Daniel Kahneman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Intuition and Rationality: Conversation with Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics (2002), Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University; February 7, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Kahneman, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Tel Aviv, which was then Palestine, and I was raised in France until the age of twelve, when we went back to Palestine.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

I grew up in a Jewish environment and my mother had more to do with shaping my view of the world, in some ways, than my father. My father was a researcher, but my mother certainly influenced my development. She was very interested in people and I lived in a world that consisted of people and words, really. I was never very interested in nature and animals, but people and words I was really fascinated by from an early age.

You were in Europe, in France, during the war. I would imagine that experience really had an impact on your thinking, or did it?

Undoubtedly it shaped me. I don't know what I would've been without that experience, but certainly I went through a lot of experiences more fortunate children don't have, and I was luckier than most of the children of my generation in that place in the world.

You describe in your official autobiography of the Nobel laureate an incident when you were coming home once. Would you mind retelling that story? Because it's quite fascinating.

It must have been the fall of '41, when there was a curfew for Jews. We were also supposed to be wearing a yellow star, and there was a curfew which I think was 6:00 PM. I was in first or second grade and I'd gone to play with a friend and I was going home and I missed the curfew, I was late. And so, I turned my sweater inside out and walked home, and as I was coming close I remember the street was deserted and there was this German soldier walking towards me. He was wearing the black uniform and I knew that was not good. That was the uniform of the SS. We were walking towards each other and as we were coming close he sort of beckoned me, and of course I went there, and he picked me up and hugged me. I remember being terrified that he would see the Star of David inside my sweater. Then he put me down and took out his wallet and showed me a picture of a boy and gave me some money. That's a formative memory because of what it meant about the complexity of things. I remember being very fascinated at the time by this and by stories of Hitler liking flowers and kissing babies. The complexity of evil was much on my mind as a seven- or eight-year-old.

I guess in retrospect, the expectation about what somebody like that would do if he were rational and following the orders of his organization.

No, it was more the complexity of the moment, the basic humanity of the fellow who was clearly quite capable of being inhumane at other times, and I think already knew this, but was a father and a lonely father and with a boy, and I reminded him of the boy, and I knew that immediately.

After the war, you and your mother emigrated to Israel.

Indeed.

Any memories from that experience of having that chance to go to Israel and be there during that very formative period in Israel's [history]?

Well, that was, for me, an enormous [benefit], because I was lucky, I was held up a year. I had been, you know, quite Jewish and feeble in athletics and a bit precocious intellectually, and so on. And in Israel everything was different. I had basically a normal adolescence, and I was very grateful for that. The period, of course, was a very exciting period. We went there in '46 -- actually, I think we arrived the day of the famous bombing of the King David Hotel, which was an important event in history. Then in '48 there was the war, and in '51 I started my studies, and in '54 I went into the army, so it was all quite compressed in time.

You were educated at Hebrew University?

Yes, indeed.

And what was your major?

Psychology, and my minor was mathematics.

Then you went into the army and became a researcher. Talk a little about that.

First, actually, I spent a year, which probably in many ways was at least as important, as a platoon commander, which was quite -- you know, things change you. And then I was a psychologist. It was a period when there was no psychology department. The professor of psychology had been killed in the 1948 war and there was nothing. The head of the psychological research unit was a chemist. He was completely self-taught. But the place was full of brilliant people and there was a lot of very good work being done. I was, as it were, the best trained psychologist. I had a BA which I proudly acquired in, I think, two years, and I was the best trained psychologist there, and I did a number of things that had a big influence on my development later. One of the things I did do that I'm still quite proud of is I set up an interviewing system for the Israeli army to interview recruits for combat units. I learned in 2002 [that] that interview is still in place, fifty years later. They have barely changed it, in fact. So, I had many experiences that were formative in terms of my subsequent research on judgment.

Let's talk about that interview. The problem before you was to match the skill set with the requirements of the job. Talk a little about that, and your thought processes. Here you are, a young person with only a BA, and yet you're putting in place a formula that works ...

That's a bit of history of my field in psychology. In 1954 Paul Miel published a very important book in which he showed that clinicians are much less good at what they're doing than they think they are, and that their ability to forecast events and psychological behavior in the future is really quite limited. I have no memory of reading the book but I must have read it because what I did was completely compatible with it. I don't think I could do it much better today. I set up an interview that didn't leave a lot of room for clinical intuition on the part of the interviewer. The interviewer went through a script and found out what the person had done as a civilian, basically. It turns out that when you use that information to produce ratings of various strengths, you get ratings that are predictive and are useful on whether somebody is responsible, or appreciates manliness, or is sociable, things like that. In addition, it turned out (and this was important to me years later) that when people had acquired that information, then their clinical judgment was, in fact, good, whereas if they were trying to form a clinical impression [without a script] they couldn't do it.

These observations that I made at that time became quite essential to my research about fifteen years later and they were central to the work that ultimately led to the Nobel Prize. So, it started quite early, by accident.

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