Kahneman’s optimistic view of the mind


Jason Collins


September 24, 2014

In the Gerd Gigerenzer versus Daniel Kahneman wars, most of the projectiles seem to fly one way. Gigerenzer attacks directly, Kahneman expends little effort in defence.

As one test of whether my impression was correct, I searched Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for how many times Kahneman directly mentions Gigerenzer. The answer is six, once in the index and five times in the notes. Gigerenzer is not alluded to in the main text.

Of the notes, only one is substantive, but it is an interesting point. In a slight reversal of their usual roles, Kahneman defends the power of the human mind:

An alternative approach to judgment heuristics has been proposed by Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and the ABC Research Group, in Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). They describe “fast and frugal” formal procedures such as “Take the best [cue],” which under some circumstances generate quite accurate judgments on the basis of little information. As Gigerenzer has emphasized, his heuristics are different from those that Amos and I studied, and he has stressed their accuracy rather than the biases to which they inevitably lead. Much of the research that supports fast and frugal heuristic uses statistical simulations to show that they could work in some real-life situations, but the evidence for the psychological reality of these heuristics remains thin and contested. The most memorable discovery associated with this approach is the recognition heuristic, illustrated by an example that has become well-known: a subject who is asked which of two cities is larger and recognizes one of them should guess that the one she recognizes is larger. The recognition heuristic works fairly well if the subject knows that the city she recognizes is large; if she knows it to be small, however, she will quite reasonably guess that the unknown city is larger. Contrary to the theory, the subjects use more than the recognition cue: Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “Not So Fast! (and Not So Frugal!): Rethinking the Recognition Heuristic,” Cognition 90 (2003): B1–B9. A weakness of the theory is that, from what we know of the mind, there is no need for heuristics to be frugal. The brain processes vast amounts of information in parallel, and the mind can be fast and accurate without ignoring information. Furthermore, it has been known since the early days of research on chess masters that skill need not consist of learning to use less information. On the contrary, skill is more often an ability to deal with large amounts of information quickly and efficiently.