Thinking, Fast and Slow, about Popular Psychology Research

I’m reading another popular Psychology book. It appears I just can’t help myself, even though they all mostly highlight the same set of studies. This one is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Unfortunately, this one had the same approach that drives me nuts about these books: a lack of critical analysis into how confident we can be that the existing research base on a given topic is replicable, generalizable, and free of confounds.

At one point he talks about research on priming, which is the phenomenon that people’s actions can be influenced in surprising and subconscious ways by the world around us. He discusses, for instance, the Florida Effect.

In regards to whether priming is a real phenomenon, Kahneman notes, “Disbelief is not an option. The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes.” Strong claim! Actually, I found this refreshing; he had apparently looked at the research closely enough to opine that the effect is irrefutable. I’d rather he gone into some analysis of how he got to that conclusion (for example, dealing with available disconfirming evidence), but I understand he’s trying to sell books.

Still, offering absolute assurance felt odd to me, so I went looking into the Florida Effect. Turns out I only had to go as far as Wikipedia to find out that even Kahneman believes there is significant work to be done by the priming research community due to dissension and a lack of reproducibility in the research community. He wrote an open letter to priming researchers imploring them to get rigorous or risk being marginalized.

While he clearly still believes the research results have validity, he doesn’t have the same conviction as “disbelief is not an option.” Indeed, it appears disbelief is absolutely an option for some researchers. If there’s doubt, Kahneman has had a professional responsibility to point that out in his book, even if he is a believer.

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