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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Being a Psychologist

I'm interested in exploring with you the skills of a psychologist; in other words, this interface between skill set and the requirements of the discipline. Talk a little about that because students often want to know what it takes to do [a job that they] want to do.

You must enjoy observing things, and that must be true for people who do zoology or biology. You must enjoy observing other things. I like observing people. And probably for a psychologist it also helps a lot to examine yourself. So, I think many of the best ideas that I've had have come from examining events in my life, and examining how I respond to events in my life. And so, that's been a source of ideas -- "inspiration" is too big a word, but certainly a source of ideas.

What you learn in the course of a career is not to ask questions that are so big that there are no answers to them. You look for questions that can be answered, but you look for questions that have a twist to them, that are somehow interesting. I've been lucky. I've had a few of those.

I think of research as a conversation, and it really is very much like a conversation. No single person dominates it, but what does happen is when you interject something, when you contribute something to a conversation, you want to be understood, you want to be heard, you would like people to pay attention, you would like it to have some influence on the way the conversation goes. You don't control it. But thinking in conversational terms and trying to say something that is interesting as a criteria, not merely publishable but actually is interesting -- that's been part of what moved me.

As I listen to you talk, I have a sense of an element of humanity in your research design. The Jewish expression would be zeichel, that part of what you've done in your work is to find simple questions that then open up the conversation. Is that fair?

I think it's fair. I was drawn to a particular kind of research, but actually I was inspired by research that I read as a very young professor. I read work by a very famous psychologist, Walter Mischel, and I read his thesis, I think it must have been in 1964, and in his thesis he had asked children a single question -- I think he had two questions but one was, "There is that fairy or magician who can make of you whatever you want to be. What do you want to be?" If they said a profession or some trade that has to do with achievement it was scored one, otherwise zero. He would give them two lollypops, a large one and a small one, and he would say, "You can have this one now or that one tomorrow." It turned out that the answers of those two children predicted everything in sight. I was enormously impressed by that, and I call that the psychology of single questions, and it turned out to be an ideal for me, of doing research about single questions, of having single examples. A few years later I was fortunate enough to be able to do the psychology of single questions and I have largely kept to that, kept to very simple points, making very simple points.

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