Power, Information Technology and Identity in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

Power, Information Technology and Identity in Thinking, Fast and Slow

In the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice, in others and ourselves, is developed through a breaking down of the systems of thought. In this essay, I argue that the themes of power, information technology and identity are furthered by Thinking, Fast and Slow‘s depiction of an ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice. I initialize the essay by briefly depicting the fundamental concepts developed by Kahneman that are relevant to the points of the following essay. I then extend these concepts by evaluating their relevance in the furthering of the themes of power, information technology, and identity. 

Kahneman depicts the process of judgement and choice as being a cause of the interrelated functioning of two systems that produce thoughts. The first system (System One) is a fast thinking system that seemingly acts automatically in its responses and is responsible for the majority of thinking that takes place. This system is able to operate with little control nor awareness from the person utilizing it. System One is consistently observing your environment sending intuitions, and notions to the second system (System Two) which is where any conscious, slow thinking is taking place. If the intuitions that are sent to System One are deemed to be reasonable, they become beliefs. If System One encounters difficulty, it defers to System Two, which then mobilizes detailed processing in order to potentially solve the problem. From the depiction of the two systems, it can be seen that System One is requiring of System Two (as the second system shapes the beliefs that cause intuitive action) and that System Two is requiring of System One (as the first system sends the intuitions and notions that the second system then processes into beliefs). Since the two systems of thinking are reliant on each other and could not perform the full capacities of their role without the other, it is a combination of the two systems that is used as the dominant system for judgement and choice. As such, the process of judgement and choice and the ability to identify errors within both all culminate in the depiction of System One and System Two.  

Attributes of the theme of power are effectively furthered by the ability to identify and understand errors of choice. The main aspect of choice that furthers the theme of power is Kahneman’s development of prospect theory. The prominent economic theory prior to the inception of prospect theory alluded to economic agents (those who abided to economic theory) being rational, selfish, and having tastes that don’t change (attributes that are reflective of economic theory at the time). This view was depicted by Kahneman as a cause of the human error of “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI); in this case, economic agents are failing to view the fact that consumers will more often avoid situations involving risk. This error is a cause of System One (as are many errors) as the system attempts to model your personal world as being straight-forward. Prospect theory is composed of three features stating that: people evaluate losses relative to a reference point (the status quo in economics), people become less sensitive to changes in wealth the higher the values are, and that people dislike making a loss more than they do winning. The ladder of the three features is called loss aversion and it will be the main source of my focus. The three cognitive features of prospect theory serve to provide insight on consumer desire and can be considered functions of System One.

Loss aversion’s inception came about in an attempt to explain why individuals will consistently avoid risk, instead choosing a sure thing, even if the risk is of larger financial gain. As per its economic implications, this theory has of course been largely used in the application of potential financial gain. It is through the economic influences and benefits that prospect theory alludes to, that a connection to potential power can be drawn. As such, the depiction of prospect theory in the book results in a learning that power is furthered by the theory as it brought about a change in economics that allowed for further wealth to be gained (as consumers who were previously not having their needs met, are now more satisfied by prospect theory). Wealth in society is generally accepted to allude to power in society. As such, now that further wealth is able to be gained by economic agents, further power is able to be gained by economic agents. Through this cause and effect relationship, it can be seen that the further potential wealth created by the prospect theory, informs power in society as it enables economic agents to gain wealth which effectively allows them to gain further power. Although economic agents are making a choice in their utilization of the prospect theory, this is a choice that was in-part informed by their identity. It is economic agents who benefit from the prospect theory (in terms of wealth); a shaping factor of what influenced an individual to become an economic agent is their identity. As such, identity plays a role in influencing the chance of an individual’s opportunity to be an economic agent and thus, gain further power in society.

The theme of information technology throughout human history is actively influenced by the ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice. Information technology shows relevance to the books theme of recognizing one’s process of judgement and choice as aspects of our intuition have been affected by the technology of written language. This concept is depicted by author, James Gleick in his book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Gleick stated that at a point in human history, humans began to associate individual x’s mental state with the visual appearance of the words being used by individual x, with x representing anyone. Gleick attributes this to an intuitive sense of the mind; depicts the sudden familiarity of humans with written language (at the time of its inception) as a non-conscious act by humans, as they were not able to consider how the memories of written words would influence the way they thought (as System One’s activities occur unbeknownst to us). 

Kahneman asserts that our intuitive response to stimulus is a cause of System One having sent intuitive notions of a particular circumstance to System Two, which then formulates these notions into constructive responses, which you then intuitively react with when faced with said stimulus. The determining of another’s mental state is taken as an act of expert intuition by Kahneman, however he admits that most of us have the System One response of recognizing that someone is angry from the detection of the pitch in the first word they say. It can similarly be taken that Gleick’s statement of, a reaction to written language often culminating in an assumption of the author’s mental state, is an intuitive response. If intuitive responses are informed by memories (stated by Kahneman), and there is a valid association between someone’s mental state and the visual appearance of the words they wrote (stated by Gleick), then it can be concluded that human familiarity with the technology of writing has shown to have influence on human intuition. In this sense, the theme of information technology is furthered by the notions of intuition that Kahneman brings forth. 

The theme of identity is furthered by an ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice; this is exampled through the establishing role that System One takes, the two systems of thinking in their ability to assist in the understanding of another’s action, and the distinction between two selves. The main function of System One is to maintain and actively update your model of what is normal; It is forming of what you expect the environment around you to consist of, and as such, it is forming of the norms that individuals choose to follow. This notion is reflected through the attribute of surprise; if one sees a car explode outside their house they are of course surprised, however, if the same person sees a different car explode outside their house the next day, they are significantly less surprised. The reasoning for this is that System One is consistently sending intuitions to System Two, if System Two picks up on enough of the right intuitions, the occurrence linked to that intuition will then become seemingly more normal or expected to you. This concept has implications within the theme of identity as it reflects how beliefs and norms are formed (accumulation of intuitive notions), which are both influential factors on one’s identity. The idea of the two systems of thinking being a partial reflection of the thought behind another’s action is developed through the piece Hunger in which author, Roxanne Gay speaks of her sexual assault within a marginalized community. The two systems of thinking can be applied to Gay’s assailants, as their thinking in sexual assaulting Gay is almost certainly informed by both their identities and Gay’s. Regardless of the exact systematic cause, it can be identified that Gay’s assailants held the belief that rape in that instance was okay. In order for this belief to be established, there is a requirement of multiple memories of the respective assailant’s that allude to this belief. This means that the assailant’s (individually) although maybe acting on impulse, had to have this previous belief. This additionally relates to Kahneman’s statement of there being a distinguishment between two selves, the experiencing self and the remembering self. Kahneman observed that the experiencing self does not necessarily want what the remembering self does, and as such it is possible that the assailants were acting out of impulse or out of their experiencing self as a result of abiding to the System One response that System Two constructed. The application of System One and Two thinking towards the motive of another’s action proves to be resourceful as stipulations, such as notions of rape being okay, or people of different origins being worthy of less, can culminate in relatively objective truth about the action’s intentions (the assailants had to believe that rape was okay).

The collective effort of System One and System Two is reflected in the constant process of thinking that occurs for almost everyone consistently throughout their lives. An exploration into and an awareness of the two systems allows for an ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice to be developed. In this essay I exampled how aware-thinking (taking System One and System Two into account when evaluating thoughts or the process of thinking) poses particular implications for the themes of power, information technology and identity. My understanding of these themes was entirely affected by this method of aware-thinking as I was able to learn new implications that Information, Fast and Slow’s fundamentals incite. The themes of power, information technology, and identity are furthered by Thinking, Fast and Slow’s depiction of an ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice. 

Works Cited

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (my) Body. First edition. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017.

Gleick, James. The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood. Fourth Estate, 2012.