughout its past.  A solidly constructed history based on achievement will withstand the tests of time.  

The second aspect of World War II I find intriguing is the role geography played throughout its course.  I am particularly drawn to Italian topography.  It is hard to not be fascinated by the battle of Cassino when you have looked up at its daunting rock face where the famous monastery sits.  The battles waged in the difficult Italian Apennines mountains, including Cassino, receive particular attention in this book.  Too many lives were lost in a terrain strikingly different than the softer images of the Italian land that generally would come to mind.

Another conclusion drawn from what is a thoroughly well-written and researched text, is the role logistics and military scale played in shifting the war in favor of the allies.  Other popular works such as Band of Brothers, often describe the more exciting and heroic individual battles fought by the infantry.  Their prominence makes it easy to forget how war may even be more about boring, efficient supply chains than anything else.  As Atkinson describes, the level of production of munitions, trucks, and airplanes by the U.S. come 1944 began to greatly surpass the German manufacturing machine.

The decision to invade Italy still remains a controversial one.  The Allied losses were significant in its campaigns to push up from Sicily to Rome.  And they did so based on a strategy whose foundation was set on the idea that any attack in Italy would shift German troops and resources away from France thus making the invasion at Normandy a less challenging feet.   A dear price to pay.


Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

New, Unpublished Material!  Back in 2010 I hit the wall, losing the ability to write new book reviews.  Then family matters took a big portion of my time - and still do.  However, the desire to write has returned and am I am happy to start things off by publishing this incomplete post I started to write two years ago but never finished.  I hope you enjoy it.  It is good to be back.

Subtitle: The History of the CIA

It was the right time in my life to read a book about the history of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The impression I had conjured up of the agency was still strongly based on the wild fascinations of my youth - one part Mission Impossible, one part gifted linguists, a touch of the Berlin Wall and deep KGB penetration as the garnish. Not the definition to carry me into this new decade at hand especially considering how this ongoing belief somehow prevented me from developing an updated opinion that took into account the blunders and deficiencies of the organization I was coming across in both history texts and current journalism. 

It is not my intention to base my opinions of the CIA on one book. There are always two sides to the story. However, it is fair to say that The Legacy of Ashes gives a solid starting point to begin the formation of one's opinion. It is a book whose every statement can be supported by documentation. The Notes section alone is 172 pages long. It is not a page turner packed with gripping stories of espionage. It is actually rather dry and the author, a NY Times journalist with years of experience covering the CIA, makes no intention for it to be anything but. It is an important piece of American history needing to be written in order to raise the curtains and open the windows of a shadowy organization. It does not bode well for the reputation of the CIA.

The CIA was born out of the intelligence arm of the military, the OSS, used during World War II. After the war's end, Harry Truman turned to them to provide information regarding the intentions of the Soviet Union. It was meant to provide almost newspaper-like details to foreign affairs which the president could refer to when needing to make decisions on foreign policy. Along the way it morphed into an entity consuming vast amounts of resources to promote democracy over the contaminating communist forms of government which were developing throughout the world. Instead of infiltrating the the communist parties in places like Greece, Italy, small Latin American countries and later Indonesia and Vietnam with agents capable of providing valuable intelligence, they used other, simpler and less-effective tactics. It was surprising to see how the majority of their efforts were concentrated on the financing of radio stations, newspapers, and democratic parties who they deemed capable of promoting democracy. Though this "push" form of marketing democracy may have promoted itself as superior to communism, it did little in providing intelligence.

The book continually sites examples where the CIA, with its thousands of agents scattered throughout the globe, time after time failed to foresee significant events that would happen in the specific countries they were suppose to be monitoring. Often these small, satellite countries with upcoming communist leaders such as Honduras or Vietnam received a disproportional amount of attention, and none the less saw events occur that the CIA was unprepared for.  On the other hand, the one country which required the most precise intelligence, the Soviet Union, proved to be a place they knew so little about. Their information was consistently inaccurate.

"The CIA would come in and paint the most scary picture possible about what the Soviets would do to us. They had charts on the wall, they had figures, and their conclusion was that in 10 years, the United States would be behind the Soviet Union in military capability, in economic growth. It was a scary presentation. The facts are they were 180 degress wrong. These were the best people we had, the CIA's so called experts," said former President Gerald Ford who sat on the secret budget committee for CIA funding in the 1960's.


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