Who truly thought up the idea of the econs?

On Start the Week at 9am on radio 4 UK Monday, 17 March 2014, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University was the main guest. He says that he wants to say there are no econs. The econs are an imaginary species that never existed. Kahneman says they were thought up by the economists but real people are more like the other animals in being not rational, like the econs are supposed to be, but he says they are quite reasonable.

Humans as they are, says Kahneman, are in two minds of what he calls system one and system two viz. of fast thinking and slow thinking. Most human thought and ideas are of system one, or of fast thinking. It is almost, indeed Kahneman says, repeatedly, that it is, automatic. System two, by contrast, requires quite a lot of effort all too often and thus tends to be dodged by most people. But system one requires no effort, it is effortless and many of its ideas are retained by the slower more deliberate thinking of system two.

Kahneman feels that fast thinking leads to error. He finds lots of conformation bias. One lot of errors he names as anchoring. Court judges roll a dice and if it scores low then they tend to give out low sentences but if it scores high then they tend to think in terms of high sentences in the court cases they precede over. It is not only judges and lawyers who are thus influenced by random numbers that might be suggested by a roll of the dice, or some other source of suggestion, but we all are, says Kahneman. But we tend to see errors made by others way clearer than we do when we make them ourselves.

Any risk introduces a bias of two kinds. We greatly fear a loss and much more than we desire its equivalent in gains. Kahneman feels this is irrational as in money terms as he feels they will be exactly the same. He tends to feel that arithmetic is neutral.

Though he admits that he errs by fast thinking, like he says we all do, he is basically an unreflective man who seems to be in a permanent state of hubris. Looking at the human race in general, Kahneman says it is luck that seems to play a big part in their success.

At this point, the chairman, Tom Sutcliffe, said that the golf player, Gary Player, said that the more he practised the more luck he had.

Kahneman continues that when we are faced with dilemmas of loss on both sides, we tend to gamble almost recklessly though fear of loss on either side. But the discussion then tends to drift towards Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon that says that doctors should first do no harm but that high emotion can cloud our judgement so whether to operate on the brain is never that simple. Lisa Appignanesi holds that the French might well be right to hold that a crime of passion is beyond the free will of the criminal, thus he might not be responsible for even murder. She notes that it usually referred to males, as females were considered irrational or at least next to it anyway.

Michael Ignatieff was also there and they all seemed to agree that it was usually honour rather than passion that was at the fore in what has been called crimes of passion. In any case, I would say that we are as responsible for what we do in a fit of passion as we are under what David Hume would call cooler emotions. All our emotions are quite rational. A man in hot temper that might mean to give his wife a beating but he might well very soon, even instantly, cool down if she draws a gun on him. He might even lie that he was not about to hit her in that case.

Many of Kahneman’s sympathisers call fast thinking intuition. I think he is right to say it is just fast thinking but not distinct from slower thinking as he also says with the use of language though both are usually tacit. Slowness may well aid us to correct errors but so may later fast thinking. It seems to be clearly wrong of Kahneman to think it is radically distinct. Most insights will be tacit and very rapid indeed. But any assumption risks error. There is no epistemological royal road that allows some privileged assumptions, such as those of arithmetic, that do not risk error. So we always need to rethink. Error is likely so we need to check for it. Kahneman writes and talks as if he is unaware of his own folly. And it seems to be superabundant. Even when he admits to error in his own fast thinking, he seems to only do so as otherwise he might be openly claiming the superhuman status he seems to feel is truly his due. But buffoon status seems to be his actual due but he has been lucky. By playing to the gallery he has been given the Noble Prize.

Kahneman has said that if ever we think that we have reasons for our beliefs then that is often a mistake but that looks like yet another error of his, as we always believe what seems true to us at any one time and there is usually an abundance of known reasons as to why we think this, or that, is the case. None of them are likely to be errors as to why we believe even if the belief itself is a delusion. If a bush looks like a man from a distance, as one does in a garden that I pass most weeks, then I can see why I first thought it was a man, even though I now know it is a man-seeming bush only. If we think we know why we believe that will usually be right, thought sometimes we might not know why we feel a meme is..

Most people seem to doubt almost any belief that another challenges, even if only for a moment. We certainly forget most things. Most people will have forgotten most they believed the day before. When we recall things it is usually owing to some reminder in the present moment.

Kahneman feels our errors are not random but systematic, without us realising the fact. Well, it is quite true that we cannot err if we do realise it is an error, as Plato made clear over 2500 years ago. If an assumption seems to be the case, we will most likely make it again so our errors will recur till we realise that the assumption that we make is false.

As a Chess player in the 1960s, I often did, by fast thinking, see an error then look at many other moves then come back to use the error that I only again realised as such after I had pressed down the key on the clock after making the erroneous move. I might agree that slower thinking might well have checked that folly of forgetfulness. But Kahneman seems to think both that slow thinking is different in a radical way and that it gets more insights and both those ideas of his seem to be false. A slow insight seems to be out of the question.

Kahneman might now be wedded to his bogus idea that we have two radical ways of thinking, as he worked it out with his friend, Amos Tversky, who is now dead. I do not think there is a case for saying that slow thinking is more logical though I do think that logic is maybe to do with the external account, or logos, rather than of thought, it is a way of testing, as is also observation, rather than being psychology or the way we think. However, the mind does relate quite well to logic in that the mind does make assumptions. Any one of them can be false or true. Whatever it is what Kahneman calls system one or system two, fast or slow, it will be equally logical as logic is not about what is true or false but rather about only valid inference. What Kahneman calls conformational bias errors seem to be logical enough but errors only as they based on false assumptions. We need observation to check for the truth or falseness of what we assume. Systematic error may be owing to valid logic but false assumptions.

We are told by Kahneman fans that slow thinking is the great problem solver, that it is the star, as the recent Horizon team said. But nearly all insight seems to be very rapid. Most people might agree with me that insight is the acme of thought. If so, then why consider slow thinking as the star?

We are also told that we are not aware of tacit decisions that we make rapidly but that seems alien to my own experience.

A pet idea of the psychologists here is that we are not aware of tacit thought but I expect there is hardly anyone who is unaware in that way. But a lot of fast thought will be spent so quickly that we will soon forget it. Most of what we think, as well as most of what we believe, is hardly worth talking about, still less to remember. Belief and thought are usually very fickle. No live mind can discipline itself with ease to be loyal to any explicit theory. Most of the assumptions we make will hardly be confined to a single paradigm, however we are committed to it. We can embrace creeds at will but never believe them at will. To think is usually to rethink. So we rarely believe in any of our theories, certainly not any religion or in any political creed. To be committed is to do with our values rather than with what we think is the case.

The laziness and reluctance to ponder over things that is part of Kahneman’s case I have often experienced when I disliked the topic, but not often whenever I liked the topic. I never experienced that reluctance when I used to play Chess, for example.

The fans of Kahneman hate money and they most likely hate the market too. They prefer their college sinecures. They repeat, over and again, that money in particular gets us to err but they seem to overlook that the waste of money does provide an incentive to get us to think twice if we later feel we have erred. They say we spend impulsively but do we not later realise the errors owing to not having enough money? Or is it worth it for us, thus not a waste of money, after all?

They tell us that we are over influenced by what other people think, but then we need to think for ourselves just to get an idea of what others think. But the psychologists never seem to think that their criteria is more likely to be dysfunctional than is any of the many biases they might discover in humans. They repeatedly go on about redesigning the economic system, as if it was on par with re-decorating out a single house.

I do not think that the Noble Prize committee were right to award the Noble Prize to Daniel Kahneman but I do agree with them that they are right not to have a Noble Prize for backward psychology, or so-called brain science, as, like astrology,, psychology is a pseudo-science. It has no hope of telling the public anything substantial beyond mere common sense.

It is not clear that the rational assumption, said by the likes of Kahneman to be a vital part of economics has any effect on the main body of economic theory at all. As Gary Becker might ask, can its replacement ever affect the downward sloping demand curve? I tend to think not.

However, what is clearer is that David Hume and Adam Smith never held the same selfishness assumption that Thomas Hobbes made but rather they both agreed with Joseph Butler that Hobbes erred on selfishness. Like Kahneman, Butler held that humans were more like the other animals, that language was useful but over rated by the likes of Descartes and Hobbes. In this, Butler began the line of thought that led to the theories of Charles Darwin. Later economists like P.H. Wicksteed tended to also agree that Butler was right. So econs look as if they were mainly thought up by Kahneman himself, at least as he thinks of them. In common with all his other ideas, they do not seem to be as important as Kahneman thinks they are.