A Chat With Daniel Kahneman

I attended a dinner last night with Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics and the co-subject of Michael Lewis’s new book, The Undoing Project. The dinner was hosted by Zach Todd Liberman and Saumitra Thakur.

Kahneman spoke for two hours in his characteristic tone, an amazing combination of blunt pessimism, wisdom, and insight into how we interpret the world.

Here are a few of his thoughts.

On persistence: “When I work I have no sunk costs. I like changing my mind. Some people really don’t like it but for me changing my mind is a thrill. It’s an indication that I’m learning something. So I have no sunk costs in the sense that I can walk away from an idea that I’ve worked on for a year if I can see a better idea. It’s a good attitude for a researcher. The main track that young researchers fall into is sunk costs. They get to work on a project that doesn’t work and that is not promising but they keep at it. I think too much persistence can be bad for you in the intellectual world.”

On the benefits of groups: “I’m a skeptic about people’s ability to improve their own thinking or to get control over their own intuition. It can be done but it’s very difficult. But I’m really optimistic about the potential for institutions and organizations to improve themselves, because they have procedures and they think slowly. They can have control over the way they interpret things. They can ask questions about the quality of evidence. Thinking about how to improve the decision-making in organizations is a challenge that I think we’re up to. This is something that can be done.”

On empathy: “There have been many experiments in which you bring together Palestinians and Israelis and good things happen between them. You just bring them together. But it’s an artificial construction. It’s very difficult to turn that into a massive thing. It is absolutely true that when you put together strangers in a positive atmosphere that good things are going to happen. They are going to find that they are more like the other than they were inclined to believe earlier. They’re going to recognize each other’s humanity. Lots of good things happen when people are in close contact. But it’s extraordinarily difficult to generate that in a big way.”

On flip-flopping: “Ideas become part of who we are. People get invested in their ideas, especially if they get invested publicly and identify with their ideas. So there are many forces against changing your mind. Flip-flopping is a bad word to people. It shouldn’t be. Within sciences, people who give up on an idea and change their mind get good points. It’s a rare quality of a good scientist, but it’s an esteemed one.”

On collaborations: “One of the quotes attributed to [his late partner] Amos Tversky is, ‘The world is not kind to collaboration.’ That’s an interesting phrase. What he meant by that is when people look at a joint project, they are very curious about ‘who did it.’ The assumption is that one person did it.

But neither of us could have done what we did by ourselves. We had two people who were both quite good, but our joint work is clearly superior to anything we could have done alone. And yet, either one of us could talk about our work and it sounded as if we had done it alone. It didn’t sound as if we needed somebody else. Amos said, ‘I talk to people about our joint work and people don’t think I need anybody else.’ So there is a problem of how to treat collaborations and how to foster them. Quite often the actions of the environment are destructive to collaborations. The urge is to allocate credit and to single out people and not treat collaborations as units. If Michael Lewis’s book makes people think about the value of collaborations it would be useful.”

On education changing thinking: “There are studies showing that when you present evidence to people they get very polarized even if they are highly educated. They find ways to interpret the evidence in conflicting ways. Our mind is constructed so that in many situations where we have beliefs and we have facts, the beliefs come first. That’s what makes people incapable of being convinced by evidence. So education by itself is not going to change the culture. Changing critical thinking through education is very slow and I’m not very optimistic about it.”

Asked if he could comment on brain trauma. “No, because I don’t know anything about it and I strongly believe people should stay in their own lanes when giving opinions.”

On where the world is going: “People in their 30s know where the world is going because they’re going to do it. I’m in my 80s so I have no idea.”