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Daniel Kahneman and the return of “miswanting”

Daniel Kahneman and the return of “miswanting”

Nick Spencer pays tribute to the hugely influential psychologist Daniel Kahneman who died recently, and shows how his ideas about human nature were both pioneeringly new and rather old. 27/03/2024

1. Sinful Adam

“If we admit the fall of our first Parents”, wrote pioneer chemist Robert Boyle in 1675 [Reason and Religion], we will not be surprised to discover that “our Passions and Interests, and oftentimes our Vices pervert our Intellects.” “Our understandings”, he continued, “are universally biased, and impos’d upon by our Wills and Affections.”

This was a familiar lament in the seventeenth century. Christian theology had hardly neglected the story of “our first parents” – Adam, Eve, the Fall, their exile from Eden, and the ensuing world of labour, pain, and sin – but Protestant Christians of the early modern period rediscovered it with a vengeance. And they drew out a powerful new cognitive dimension to the story.

Before the Fall, they argued, Adam’s knowledge had been encyclopaedic, his reason had been perfect, his senses preternaturally acute. The same, many claimed, applied to Eve, who, at least according to Martin Luther, “had these mental gifts in the same degree as Adam.”

Then everything changed. Turned away from God, the fallen human mind was no longer disposed to admit “the light of Truth”, Boyle explained. Instead, it now receives “an infusion, as it were, of adventitious Colours (that disguise the light) from the Will and Affections.” Our “judgement” was distorted, our “notions” bent according to our “senses… [our] inclinations… [and our] interests.”

Christian apologists today sometimes claim that belief in the literal truth of Genesis is a purely modern phenomenon, the legacy of modernity and its fractious child fundamentalism. Before the late nineteenth century, they maintain, no–one thought the story of Adam and Eve was literally true. This is categorically wrong. Were you to be transported back to the seventeenth century to ask your average pew–sitter whether they thought Adam had been real, you would have received an unequivocal yes, as well as some very perplexed looks. “Most people,” wrote poet William Dawes as late as 1731, “own it not six thousand year, since first this beauteous fabric did appear.”

But you would also have been told, or you would soon have picked up, that the literal truth of Adam’s existence was the least interesting thing about him. Adam’s story belonged not just to Adam. It belonged to everyone. Indeed, it was the story of everyone. Adam was humanity as it should have been, humanity as it failed to be, humanity as it now tragically remained. To talk about Adam (and Eve) was to talk about the human condition, morality, mind, body, and all.

And in the early modern period, if you were a Protestant (Catholic thought was much more sanguine about the effect of the Fall on reason), to talk about Adam was to embrace an anthropology that was painfully conscious of the fragility, fallibility, and multiple failures of the human mind. Prior to the Fall, John Calvin had written in his commentary on Genesis, “Adam was endued with a right judgment [and] had affections in harmony with reason.” After it, the “mind was smitten with blindness, and infected with innumerable errors.” Passion now triumphed over reason; the senses (themselves damaged) over rationality; the distorted will over knowledge of the truth.

It was not that humanity altogether lacked reason, although some theologians, convinced of total human depravity, claimed they did. Reason still survived, but it was impaired, vulnerable to pride, “exist[ing] subjectively within us”, “weakened, darkened and tainted by the Fall”. Different passions, different selves, fallen and saved, impassioned and reasonable, warred within us.

The whole thing, according to historian Peter Harrison, served as a huge spur to the scientific revolution. Science, or experimental natural philosophy as it was then known, was a way of restoring to humanity Adam’s proper mastery of nature by restoring his judgement, reason, will, and knowledge. In time, it was hoped, humans would once again become fully rational.

2. Introducing Daniel Kahneman and Thinking, Fast and Slow

In 1969, Daniel Kahneman met Amos Tversky. Kahneman had survived the Nazi occupation of France, emigrated to British Palestine, and then worked as a psychologist for the Israeli Defence Force. He was transparently brilliant and went on to hold academic positions in Jerusalem, Cambridge, and Harvard. Tversky was, if anything, more remarkable. He had also worked for the IDF, as a paratrooper as well as a psychologist, and was now employed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when the two met.

The two set out, in Kahneman’s words “to understand how humans actually make risky choices, without assuming anything about their rationality” and over the next few years were to publish a number of academic papers, in particular ‘Prospect Theory: an analysis of decision under risk’, and ‘Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’, which would revolutionise their discipline, each earning over 20,000 citations.

Tversky died in 1996 but Kahneman would go on to win the Nobel prize six years later (he references Amos nearly a hundred times in his Nobel biography) and publish Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011. The book sold a million copies in first year, a number and speed comparable only to Fifty Shades of Grey[1], and it would go on to sell ten times that over the next decade.[2]

3. Utility Theory

The key moment in their relationship came early when Tversky gave Kahneman an essay by the Swiss economist Bruno Frey on Utility Theory. Utility Theory is the idea that human preferences are consistent and rational, and reliably based on the value, or utility, that people assign to different possible outcomes. It contends that people exercise this calculus consistently as a way of maximising their “utility” when making uncertain choices.

The theory is grounded in the idea that human beings are ruled by rational self–interest. Rationality here is not the expansive virtue familiar from common usage but refers, more modestly, to whether someone’s choices are internally consistent and coherent. If you prefer A to B and B to C, rationality dictates that you must prefer A to C.

Similarly, self–interest does not mean selfish in the popular sense of the word (although the two terms are often used interchangeably) so much as being governed by the desire to maximise utility as the individual understands it. “The agent of economic theory,” Frey’s opening sentence proclaimed, “is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change”.

Utility Theory was fundamental to the economic and social sciences at the time, and had far–reaching implications that rippled through state and market. If this was indeed who humans were, how they thought and why they chose what they did, it followed that it was the basis on which government should or, more precisely, should not interfere in their lives. “Faith in human rationality is closely linked to an ideology in which it is unnecessary and even immoral to protect people against their choices.” Individuals are rational and consistent. They are best positioned to know not only what they value but also what price they are prepared to pay, or risk they are prepared to take, to get it. People know best for themselves. We should leave them alone. It is the underlying logic of libertarianism and of its less bullish but more popular cousin, liberalism.

In the early 1970s, Kahneman was blessed by ignorance. “I did not know enough about utility theory to be blinded by respect for it,” he wrote. The problem, as he saw it, was that the theory did not square with the understanding of humans acquired through his experience, personal and professional, in war–time France, newly–founded Israel or 1960s America. He and Tversky discussed the paper and the issues it threw up. “My career would be defined by that conversation,” he said.

4. Two systems of thinking

Thinking, Fast and Slow opens with Kahneman describing two different “systems” of thinking. One is automatic, impressionistic, instinctive, lazy. It neglects ambiguity and dismisses doubt. It thinks that “what you see is all there is [WYSIATI]” and sees the world as tidier, simpler, more predictable, and more coherent than it really is. System 2, by contrast, is hesitant, sceptical, effortful, reflective. It stops us from turning foolish thoughts and inappropriate impulses into embarrassing mistakes. It is who we like to think we are.

Put in this way, there seems to be more than a passing resemblance to Iain McGilchrist’s understanding of left and right hemispheric approaches to thinking. At times in Kahneman’s book, the resonance feels obvious. The two systems work, he writes, “if they were traits and dispositions of two characters in your mind.” They don’t do different things, in much the same way as McGilchrist is at pains to emphasise the left and right hemispheres don’t do different things; rather they do the same things but in different ways, each with its own “individual personalities, abilities, and limitations.”

Tempting as it is to make, however, the association it probably incidental; perhaps (ironically) an instinctive System 1–type of association, rather than a more reflective System–2 reaction. McGilchrist’s then recently published book, The Master and his Emissary, is absent from Thinking, Fast and Slow, as is his general hemispheric approach, and his follow up work, The Matter with Things is more positive about human judgment and intuition than is Kahneman is Thinking, Fast and Slow or his co–authored follow up book Noise. According to McGilchrist, Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 “cuts the cake ‘horizontally’ (top brain versus bottom brain)” rather than by hemisphere, and although it detects similar patterns of human response, to do with speed and confidence verses caution and deliberation, it does not do so in the same way, or with the same conclusions, as McGilchrist does.

In any case, the two–systems approach to the way we think is not the most interesting or startling observation in Kahneman’s book. After all, is anyone really surprised to learn that humans can be both instinctive and reflective, or that we are not natural statisticians but that we usually can, with hard work, grasp basic statistical thinking? More penetrating, and more fateful is the ensuing analysis of our general cognitive fallibility that Kahneman builds on his two systems.

5. The way we really think:

The theory that human beings are self–interested, rational agents does not imagine that we are mean–spirited or naturally gifted calculators. Rather, it is simply that we are reliably capable of identifying options that generate the best utility for ourselves, according to our values, and calculating accurately what we are prepared to do to achieve them. We know what we want. We are able to judge accurately. We are consistent in our decisions.

The work that Kahneman and Tversky did suggests otherwise. In our everyday life, it transpires, our judgement is plagued with misleading heuristics, biases, fallacies, blindness, and overconfidence. Our “intuitive expectations are governed by a consistent misperception of the world”, one that we are disinclined to recognise let alone correct.

Our minds are a nest of misleading “heuristics”. A heuristic is a kind of cognitive short cut or rule of thumb, a “simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.” Because thinking (slow) is hard work, we adopt a lot of heuristics, to get us close to the answer. The problem is that often they don’t get very close at all.

We commonly make decisions on the basis whether we like or dislike something (or someone) – the so–called ‘affect heuristic’ – rather than doing the hard work of assessing it (or them) according to their relevant merits. We form judgements according to stereotypical impressions – the ‘representativeness heuristic’ – rather than considering the information relevant to the specific case. We estimate the relative importance of something from the ease by which we recall it – the ‘availability heuristic’. Worse, when a media report provokes a public reaction which provokes more media coverage, we get an ‘availability cascade’, which further distorts out judgement. It’s why we are so prone to overestimate the actual risk of terrorism as opposed to, say, road accidents. Time and again, when faced with a difficult question, we substitute an easier one, which fails to tell us what we need to know, without noting the substitution.

Our thinking is also riddled with biases. We are painfully prone to searching for evidence that confirms our existing beliefs – so–called ‘confirmation bias’ – rather than seeking data that might challenge of overturn those beliefs (which is why science is both so unnatural, and also so vulnerable to the actual practice of scientists). We tend to revise the history of our beliefs in light of what actually happened – the so–called ‘hindsight bias’ – rather than struggle with painful but productive cognitive dissonance of having our beliefs overturned. We are habitually overconfident about our judgements and decisions – the so–called ‘optimistic bias’, perhaps “the most significant of all cognitive biases” – a bias that is advantageous in as far as it enables resilience, but which can also be very costly, not least financially. We are, of course, largely unaware of our biases.

Our thinking is also fallacious. We repeatedly commit the so–called ‘planning fallacy’, in which our plans are far too close to the unrealistic best–case scenario. We repeatedly commit the so–called ‘conjunction fallacy’, in which we wrongly judge the conjunction between two events to be more probable than either of one separately (e.g. in the now–famous example, Linda is more likely to be a feminist bank teller than a bank teller)[3]. We are persistently blind to the sheer impact of randomness or chance in events, preferring instead to find a meaningful, causal narrative in things that lack them, sometimes in order to laud our own agency, sometimes as a means of reassuring ourselves that the world makes sense.

We have a tendency to overvalue significantly first impressions, whether good or bad – the so–called ‘halo effect’. We are constantly misled by our intuitions. “Associative memory generates subjectively compelling intuitions that are false.” We have an unwarranted but powerful bias towards believing that small samples accurately resemble the population from which they are drawn. We are unduly influenced by our current state of mind whenever we evaluate our happiness. Our opinions change “without apparent reason”, even for matters of careful, considered judgement by professional experts”. We are inclined to rate something according to the final sensation it leaves us with rather than its duration – the so–called ‘peak–end rule’ – elevating the memory of an experience over the experience itself (which is presumably why so many people spend so much time filming what they are doing on holiday or at a concert rather than doing it).

We are highly vulnerable to priming. Experiments that prime people with idea of money see them behaving in a more independent, more individualistic, more selfish way than usual. Experiments that prime them with the thought of death makes them more sympathetic to authoritarian ideas.

We are highly vulnerable to framing. Tastes are not fixed but vary according to a reference point. Our judgements of an event can be fundamentally reshaped by the perspective in which it is placed. Our judgements are highly vulnerable to our moods, to feelings of stress or fatigue; for example, doctors are more likely to prescribe opioids at the end of a long day than at its start. Our thoughts and our behaviour are highly influenced by the environment of the moment.

We are, in short, a mess. Our thinking is “inconsistent and unpredictable”. Logical consistency “a hopeless mirage”. We underestimate role of chance in success. We overestimate how much we know about the world. We place far too much faith in our intuitions. We have neither “the inclination nor the mental resources to enforce consistency on our preferences”. “Laziness is built deep into our nature”. Perhaps most painfully, “you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.” Not only do we not know the world as we think we do. We do not even know ourselves.

6. Embodied Thought

There rests the case for the prosecution against ‘rational economic man’. It is strong, and leaves us with the picture of the human that is as unflattering as it is (or should be) familiar. It certainly would have been familiar to Robert Boyle, and his Protestant contemporaries, for it reveals an Adam (and Eve) who possess a powerful intellect, but one that is “coloured”, “pervert[ed]”, “infused”, “afflicted”, “biased”, “bent”, “smitten”, “infected”, “weakened”, “darkened”, “tainted”, and “impos’d upon” by “passion”, “will”, “affection”, “errors”, “inclination”, “interests”, and “senses”.

Nor is this the only way in which Kahneman’s human resembles the Protestant ‘Adam’. For the other element on which Kahneman touches in Thinking, Fast and Slow, drawing on the work he did before he met Tversky, was how bodily human thinking is. Kahneman’s early work focused on visual perception and attention, and he is at pains to emphasise in the book how cognition is embodied.

The body offers a picture of the mind. The size of the pupil of one’s eye, for example, is an index of the level of mental energy used. “Merely thinking about stabbing a coworker in the back [!] leaves people more inclined to buy soap [and] disinfectant” – the so–called Lady Macbeth effect. The eye and body offer a window on to the mind, but they do more than that. They shape the way we think. Small and apparently unnoticed stimuli on our body from our immediate, physical environment have a perceptible influence on our thoughts and actions, and predictably more substantial ones have a bigger impact. All of this further undermines the rational self–image we prize, of our minds working well, unimpeded by irrelevant, extraneous physical prompts. Kahneman writes that the body is “involved in computation” but this seems to underplay it. As he says early on, “You think with your body, not only your brain”.

We sometimes imagine that this is a quintessentially modern approach, made possible only once Darwin had demonstrated that humans are evolved as any other animal. That which we like to think makes us uniquely human (and dignified) – our rational thought, the profundity of our emotions, etc. – is not only comparable to that in animals, but fundamentally animalistic. Our intellect, our love, our happiness, our anger are biological rather than spiritual, in the way that was commonly believed when Darwin was a young medical student in the early nineteenth century. Before the Darwinian turn in our anthropology, our minds, like our souls, were detached from our bodies as that titan of seventeenth century thought, Descartes, argued.

If so, we might want to return to hear more voices from the early modern period. Take, for example, the poet and preacher, John Donne, from a couple of generations before Boyle. “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,” Donne wrote in his poem ‘The Ecstasie’, “But yet the body is his book,”. “One might almost say, her body thought,” he said of Elizabeth Drury in his ‘Of the Progress of the Soul: The Second Anniversary’.

This was not simply poetic licence. “Doth the mind so follow the temper of the body, that because those complexions are aptest to change, the mind is therefore so too?” Donne pondered in one of his early Paradoxes and Problems. “Our mind is heavy in our bodies afflictions, and rejoyceth in the bodies pleasures”, he wrote in another. “The body makes the mind”, he wrote in a third. Reading Donne’s sermons, John Carey wrote, “we are repeatedly conscious of this need to anchor abstract truths in the human anatomy.”[4]

Donne is arguably sui generis, one of the most generative, paradoxical, and provocative thinkers of his time. He was certainly unusually interested in the body. But neither his interest nor his ideas were unique. He read a lot of contemporary medical literature and integrating its ideas into his verse with vigour. And he adopted the idea for “importing anatomical density into spiritual contexts” from the Church Fathers, from one of whom he also borrowed to reconcile his heterodox idea that the soul itself was being dependent on the body.[5] In other words he was, to a discernible degree, of his age, “emerg[ing] from within a physiology that imagined souls and bodies as far more closely connected than we post–Cartesians tend to allow.”[6]

Just as Kahneman (and Tversky’s) idea that there is “an inconsistency… built into the design of our minds” would not have been out place in a seventeenth century, so his conviction that “you think with your body” would have also been familiar. Kahneman’s work, like that of any good revolution, brings us back roughly to where we once were.

7. The problems with Thinking, Fast and Slow

Kahneman’s work has been criticized. Thinking, Fast and Slow was published just before people began to talk about the ‘replication crisis’, in which the inability to reproduce the results of many psychological experiments cast a shadow over their reliability. Subsequent analysis showed that a number of the studies on which Kahneman had drawn, particularly those about the effects of priming on decision making, were not as trustworthy as he thought.

He became aware of this problem and, a year after the book was published, wrote an open letter to colleagues working on priming studies, saying that “your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research”, and warning that he saw “a train wreck looming.”[7] In response to criticism of his own work, he acknowledged that “I placed too much faith in underpowered studies.”[8] A subsequent analysis of the integrity of the studies on which he relied showed that the problem extended beyond priming studies. Readers of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the authors of the analysis concluded, should take the book “as a subjective account by an eminent psychologist, rather than an objective summary of scientific evidence.”[9]

Kahneman had not been aware of the fallibility of these studies, and so could hardly be blamed for his use of them. More culpably, he was not altogether above his own “framing” tricks. Iain McGilchrist, perplexed by the critique of expert intuition he read about in Thinking, Fast and Slow, followed up the studies on which Kahneman was relying at this point.[10] He found that they were not as straightforwardly supportive Kahneman claimed[11] including, sometimes, in the way the results were presented. For example, whereas one original paper, evaluating the reliability of internal corporate audits, concluded that the judgment stability averaged .79, meaning that auditors were about 80% stable in their judgments,[12] Kahneman had re–framed the finding as they “contradict[ed] themselves 20% of the time.” It was the same statistic but reframed to give a rather different impression, and arguably to lend support to a narrative that it actually undermined.

A third criticism is linked to this point about framing. Thinking, Fast and Slow is acute in the way it fingers the effect of framing on our decisions, however (un)reliable the studies on which it rests are. In reality, framing is a very familiar observation to anyone who has lived within a consumerist culture. We naturally prefer a cash discount to a credit surcharge. Kahneman is good at explaining why. But in explaining how framing can distort our views, he sometimes seemsto slip into the belief that there is a naked, unmediated, unframed reality out there from which our judgements are being distorted.[13]

This might indeed be the case in certain ‘factual’ situations. Kahneman mentions one study that showed how people who saw information about ‘a disease that kills 1,286 people out of every 10,000’ considered it to be more dangerous that those who were told about ‘a disease that kills 24.14% of the population’. The high, raw numbers wrongly framed the first as a greater threat than the lower–sounding percentages of the second. But calculations like this are less common that we might think, and humans normally live and move and have their being in webs of communication rather than in any undiluted reality, whatever that may be.

“Your moral feelings are attached to frames, to descriptions of reality rather than to reality itself”, Kahneman writes in his chapter on framing. “Our preferences are about framed problems, and our moral intuitions are about descriptions, not about substance.” But such statements only make sense if there is such a thing as “reality itself” to which we have access, such a thing as “substance” that is unmediated by description. Most of the time, there is not, and what we encounter, from the most obviously contested ethical or political affairs (‘terrorist’ vs ‘freedom fighter’) all the way down the basic physical reality that sounds us, we encounter only though morally, aesthetically, and existentially loaded “description”. As ever, The Simpsons nail it. Defending the difference between the name and the reality, Lisa quotes Shakespeare: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” “Not if you called ‘em ‘stench blossoms’”, Bart responds. “Or ‘crap weeds’”, Homer adds.[14]

Perhaps the most consistent criticism of Kahneman’s work, however, is that it puts forward too negative view of human nature. The pessimistic wood is hard to miss from among the trees of fallacies, biases, misleading heuristics, deceptive associations, vulnerability to priming and framing, and the like. Humans are ludicrously hubristic. “Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous.” We are self–defensive, “more motivated to avoid bad self–definitions than to pursue good ones.” We are dangerously bad at calculating risk, overweighing unlikely events, obsessing about what – statistically speaking – we shouldn’t. We exaggerate our ability to forecast the future. We are self–deceptive, constantly fooling ourselves “by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing they are true,” as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whom Kahneman quotes approvingly, says. The overall verdict is not a happy one. “Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favourable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be.”

In response to the criticism, however, Kahneman insists that his view of human nature is not as unrelentingly or unfairly negative as all that. Albeit he admits he is “generally not optimistic about the potential for personal control of biases,” he also insists that we are not completely at the mercy of priming, that intuition is not always misguided, and that System 1 thinking is the basis of what we do right as well as what we do wrong. “I often cringe”, he says at the end of the book, “when my work with Amos is credited with demonstrating that human choices are irrational – with all the overtones that has of impulsivity, emotionality, stubborn resistance to reasonable arguments etc – when in fact our research only showed that Humans are not well described by the rational–agent model.”

And that surely is the point. The wonder is that we should ever have found ourselves in a position in which we are perplexed or upset by this picture of embodied human mental fallibility. Kahneman’s picture of how humans actually do think should be recognisable to anyone who has paid serious attention to their own thought processes or, in as far as they are accessible, to those of people around us.

Humans are pattern seekers. We think associatively, causally, narratively, metaphorically. We believe in a coherent world, in which regularities are not simply the result of accident but reflect a deep underlying causality or intention. We are inclined to find a coherent causal story that links and explains the details and fragments of reality we stumble over. We draw connections often where none exists, and we find reasons for things when chance is a better explanation.

We are deeply sensitive to issues of fairness, not in the sense that we are good – “experiments have shown that strangers who observe unfair behaviour often join in the punishment” – but in the sense that the perceived un/fairness of a situation is intrinsic to our assessment of it. (Can anyone who has ever spent any time in the company of a small child be surprised by this?) Accordingly, we are highly sensitive to questions of prestige and respect – “except for the very poor, for whom income coincides with survival, the main motives of money–seeking are not necessarily economic” – and so also highly vulnerable to and influenced by emotions like esteem, regret, or blame. (Can anyone who has ever spent any time in the company of a small child…)

If anything, all this is too self–evidently true, and, to be honest, Thinking, Fast and Slow has more than its fair share of ‘no shit, Sherlock’ observations. “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy decreases.” “Self–control requires attention and effort.” “Awareness of your own biases can contribute to peace in marriages.” “Risk takers underestimate the odds they face.” “Happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”

Whether or not this is a fair criticism, Kahneman himself admits in the book that “Amos and I often joked that we were engaged in studying a subject about which our grandmothers knew a great deal.” Indeed so. You do not have to be a Jewish grandma or a psychological sceptic to scratch your head in wonder at the incredulity provoked by Kahneman’s picture of human nature.

8. The return of “miswanting”

That incredulity derives surely from the extraordinary hold that the rational–agent model has had on us, flattering our pride and underpinning our whole liberal enterprise. Our forebears, even recent ones, would have found it hard to understand why anyone should be incredulous about the idea that humans need external factors – community, institutions, traditions, ideologies – to orient us, instruct us, and to correct our own decisions; that sometimes – wait for it – we are not the best judges of our own good.

Everything liberalism has achieved, from fighting off the atavistic oppressions of a traditionalist past to combating the crushing expectations of a utopian future is grounded on the idea that we, here, now, are the ones who know best what is best for us. Because if we don’t, who does? The idea put forward towards the end of Kahneman’s book, that “we cannot fully trust our preferences to reflect our interests, even if they are based on personal experience” is nothing short of liberal heresy.

So it is as a modern heresy that Kahneman’s book works, dissolving the idea not only that we are rational, consistent individuals but even that we are individuals, i.e. single and indivisible, at all. “The moment–to–moment variability in the efficacy of the brain is not just driven by external influences… it is a characteristic of the way our brain functions.” We are warring selves. “You are not the same person at all times”. The experiencing self is different from the remembering self. We are Legion, very often, quoting the title of a book by the psychologist Timothy Wilson, “strangers to ourselves”.

The consequences of all this are momentous. Kahneman’s work is famed for many reasons. One is how it thoroughly undermines the trust we place in experts, or at least most of them. Fund managers, political pundits, and economic forecasters commonly “produce poorer predictions than dart–throwing monkeys”. One is reminded of the Queen’s deadpan question when visiting the London School of Economics after the Crash “Why did no–one see this coming?” CEOs, statisticians, and job interviewers are not vastly better, and even medics, to whom we entrust so much, do not fare that well.[15]

A second is his proposed solution to this. Part of the answer to this is simply to develop better procedures and techniques for making decisions, many of which have a “my grandmother would have said…” flavour to them: obtain outside perspectives, aggregate viewpoints, avoid fixating on short term outcomes, ensure decisions are not made under physical stress or burden, etc. Part of the answer orients him towards the use of algorithms to replace human judgement.[16] And part of the answer became evident in the whole new field of “libertarian paternalism”, “choice architecture”, and Nudge theory that his work catalysed.[17]

However, I want to end this essay not by looking not at how the disruption and solutions inherent in Thinking, Fast and Slow but by looking again at its conception of human nature and by going back to where we started. The realisation that humans are not rational agents, consistent and coherent (and selfish) in our choices has led to the coining of a new word.

“Miswanting” seems to have entered usage around the turn of the century. Kahneman dates it to a chapter written by Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, entitled “Miswanting: Some Problems in Effective Forecasting”, in a book about Feeling and Thinking: The Role of Affect in Social Cognition. The word is used “to describe bad choices that arise from errors of affective forecasting” but has spread to mean what is already implicit in that definition, namely people desiring things that will not ultimately actually make them happy or satisfied.

It’s a clever, recognisable, and eminently useful term, although one that, properly speaking, should have no place in a truly liberal society. To tell someone they miswant something is to say to them that, at this particular moment I know better than you do what you really want. And in a culture where the individual’s will is sovereign, that is hard to justify.

But in reality, we all recognise the truth of miswanting things, both for ourselves and for those whom we know and love. And so term makes intuitive sense, just as it would have done in the seventeenth century. Indeed, it would be hard to find a better term to describe exactly what transpired in Eden. Adam and Eve miswanted the apple. Their forecasting was badly misguided. They were focusing on short–term goals. They chose an immediate return over long term security.

The word is so perfect, it is hard to believe that it wasn’t used at the time. Alas, it appears not to have been. Joseph Hall, the bishop of Norwich, did use the term “miswonting” in 1606, but it is a homophone rather than a synonym, meaning “lack of use” rather than wrong desire.[18]

But, if English lacked the term miswanting, it did have alternatives. The word “misyearning”, meaning wrong desire, entered the language in about 1480. “Miswill”, meaning the same thing, was being used in 1496. Arthur Golding used the word “miswishing” in a translation of the reformer John Calvin in 1571. “Misintention” was coined in 1626, and “misinclination” twenty–five years later. Early modern English men and women had a whole lexicon to describe the phenomenon of the embodied and fallible human mind desiring and choosing that which was wrong for the embodied and fallible human being. It was a lexicon that subsequently fell out of use but one that, it seems, we may now be feel the need to resurrect. Perhaps we are finally throwing off the absurdities of the rational self–image which we preeningly awarded ourselves decades, indeed centuries ago, and are returning to a more earthy, realistic and, dare one say it, theological conception of the human. If we are, we have Daniel Kahneman to thank.


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[1] Thinking, Fast and Slow: the ‘landmark in social thought’ going head to head with Fifty Shades of Grey (

[2] He would follow this up with Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, co–written with Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein, to which I also make reference in this essay.

[3] “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti–nuclear demonstrations.” The question that follows is, “Which is more probable? (a) Linda is a bank teller, or (b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.” Illogically, many people choose (b).

[4] John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, p. 121

[5] Carey, 122, 148

[6] Michael Schoenfeldt, ‘Thinking Through the Body: Corporeality and Interiority in Donne’, in La poesie metaphysique de John Donne, ed. Claudine Raynaud (Tours: Université Presses universitaires François–Rabelais, 2002); La poésie métaphysique de John Donne – Thinking Through the Body: Corporeality and Interiority in Donne – Presses universitaires François–Rabelais (

[7] Ed Yong, ‘Nobel laureate challenges psychologists to clean up their act’, Nature, 3 October 2012; Nobel laureate challenges psychologists to clean up their act | Nature

[8] Reconstruction of a Train Wreck: How Priming Research Went off the Rails | Replicability–Index (

[9] A Meta–Scientific Perspective on “Thinking: Fast and Slow | Replicability–Index (

[10] “Maybe I had been lucky to have had the honour to be trained exclusively by, and to work alongside, some particularly astute clinicians; but the idea that an experienced radiologist assessing a patient’s chest x–ray would contradict himself or herself frequently, and sometimes after only a few minutes, was a bit of a surprise.” McGilchrist, The Matter with Things, p. 727

[11] Of the first, for example, “To my bemusement, I discovered that the paper had nothing to say about chest x–rays, or even about chests… Nor did it concern a decision of ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’, but the far harder issue of whether in the abstract a constellation of six factors on radiological examination suggested malignancy or not… The test was highly artificial…Moreover, the radiologists in question were nine, three of whom were not even fully qualified, never mind experts; and of the other six their degree of experience is not reported.” McGilchrist, The Matter with Things, p. 727

[12] Or, more precisely (and more impressively), in McGilchrist’s words, “in a difficult area which involves problematic, cut and dried, responses on imprecise matters, the [auditors] were impressively consistent. They were 100% consistent across all the judgments 80% of the time: if, under these circumstances, they had been more consistent, one might have thought they were accounting machines.”

[13] I say seems here because Kahneman is also clear that one of the anthropological errors underlying “Econs”, the false conception of the human on which economics has relied for too long, is that “the object of their choices are states of the world, which are not affected by the words chosen to describe them” (363) – precisely the criticism I am levelling at this point.

[14] Marge then chips in, “I’d sure hate to get a dozen ‘crap weeds’ for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy,” to which Homer responds, “Not if they were called ‘scum drops’.” From ‘The Principal and the Pauper’

[15] “Even statisticians were not good intuitive statisticians.” (5)

[16] “In the contest between algorithms and humans … about 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algorithms; re Meehl Clinical vs Statistical Prediction… to maximise predictive accuracy, final decisions should be left to formulas.” (223, 225) His enthusiasm is tempered by the recognition that while some algorithms might be better, they are not necessarily that much better, coming up against a ceiling of basic “objective ignorance” as any human judgment would, and that there are other reasons why we should maintain human decision making.

[17]  “Because Humans are not well described by the rational–agent model they often need help to make more accurate judgements and better decisions.” (411)

[18] “Those feeble beginnings… are soone extinguished by intermission, and by mis–wonting perish.” Bishop J. Hall, Arte Divine Meditation, vii

Image by nrkbeta, CC BY–SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 27 March 2024



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