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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I would be interested in your reflections on human nature, because you've devoted a whole career to looking at the quirks of our personalities, the blind spots in our rational thinking. Have you ended up in the same place that you started with? You started, you said, with complexity: the interaction with the soldier in the streets of Paris, there was complexity. Is that where you still are, and has anything come out of your research that has informed you of human nature?

There are different intellectual styles, so there are some people who summarize their world and can summarize it in one big idea. That's not the way my mind works. I think there is some coherence in my view of the way people work, but I have built things one brick at a time and I don't think I have a simple summary. I can, in general, find pretty good arguments to reject any simple idea about human nature, but it's not that I have a simple idea of my own to substitute for it. So, in that sense, yes, complexity is my message.

If students were to watch this program, do you have any advice for them about how they should prepare for their future if, for example, they want to go into the field of psychology?

My main advice would be to look at the natural traps that await anybody who does research. One of the real traps is to get trapped by a research program that is fundamentally uninteresting, and also, the reluctance to cut your losses so that when you've done something that is not very interesting, wasting time trying to publish it is almost always a big mistake, at least in my judgment. Look for things that are worth doing and discard things that don't work, and know that if you're reasonably good at what you're doing, and otherwise you shouldn't be in that profession, but if you're reasonably good at it, then ideas are a dime a dozen. You'll get lots of ideas. You need some ideas that work and that keep you excited and that you can do something with. And so, not getting stuck on an idea that doesn't work, but looking for other ideas -- that would be my general advice. That certainly has been how I've operated.

At the end of your autobiography you go back to your relationship with Amos Tversky, and you quote him, and I thought these were both very interesting comments. You say, "But the other side of freedom is the ability to find joy in what one does and the ability to adapt creatively to the inevitable." And you go on to tell us that he often said, "Let us take what the terrain gives."

This was a graveside eulogy for Tversky when he died in 1996, so that's the context. So, adapting to the inevitable, I was commenting on how he managed his death, which was really exemplary. He did quite extraordinary things in managing his dying. "Let's take what the terrain gives" was the expression of his wisdom as a researcher in his latter years, and it's the idea that you cannot define in advance the problem that you're going to solve. If you decide that "I'm going to solve this problem," you're not going to do it. What you do is, you are in that area and you do the best you can, you take what the terrain gives, and you adapt to what it is that you can find out and you don't try to force your ideas on nature. You're guided by what is achievable.

It's very good advice to some people; it was very good advice for him, better than for me, for example. But that was his intellectual style.

You mentioned that you might do another book. Is there a piece of research, an agenda that you still want to pursue in that space?

I've been working the last ten, twelve years on issues of well being and experience and measuring experience, and the book that I'm thinking about is actually a trade book. I don't know if it will happen at my age, you never know. But it would cover the main topics that I've worked on, because I've given a lot of public lectures and I like taking to lay audiences, and in general I like thinking simply about the things I do. And so, I thought it would be a good opportunity to put things together.

Do your insights about intuition apply? Are they a useful foundation for understanding what makes this happen?

No. There is a lot in common because there are certain mistakes that we make in anticipating what will and will not make us happy, and these mistakes are very well understood by the notion of substitution that I mentioned earlier. We make highly predictable errors in thinking about our future, about what makes us happy, about what makes other people happy.

On that note, Professor Kahneman, I want to thank you very much for coming back to Berkeley and for appearing on our program.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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