Daniel Kahneman is the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist who has changed the way we think. It’s all down to luck, he tells Richard Godwin
One word keeps coming up in Daniel Kahneman’s conversation. It is luck.
The 80-year-old Israeli-American is recognised as one of the most influential thinkers alive today. His theories of dual-speed processing and heuristics are to cognitive psychology what Darwin’s theory of evolution was to biology. His talent for describing his findings in clear, illuminating language has earned him a popular following most rock bands would envy.
And yet the way he tells it, this impish octagenerian sitting opposite me in the Royal Institution library, almost all of his findings were sheer chance. He was fortunate to survive an early boyhood as part of a Jewish family in occupied France, lucky too that his mother was a “talented gossip” who inspired his fascination for how very strange people are (including the SS officers patrolling their town). He claims he wouldn’t have made any of his advances if it wasn’t for a chance meeting with his late friend and collaborator, Amos Tversky, on a “lucky day” in Jerusalem, 1969. “It was sheer luck that I met him, that I liked him, that we worked together so well and that our method of doing so would prove to be so influential,” he says.
In 2003, when he won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on prospect theory, it was “sheer luck” again. “You know the Nobel Prize is not given for the quality of the work…” Still, bit of a fluke that the idea that humans are not rational financial beings was so startling to economists and created the entirely new discipline of behavioural economics.
As for Kahneman’s million-selling 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow — the distillation of his life’s work, dedicated to Tversky, who died in 1996 — well, we count ourselves lucky that he wrote it at all. “I hated every minute of writing it and I didn’t like it when it was finished,” he complains. “So its success has been a great surprise to me.”