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How We Think, Past and Present

I’ve just finished Richard Holmes’ mesmerizing book on the romantic age of English science, “Age of Wonder.” It describes a time when science and poetry walked arm-in-arm, with awe-inspiring breakthroughs in botany, astronomy, chemistry, and aviation. No sooner would William Herschel redefine the nature of the heavens, than Coleridge or Byron or Shelley would put it to verse.

The time period is 1769 through 1834, and it is populated with the giants upon whose shoulders Darwin would stand (“On the Origin of Species” was first published in 1859). Holmes is an exuberant reporter with great care for his subjects’ blind spots. And he gives fair credit to the fairer sex (something the Victorian men could not manage to do), especially Caroline Herschel, Sir William’s sister who became the first woman to be on the royal payroll as a scientist.

Last night I started Daniel Kahneman’s reflections on his 40+ years of studying the psychology of decision-making under uncertainty. The book is called “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

You may have heard Kahneman’s name associated with the field of behavioral economics. Indeed, his article written with his late collaborator Amos Tversky in 1974 on “Judgment Under Uncertainty” provided the foundations for behavioral economics. Just as the philosophers in Richard Holmes’ “Age of Wonder” opened new pathways of understanding the external world, Kahneman and Tversky cast our inner world in new light. Among the gems in the first 25 pages:

• “We documented the systematic errors in the thinking of normal people, and we traced these errors to the design of the machinery of cognition rather than to the corruption of thought by emotion.”;
• “We are prone to over estimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events.”;
• “Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight.”; and
• “A recurrent theme of this book is that luck plays a large role in every story of success.”

Here’s hoping you’re lucky in 2012! [And not overconfident.]