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Debunking the Myth of Intuition
June 3, 2012 7:54 PM   Subscribe

"Can doctors and investment advisers be trusted? And do we live more for experiences or memories? In a SPIEGEL interview, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses the innate weakness of human thought, deceptive memories and the misleading power of intuition."
posted by vidur (43 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Added to my bucket list: start a homeopathic hedge fund. Our successful investments will be massively diluted by failure.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:57 PM on June 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


This was a very interesting article - thanks!
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:06 PM on June 3, 2012


System 1 and System 2!? I never thought I would stumble upon Stafford Beer's Viable System Model again. Really interesting cybernetics / system theory stuff once you get past that no one uses it anymore.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:10 PM on June 3, 2012


Added to my bucket list: start a homeopathic hedge fund. Our successful investments will be massively diluted by failure.

How do you propose to distinguish yourself from other hedge funds?
posted by escabeche at 8:15 PM on June 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


What a great article. Thanks. Some good takeaways:

If I encounter something many times, and it hasn't eaten me yet, then I'm safe. Familiarity is a safety signal.

I don't think we really are very keen to be self-controlled all the time

I especially appreciate the distinction betweeen "the experiencing self" and the "remembering self," and find that I have little trouble devaluing the experiences of the experiencing self as long as they enriched the store of satisfaction continually offered by the the remembering self.
posted by Miko at 8:22 PM on June 3, 2012


I enjoy reading his stuff a lot, though I'm yet to actually read Thinking Fast and Slow.
posted by smoke at 8:24 PM on June 3, 2012


This was an interesting article. The notion of not caring how long something takes, just how it ended, is pretty compelling.

Couple of links:

Gary Marcus' Kluge might be of interest; it doesn't cover quite the same material, but it's all about where the brain gets things wrong, and why it does.

Narrative Identity:
But for that subject to be a person, a genuine moral agent, those experiences must be actively unified, must be gathered together into the life of one narrative ego by virtue of a story the subject tells that weaves them together...
Galen Strawson's Against Narrativity (summary).
I think the [Narrativity theses] hinder human self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, impoverish our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress those who do not fit their model, and are potentially destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:25 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


SPIEGEL: In your view, the remembering self is very dominant -- to the point that it seems to have practically enslaved the experiencing self.

Kahneman: In fact, I call it a tyranny. It can vary in intensity, depending on culture. Buddhists, for example, emphasize the experience, the present; they try to live in the moment. They put little weight on memories and retrospective evaluation. For devout Christians, it's completely different. For them, the only thing that matters is whether they go to heaven at the end.

SPIEGEL: People reading your book will sympathize with the poor experiencing self, which essentially has to do our living.

Kahneman: That was my intention. Readers should realize that there is another way of looking at it. I would say it's comforting for me because both my wife and I complain all the time that our memories are terrible. We don't really go to the theater to remember what we've seen later on, but to enjoy the performance. Other people live through life collecting experiences like you collect pictures.


I've often thought that the whole "I spend my money on experiences, not things" approach was, in a way, just as materialistic in the focus on acquisition, and just as disengaged from the present.

In his somewhat crude distinction between Buddhism and Christianity, Kahneman's sympathies seem to be with the Buddhists ("we don't go to remember, but to enjoy"), so it's surprising to read that he considers it important to view life as a collection of stories. Many contemplatives, of whatever denomination, who emphasize staying with the present experience instead of distracting oneself with thoughts of the past or future, also suggest detaching from the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. They're two sides of the same coin.

I wonder if this is just how it came out in the interview, or if the discussion in the book matches his comments.
posted by BigSky at 8:45 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kahneman's sympathies seem to be with the Buddhists ("we don't go to remember, but to enjoy")

I actually read it as the opposite - that he saw greater value in the memory than the experience. Even though he talked about enjoying watching the silly movie in the moment, it seemed critical that the enjoyment wasn't lasting.
posted by Miko at 8:57 PM on June 3, 2012


I actually read it as the opposite - that he saw greater value in the memory than the experience. Even though he talked about enjoying watching the silly movie in the moment, it seemed critical that the enjoyment wasn't lasting.

I wish this had been discussed in greater detail, because while I see some ambiguity, I think the force of his argument is going the opposite way. He says that his intention in writing the book is to have his audience sympathize with the experiencing self, wanting to show them "another way of looking at it". The other way presumably being other than the conventional identification with the "tyrannical" remembering self.

I don't want to overstate the case. He's not making a good/bad distinction, just perhaps indicating there is some benefit to be had in giving the experiencing self more attention.
posted by BigSky at 9:13 PM on June 3, 2012


Maybe; it's really hard to tell based on one interview when there's clearly a lot more.
posted by Miko at 9:19 PM on June 3, 2012


I just recently read the book, and generally enjoyed it, but don't remember much of it. Hm.
posted by maxwelton at 9:27 PM on June 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


System 1 and System 2!? I never thought I would stumble upon Stafford Beer's Viable System Model again. Really interesting cybernetics / system theory stuff once you get past that no one uses it anymore.

That's not the same thing. Kahneman is referring to Dual Systems Theory (or Dual Process Theory), first put forward by Stanovich. It's often discussed in cognitive science.

I'm a little surprised that Kahneman approvingly brings up Terror Management Theory. I would have thought he'd think it's hooey.
posted by painquale at 10:21 PM on June 3, 2012


Reactive mind. Engrams. Rocket ships that look like DC-8s.
posted by chimaera at 10:40 PM on June 3, 2012


Galen Strawson's Against Narrativity (summary).:

The basic form of Diachronic self-experience is that one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future...If one is Episodic, by contrast, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.

Hrm. So the "episodic" people see their biological lives as a series of chronologically successive episodes happening to the same human body, albeit each episode happening to a "different" mental self. There's a useful word for a series of episodes linked linearly in time, even if they happen to different characters. Someone help me out here.
posted by shivohum at 10:47 PM on June 3, 2012


I'm a little surprised that Kahneman approvingly brings up Terror Management Theory. I would have thought he'd think it's hooey.

Why would he think it's hooey? It's gotten extensive empirical support and publications in the top psychology journals, and Kahneman must know that.
posted by shivohum at 10:49 PM on June 3, 2012


Shivohum, do you mean picaresque? Although, that style need not be linear, to my knowledge.
posted by zangpo at 5:24 AM on June 4, 2012


As someone possessed of an excellent memory, I see the remembering self enriching the experiencing self. Each and every moment is awash not just in what I'm doing, but a vast sea of associations, background knowledge, and memories both immediately relevant and off topic. Without everything that came before, the present moment would be so much flatter. Without the experiencing self, there are no memories. Without the remembering self, we, as people with histories, direction and agency, don't really exist. They're not two separate "selves", just another conceptual breakdown that somewhat misses the territory for the map.
posted by Lighthammer at 5:27 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I went to sleep last night thinking about this and my 1998 summerlong cross-country trip. There were many times on that trip that my "experiencing self" was cold, wet, hungry, short of breath at high elevations, irritated with my traveling companion, concerned about money, travel, and timing, footsore from hiking, overheated, overtired, and cramped up from sleeping on the ground. My experience self didn't experience that trip as one long rush of pleasure. However, my remembering self is extremely grateful for the hardships my experiencing self was willing to endure. Foremost in my memory are the incredible, majestic views of National Parks and landscapes, the great meals by campfires, seeing the Milky Way, the people we met along the way, the history we learned in the museums we visited, and the love for the country and is people that I developed as a result of wandering in it for a while. Even my experiencing self knew this, and made the conscious choice to be uncomfortable some percentage of the time not just because the experiences that went with that were good, but also in the knowledge that I would be reviewing some of the experiences with enjoyment for the rest of my life, without also having to re-experience the discomforts.

So I'm not sure it makes sense to think of one as "better" or "worse." The remembering self deserves to be a bit privileged, I think, as Lighthammer notes, because it's the remembering self that constructs an idea of self. The experiencing self can be satisfied or not satisfied, but once the experiences pass they are no longer directly sensed.
posted by Miko at 5:51 AM on June 4, 2012


I'm glad he brought up the issue of childbirth because it seems like the classic case. My wife has commented with other women who affirm that your memory get very warped. The experience is often so hard and grueling that it is a wonder that a second child is ever born, yet the finale of birth is (generally speaking) so joyous and positively memorable. It feels like evolution has played a little trick on us here.

It makes me a little uncomfortable to accept that the duration of discomfort is irrelevant to my perception of it. I like to think I'm more measured and observant about my past experiences, but I can think of plenty of personal examples that affirm it.
posted by dgran at 6:07 AM on June 4, 2012


Uh. The investment management stuff bums me out a little bit because it heaps all the errors on the side of the managers. The reality is we know there are a few performance anomalies that unarbitrageable i.e. they persist, and the reason why they persist is because people are evolved against taking those sort of risks, so when I show up and say to someone "I buy crappy low ROE businesses at low multiples of book value and some of them occasionally go bankrupt, but that's ok because the survivor's massively outperform and I don't really care too much about knowing too much about them beyond how they score on a ridiculously simple algorithm" I get laughed at despite the fact there is a wealth of empirical evidence that says what I just described is one of two ways to outperform the market over time (pure price momentum is the other). Instead people want to hear "I know my companies better than anyone else and I buy great high return businesses that people don't appreciate how great they are." and that guy is much better placed to raise heaps of money. Add that in to people not understanding the role luck plays in performance and its no wonder active managers generally don't add value - because people don't want to hire the sort of strategies that K&T's work tells you should work.

TL;DR - Its not just the managers who rely too much on type 1 thinking, its also the clients.
posted by JPD at 6:28 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shivohum, do you mean picaresque?

Heh, I just meant that linked, connected episodes were narrative.
posted by shivohum at 8:03 AM on June 4, 2012


linked, connected episodes were narrative.

But not necessarily. They can be narrative, but a narrative has to be imposed on them by an observing mind.
posted by Miko at 11:21 AM on June 4, 2012


They can be narrative, but a narrative has to be imposed on them by an observing mind.

Yes, but to do so is both natural and useful.

Strawson has inspired me to my own observation: some people believe in books; I only believe in chapters. I refuse to group the chapters together. Some people might do that or think it's a good thing. Not me. In fact, sometimes I don't even believe in chapters; at those times, I only believe in pages. And hey, pages, from what I can tell, are only sets of words. Who says that an observing mind has to bind them together? Words want to be free, and so, come to think of it, do letters...
posted by shivohum at 10:08 PM on June 4, 2012


Yes, but to do so is both natural and useful.

I'm not sure what this has to do with the larger point. The observing/remembering mind is essential to turning raw experience into narrative.

If it's only raw experience, it disappears as soon as the experience is over, so there can be no narrative.

Words want to be free, and so, come to think of it, do letters...

I tried to read your comment, but it just looked like "HVAC agriculture ply of scabrous lick fennel afhsd t s s s s s s sr lading kj ;lk ued."
posted by Miko at 7:01 AM on June 5, 2012


The observing/remembering mind is essential to turning raw experience into narrative.

Right, I think I agree with you there. I just disagree with Strawson. He said that creating a narrative out of your life story is not necessarily either natural or good. I was disagreeing with that.
posted by shivohum at 8:58 AM on June 5, 2012


Oh, I see. Yes, I agree with that point. I missed his use of that language.
posted by Miko at 9:27 AM on June 5, 2012


I disagree with your disagreement.
posted by unknowncommand at 1:26 PM on June 5, 2012


Feel free not to create a narrative out of your life story.
posted by Miko at 6:01 PM on June 5, 2012


Done and done.
posted by unknowncommand at 3:14 PM on June 7, 2012


What, did you respond to something I said with something logically connected? I think you failed the test.
posted by Miko at 7:53 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Logically connected ideas are not the same as narrative. I'm not trying to be a jerk; it's just that the Strawson article resonated strongly with me. People perceive their lives and selves differently, and (barring sociopathy or psychological pain or whatnot) it seems unhelpful to say that it's unnatural or bad to do so.
posted by unknowncommand at 3:50 PM on June 8, 2012


If you think you're the same person as the one who read my comment a couple of days ago and are replying to it today as the same person, you have connected the two with a narrative. There's no way around that. Otherwise you'd have read the comment as directed to someone else, having no memory of your previous comment as something which came from you. The narrative is exactly what tells you that you're the same person you were a few days ago.

People do perceive their lives and selves differently, but very few us perceive our lives as having no narrative whatsoever. Those people may find pleasure in some moments, pain in others, emptiness in still others, due to some profound differences in mental function caused by developmental disability, brain deterioration, etc. You don't strike me as someone like that, so I suspect you do connect events in your life with a narrative - the narrative being that they are part of a single, individual life - yours.
posted by Miko at 4:52 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


So then I'm lying? Or mistaken, maybe. In my perception of my life and self.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:55 PM on June 8, 2012


The article isn't talking about absolute meaninglessness, from second to second. Not amnesia or dissociation. It's relative. Or maybe his other stuff makes that more clear? Dunno.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:02 PM on June 8, 2012


Yes, I think you're mistaken if you think you are not creating a narrative. You do so simply by connecting your self of this moment with your self of the moments that happened yesterday, the day before, the year before, and so on.

Your experience of having a continuous self is a narrative - the narrative that says "yesterday I woke up and went to work. Today I woke up again" assumes that the main plot thread is your individual experience.

The subject of the post seems to embrace this idea.
SPIEGEL: Why is it so important for us to imagine our lives as a collection of stories?

Kahneman: Because that's all we keep from life. It's going by, and you are left with stories. That's why people exaggerate the importance of memories.
He doesn't contest that narrative is central to human experience. He simply questions whether immediate experience or memory should be more heavily weighted.
posted by Miko at 10:04 PM on June 8, 2012


That Strawson article is extremely interesting! Thanks for linking to it. He gives a pretty interesting list of people who he suspects do not naturally construct their selves into narratives:
Among those whose writings show them to be markedly Episodic I propose Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly Episodic person who is a natural story teller), Freddie Ayer, Goronwy Rees, Bob Dylan. Proust is another candidate, in spite of his memoriousness (which may be inspired by his Episodicity); also Emily Dickinson.
He also includes Rilke.
posted by painquale at 11:37 PM on June 8, 2012


I just don't know how you can argue that, when in fact they do seem to have maintained a personal identity. The fact that they're free to experiment with identity doesn't mean that Bob Dylan, for instance, wakes up each day not remembering his past as Bob Dylan. Emily Dickinson, if you read her letters, clearly traces a continuing thread of experience through her life, and lives a lot of the time in memory.

It seems that there is just something quirky and unconventional about his definition of "narrative." He seems to construe it as freedom to be spontaneous and to reinvent oneself. Narrative, though, is so fundamental to the brain that many current neuroscientists and philosophers are arguing that we are actually made of it - that there is no self without narrative, that we are no more than the stories we tell ourselves about our "self," that our "self" is largely a linkage of episodes into a single narrative we recognize as our existence. Self-consciously being aware of ourselves as ourselves is constructing a narrative, no way around that. That some people describe themselves and behave to create the narrative of a freewheeling, creative, spontaneous and experientially driven person doesn't mean they aren't creating a narrative.
posted by Miko at 5:39 AM on June 9, 2012


Although on reflection, I think I've been distracted by the idea that people are claiming there is no narrative in some of these (or their) lives - not even a narrative as fundamental as that which constructs the self. There are a few people without that narrative, but we tend to consider them severely impaired. However, if we think of it along a continuum of people who live very consciously in their own narrative, and people who focus more on the moment to moment in an "episodic" way, I certainly think that's reasonable. But I think it's important to acknowledge that there are some really important metanarratives in place even for people who live more in the moment.
posted by Miko at 6:15 AM on June 9, 2012


I dunno, I think what's at issue is more about what is meant by 'self' than by 'narrative'.

If you think you're the same person as the one who read my comment a couple of days ago and are replying to it today as the same person, you have connected the two with a narrative. There's no way around that.

This makes it sound like narrative is essential for a thing to be tracked across time. If I say that this chair is the same one as the chair that was here yesterday, or that these this sodium atom is a later stage of that earlier sodium atom, am I linking the two chair stages by a narrative? Does a squirrel who buries a nut and digs it up later necessarily develop a narrative to identify the nut-from-before with the current nut? If so, then that seems to be the fairly weak and quirky sense of 'narrative' (and the claim that narrative is essential to the persistance of the objects themselves would seem false: it's the same chair regardless of whether there's anyone to tell a story about it). If not, then there's room to connect the Painquale of today with the Painquale of yesterday without appealing to narrative. The same human who read the comment yesterday read it today in the same way that the same chair say in the corner yesterday that did today.

In any event, Strawson has a very particular conception of the self in mind:
The first thing I want to put in place is a distinction between one’s experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as a human being taken as a whole, and one’s experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as an inner mental entity or ‘self’ of some sort – I’ll call this one’s self- experience. When Henry James says, of one of his early books, ‘I think of . . . the masterpiece in question . . . as the work of quite another person than myself . . . a rich . . . relation, say, who . . .suffers me still to claim a shy fourth cousinship’, he has no doubt that he is the same human being as the author of that book, but he does not feel he is the same self or person as the author of that book. It is this phenomenon of experiencing oneself as a self that concerns me here. One of the most important ways in which people tend to think of themselves (quite independently of religious belief) is as things whose persistence conditions are not obviously or automatically the same as the persistence conditions of a human being considered as a whole.
Think about the way that we might say that someone went into prison and left fifty years later a different man entirely. That might seem, on the face of it, contradictory, but any apparent inconsistency is resolved when we consider that there's a sense of self (possibly equal to the human body) that persisted across fifty years, and there's another sense of self (possibly constructed by narrative) that was created anew. Strawson's interested in the latter sense.

So, there are two responses to the claim that being able to talk about persistence across time is enough to establish the narrativity thesis. Firstly you need to establish that you're talking about the same sense of self; claims about persistence across time are often about something other then "the interesting" sense of self. Secondly, once you've fixed on a sense of self, you also have to establish why narrativity gives the correct persistence conditions for that sense of self rather than some other criterion, given that there can be other sorts of persistence conditions.

I just don't know how you can argue that, when in fact they do seem to have maintained a personal identity. The fact that they're free to experiment with identity doesn't mean that Bob Dylan, for instance, wakes up each day not remembering his past as Bob Dylan.

The memory argument is interesting. Strawson has a go at it in section 4. The jist is that I can remember things that happened to me but did not happen to me*, where 'me' picks out something like my human body and 'me*' picks out the self that Strawson is interested in. The guy who walks out of prison after fifty years can remember things that happened to him before entering prison, even thought they didn't happen to the new man* who was created inside.

I've liked the narrativity thesis for some time, so I need to think about Strawson's arguments.
posted by painquale at 6:48 AM on June 9, 2012


That might seem, on the face of it, contradictory, but any apparent inconsistency is resolved when we consider that there's a sense of self (possibly equal to the human body) that persisted across fifty years, and there's another sense of self (possibly constructed by narrative) that was created anew.

Yes, we often feel like we have multiple "selves" within us with differing viewpoints. There nevertheless is an overarching narrative between these selves that the human mind insists on using as a category. How did the man who went into prison become the man who left it? There is a narrative in time and memory as to how that happened. It is not simply tracking the motions of the body; it is tracking the growth of the mind, of personality, of autobiographical memory.

There is quite obviously both continuity and change over the entire lifetime, and for Strawson to deny the former is simply tendentious.

People do in fact think about their autobiographical memory as the key category for what defines their self -- the self that underlies the multiple selves, the self that was transformed and yet remains through the discontinuities. One can maintain that there is no such underlying self, but that's just a bizarre semantic argument: people still naturally and inevitably think in terms of "their" childhood, of "their" past, even if in some sense they are very different people from back then. And, if they are reflective, they want to know how they got from who they were to who they are... the possibility of that path is the underlying self.

Our sense of identity is by nature linked to our body of memory. To say otherwise is exactly like trying to maintain that some people do not think in books, they only think in chapters. Yes, some strange philosophers might, but it is clearly an artificial way of going about things.
posted by shivohum at 8:24 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


This makes it sound like narrative is essential for a thing to be tracked across time. If I say that this chair is the same one as the chair that was here yesterday, or that these this sodium atom is a later stage of that earlier sodium atom, am I linking the two chair stages by a narrative?

Most definitely! You just did it. You even interpolated an observing self.

About squirrels, I can't speak. They might not require narrative. I have, in fact, read in the past that squirrels instinctually cache food abundantly in their living areas. When they go in search of these caches in the winter, they actually may be able to find many caches basically by looking again for good places to cache stuff. In other words, they don't remember where they hid anything - they just look for good hiding places, exactly as they did before. That they find food doesn't mean they remembered it or created a narrative, it just means that when it was time to put food away, they did so, and now it's time to find hidden food, and they just do so. I think there have been studies observing that they only ever retrieve a small fraction of what they hid, anyway, showing that they aren't operating from memory when they do the retrieving. Also, they don't retrieve only what they hid, but also anything other squirrels may have hid. So I think squirrels, lacking the self-consciousness to even create the "here I am hiding food in a cache for the winter" metanarrative, are a red herring.

there's room to connect the Painquale of today with the Painquale of yesterday without appealing to narrative.

Exactly. There really is no way. Even if the Painquale of today has lost his memory of himself and is living in a purely episodic moment, or even living in his own mind in a moment in which he is perpetually seven years old, the only reason his identity inheres in his body is the narrative of Painquale created by others - his family, lawyers, authorities, etc. Identity is really nothing other than a narrative - what else could it be? Yes, a chair as object remains a chair whether or not there is anyone to see, but the idea of it as a "chair" depends on the narrative of an observer who perceives this pile of atoms that were once trees and then were cut, carved, and assembled into a handy accommodation for sitting on is all narrative. Otherwise it's no different than a rotting log in the forest, or a leaf pelted by rain on the sidewalk, or a clay deposit hardening in the sun.
posted by Miko at 9:47 PM on June 11, 2012


Yeah, read some more about the squirrels, and it's mainly a great sense of smell they use to re-locate nuts within their territory (even if they weren't the one that hid them). One of the studies found they "forgot" the location of about 74 percent of their nuts.
posted by Miko at 6:06 AM on June 12, 2012


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