Barack Obama wants you to read this book on making smarter decisions

Former President recommends Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which could reshape how you make decisions

Chris Weller
Business Insider
Tuesday 20 February 2018 14:55
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"He is a slow thinker. He deliberates," Kahneman said of Obama
"He is a slow thinker. He deliberates," Kahneman said of Obama

Four years ago, a few months before he was re-elected, President Barack Obama read a book on the science of decision-making that he now considers one of his favourites.

The book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, features insights into the pitfalls of human rationality that might just transform how you think about intelligence.

Obama's recommendation comes alongside nine other books on the president's list of required reading in the November issue of Wired.

Others include The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro and Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and inventor of behavioural economics, explores two modes of thinking, which he calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 thinking is gut-driven, instinctual; System 2 is thoughtful, reflective. Too often, Kahneman says, people's decision-making gets mired in System 1 when really they should be taking a few seconds to study the problem at hand.

Several months after Obama read Thinking, Fast and Slow, CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviewed Kahneman and asked him whether he thought the president was a System 1 thinker or a System 2 thinker.

“He is a slow thinker. He deliberates,” Kahneman said. “He doesn't follow his gut immediately. He considers things. He is very thoughtful.”

Deliberation may seem like a presidential trait, but Kahneman is quick to dispel the idea that commanders-in-chief must be System 2 thinkers. George W. Bush was a classic System 1 thinker, he says. “President Bush was proud of acting on his intuition, acting on his gut.”

If you're curious which kind of thinker you might be, consider the following puzzle:

If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

System 1 thinkers are more likely to rely on their snap judgment to supply the answer of “100 minutes.” But the answer is actually “5 minutes,” since it doesn't actually matter how many machines you have. Each machine takes 5 minutes to make a widget.

Don't feel bad if that problem stumped you. It's designed to exploit gaps in System 1 thinking. By drawing your eye to the quick succession of 5s, you naturally look to make the same connection in the solution. It's only through the slower, more deliberate thinking involved with System 2 that brings the correct answer into focus.

Obama's recommendation seems to suggest that even those of us who aren't making careful choices in the Oval Office could stand to think more with System 2.

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