How to Misspell your Allusions – Riener on Dyson on Kahneman (and Freud and James)

Ok, let me begin by saying how much I love the New York Review of Books. You should totally subscribe to it. It is generally great content, and they make a lot of it free online to free loaders like you (haven’t subscribed yet?). Tons of thought provoking stuff.
Second, Freeman Dyson is a super super smart man, an amazing physicist and a pretty good science writer to boot. His review of James Gleick’s The Information was excellent (and the book itself was great). Although I am not so sure about his climate change skepticism I generally think his scientific judgment is legitimate.

Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson (photo from visionshare's flickr stream, used under creative commons license)

Dyson’s latest review, of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow annoyed me. In a nutshell, he is a physicist, not a psychologist, not a historian, and yet he speaks with confidence about the state of modern psychology, as well as its history. This confidence is misplaced, because not only does he get a few specific things wrong, but he also mischaracterizes the field.
The trouble begins with a seemingly innocent and typical heaping on of praise for Kahneman:

Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize for economics. His great achievement was to turn psychology into a quantitative science. He made our mental processes subject to precise measurement and exact calculation, by studying in detail how we deal with dollars and cents.

No. Kahneman did not single-handedly turn psychology into a quantitative science. Many psychologists throughout history have “turned” psychology into a quantitative science. Herman Ebbinghaus taught himself nonsense syllables and measured every step, discovering the effect of serial position in memory (in a list, we will remember the first and last things better than the middle) as well as plotting a forgetting curve.

Figure 2 from Li and Lewandowski (1993) replicating the serial position effect discovered by Ebbinghaus

B.F. Skinner may have overreached, but the principles of operant conditioning were arrived at using quantitative methods, and are still used in animal training as well as kindergarten classrooms. The beginning of the cognitive revolution, with experiments from Ulric Neisser, George Miller, and Jerome Bruner used quantitative methods. Milgram’s obedience study was not simply one case of one group of people obeying an experimenter and shocking another, but a veritable program of research, with many replications. Likewise with the bystander effect and cognitive dissonance. This is all outside of my area of expertise, perception, which I am sure Dyson wasn’t including as psychology, in that it includes quantitative methods beginning with Fechner’s Elements of Psychophysics (1860/1912), and continuing to the present day.

This might all sound like a bit of snobbish namedropping, but saying that psychology became a quantitative science in the early 1970’s ignores a great deal of history. What Dyson credits Kahneman with (“precise measurement and exact calculation”) has been the goal of psychology since Fechner’s elements of Psychophysics in 1860:

“The task did not at all originally present itself as one of finding a unit of mental measurement; but rather as one of searching for a functional relationship between the physical and the psychical that would accurately express their general interdependence.”

Gustav Fechner

Disappointed Fechner is disappointed with you, Prof. Dyson

Obviously, we haven’t always met that standard, of finding the relationship between the measurable quantities in the world, like money, or light and our experience of them. But there was a great deal of psychological science before Kahneman.

Ok, this should have prepared me for where the essay was going: Freud. Dyson begins his foray into Freud by noting that Freud was not mentioned by Kahneman, and that Freud is dismissed by most modern day scientists and psychologists. But wait, Dyson is going to tell us why Kahneman in fact owes a debt to Freud:

Freud wrote two books, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901 and The Ego and the Id in 1923, which come close to preempting two of the main themes of Kahneman’s book. The psychopathology book describes the many mistakes of judgment and of action that arise from emotional bias operating below the level of consciousness. These “Freudian slips” are examples of availability bias, caused by memories associated with strong emotions. The Ego and the Id decribes two levels of the mind that are similar to the System Two and System One of Kahneman, the Ego being usually conscious and rational, the Id usually unconscious and irrational.

Freudian slips are no more instances of the availability bias than Democritus’ atoms are the inspiration for the Large Hadron Collider. It is trivially easy to say “mumble mumble Freud, mumble, emotions, mumble unconscious, irrational.” The concept of the unconscious had been around well before Freud (see Henri Ellenberger’s excellent Discovery of the Unconscious). And the Ego and the Id are not any more similar to System 1 and System 2 than a whole host of other ways of splitting up our brain (I think a better cousin would be Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain).

Dyson adds another paragraph, telling us how Freud is mostly literary, while Kahneman is scientific. But he ends his treatment of Freud with this:

But together with the poetic fantasies, he discarded much else that was valuable. Since strong emotions and obsessions cannot be experimentally controlled, Kahneman’s method did not allow him to study them. The part of the human personality that Kahneman’s method can handle is the nonviolent part, concerned with everyday decisions, artificial parlor games, and gambling for small stakes. The violent and passionate manifestations of human nature, concerned with matters of life and death and love and hate and pain and sex, cannot be experimentally controlled and are beyond Kahneman’s reach. Violence and passion are the territory of Freud. Freud can penetrate deeper than Kahneman because literature digs deeper than science into human nature and human destiny.

Ok, so this is surprising. A physicist taking a psychologist to task because … because … because he is not mystical enough? Because literature digs deeper into human nature? Kahneman apparently concerns himself with parlor games, not the real stuff, because psychology can’t do real experiments on the important parts of human nature. How’s this? Life and death: Milgram’s obedience studies show how we abdicate responsibility allowing seemingly normal people to do great evil. Phillip Zimbardo reminds us that Abu Ghraib shows this to be no fluke. Elizabeth Loftus’ memory studies can help exonerate the falsely accused. Love and hate: Dyson clearly hasn’t read Dutton and Aron’s classic (1974) “Love on a Bridge” study in which people misattribute their increased heart rate and find an experimenter more attractive when they are standing on a bridge of stereotype and prejudice research by Claude Steele, Mazarin Banaji, Brian Nosek, and many others show us the different dimensions of “hate” how prejudice can be unconscious as well as conscious. Pain and sex: Most ironically, Kahneman himself has done some interesting work on pain. Sex, well, you’ve got me there. Someone recently did an MRI scan of a female orgasm but this is hardly science, even though it looks all sciency (“Look! the whole brain lights up! memo to science journalists: your whole brain is just about always “all lit up”. Even when you are sleeping). I suppose I could cite the old “homophobic men are more aroused by gay porn” study by Adams, Wright and Lohr (1996).

The point is that Dyson sets up a nice straw man so that he can reference the only psychologists he knows anything about: Freud, Kahneman, and William James. Kahneman, just like he ignores Freud, also ignores James and his 1902 classic Varieties of Religious Experience. What’s that you say? James also published another book, perhaps more relevant to the present case, which is still in print today? What is it called? Oh yeah. The Principles of Psychology. But no, Dyson resolutely has James stand next to Freud: “Freud and James were artists and not scientists.” James may not have been a scientist himself, but he contributed to the science in a way that Freud did not, and is still considered relevant in a way that Freud is not. Just look at the table of contents of the Principles of Psychology. “Perception,” “Attention,” “Reasoning,” “Emotion” they are remarkably similar to a modern day Cognitive Psychology textbook. It is not at all uncommon for a psychologist to invoke James’ definition of attention:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state.”

James may not have been an experimentalist, and he may have been enthralled with mysticism, but he was no artist and he has not been banished into literature the way Freud has. James was an acute observer of the science of psychology in his time (“It is not a science, it is the hope of a science”) and an astute prognosticator of the shape of the science to come.
So I come to the nice, neat end of Dyson’s review:

Admirers of Freud and James may hope that the time may come when they will stand together with Kahneman as three great explorers of the human psyche, Freud and James as explorers of our deeper emotions, Kahneman as the explorer of our more humdrum cognitive processes. But that time has not yet come. Meanwhile, we must be grateful to Kahneman for giving us in this book a joyful understanding of the practical side of our personalities.

Dyson damns Kahneman (and my whole field; “humdrum”? grrr!) with faint praise and yet sees his as one of the three great explorers. Dyson would have us believe this is due to some incisive historical allegory, but to this humble teacher of the history of psychology, it is proof that a physicist who can see to the edges of the universe seems myopic when left to reason about the little psychology available to his limited imagination.

Cedar Riener

Assistant Professor of Humdrum Cognitive Processes, Cedar Riener

I could restrict my disappointment to Dyson himself, but this is too often a theme in the modern reporting of psychology. I would love to read a review which places Kahneman’s book in its historical context. Unfortunately, that is a job for a psychologist, or a historian of science. I am sure that a publication with the reputation of the New York Review of Books could get a cognitive psychologist who has written successfully for a popular audience like Arthur Markman, Christopher Chabris, Mark Changizi. I think the compiler of all the wonderful historical documents above would also do a great job: Christopher Green. Or just take a look at the incomplete but not bad list of people on the wikipedia page for Cognitive Psychology. No offense to physicists, but we wouldn’t have Steven Pinker review Stephen Hawking, why should the reverse be ok?

About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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10 Responses to How to Misspell your Allusions – Riener on Dyson on Kahneman (and Freud and James)

  1. Cathy Reilly says:

    I think you should send this into the New York Review of Books for publication. Everyone who innocently read Dyson’s review should also read your apt and informed comments.

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  3. Liza L says:

    I don’t care who invented the unconscious, Freud or other. But correct me if I’m wrong — to hear a cognitive-behaviorist such as Kahneman admit to the importance of something approaching an unconscious is kind of radical, don’t you think?

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Liza P – Thanks for reading and commenting. I do think you are wrong in thinking that is news, but I think part of that is due to a misunderstanding. While in the clinical psychology world “cognitive-behaviorist” has some meaning (as in cognitive-behavioral therapy) in the rest of psychological science these two approaches were directly in conflict, but the cognitive approach mostly won. The behaviorists may have disavowed any mention of the unconscious, but the cognitive revolution meant a new way of talking about the unconscious. Cognitive psychology invokes the unconscious all the time, but not in the sense that Freud did. Your brain is always doing processing you aren’t aware of, whether it is visual processing, or making decisions based on shortcuts and biases, or remembering things (or forgetting them) without knowing why. The new cognitive unconscious (aptly named “the adaptive unconscious” by Tim Wilson in his book: Strangers to Ourselves)) is not necessarily primitive and sexual in the way that Freud and the psychoanalysts thought but rather adaptive in that it facilitates quick efficient processing for those tasks for which the brain evolved.
      Anyways, thanks for reading.

  4. Liza L says:

    I am still learning here so I appreciate your reply to my comment. I will get Tim Wilson’s book to understand more. Still, very generally speaking, would you agree that Kahneman’s new book brings cognitive theory and psychoanalytic theory closer together?

  5. Karl Dise says:

    Thank you for posting this essay. I too was disappointed and annoyed by Dr Dyson’s review of Thinking Fast and Slow, having skimmed through it when I perused a copy of the New York Review at my local independent book store (I intend to subscribe after I retire). I am a little less than half way through Kahneman’s book, but am enthralled. I have been a risk analysis facilitator for the last 17 years, attempting to arrive at failure probability estimates for large embankment dams using expert elicitation. The national inventory of dams is consistently awarded a ‘D’ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, while time, staff and budget constraints limit what dam safety improvements can be achieved. We have been trying to find a rational way to prioritize the work by quantifying failure probabilities and consequences for each of our facilities. Working out the methodology has led me to dabble in history and philosophy of science literature looking for ways to understand how to make valid conclusions by inferences from uncertain information. I recently read Ralph Barton Perry’s “The Thought and Character of William James” and had started reading “The Writings of William James” edited by John Mc Dermott. I put this aside when a friend told me about Thinking Fast and Slow. I had read some of Kahneman’s work in “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” and suspected I would gain additional insight on the nature of evidence by reading more. I had no idea how helpful his book would be. I am tasked with preparing a training workshop on facilitating risk analysis and plan to draw heavily from this book. Dr Dyson seems to have thought he was reading a book about the history of psychology or a memoir of Dr Kahneman’s career instead of a book about the nature of thinking. It makes me wonder if Dr Dyson’s thinking is conducted so much using the language of mathematics that he has not wondered at all about diagnosis, intuition, and synthesis. Anyway, thanks again for expressing your displeasure.

    Karl Dise
    Senior Humdrum Practitioner
    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Risk Management Center

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks so much for dropping by and leaving such an interesting comment, Karl. It is always amazing to consider the far-flung fields that psychology can inform. I am teaching some of Kahneman’s work in my January term class, I am going to bring up your example if you don’t mind.
      I can imagine that you have an incredibly difficult job, trying to spread limited resources in the best way, estimating how you’ll get the biggest safety bang (so to speak) for your engineering buck. It is good to hear that work in cognitive psychology offers the possibility of doing it better.

  6. Ben Barkow says:

    Dr. Riener’s critique of Dyson’s critique is one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve read in years. Astonishingly right-on. Riener will be going places… unless praise like this makes him neurotic.

    If I am not mistaken, Kahneman does mention (or very closely alludes to) the world of Freud. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier than to see that great classic so beautifully written, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, get some respect after years of being ignored and hard to integrate into psychology.

    Related is the re-legitimizing of “subliminal persuasion.” Sure, lots of recent literature that shows it isn’t pure hoax but Kahneman brings it in out of the cold (and I am blushing for not being more accepting or a better psychologist until now).

    And about sex, I must say one of my first thoughts (out of a million stimulated by Kahneman) was to Masters and Johnson and some very germane riddles of sex therapy. Sex performance clearly invokes Kahneman’s two systems and poorly functioning people are treated to sort-out (read: kick out) the rational/observer brain when the automatic brain ought to be in charge.

    Few books have engaged me as much as Kahneman’s (and Daniel Azrieli is companion literature). If taken seriously, it calls for quite a major re-thinking of the field. For sure, it should put an end to all the silly,largely metaphorical talk about left- and right-brains.

    BTW, I would no teeth left if I gnawed my teeth in anger every time a book review editor set an ignorant person to write a review of a psychology book. Have they no judgment? And these editors are the last of the Freudians.

    I am an elderly applied psychologist with an 85-page professional resume.

    Ben Barkow

  7. Cedar Riener says:

    @Ben Bakow Thanks! I know you are right about the editors of psychology book reviews. I fear the same is the case for a lot of popular coverage of psychological science, which is often not included as a science, and therefore the science journalists covering it needn’t have a psychology background.
    I wish Kahneman’s work (and the work of other cognitive psychologists) would rid us of metaphorical right brain/left brain distinction. Unfortunately, there is always a desire to simplify, and the left/right metaphor feels right to too many people, and doesn’t leave them asking for more details. Of course, Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 are also oversimplifications, but with more a bit more evidence, and acknowledgment that they are overgeneralizations.
    Anyways, thanks so much for stopping by.

    • Ben Barkow says:

      A word to explain more about sex therapy… by way of talking about applying Kahneman to sleeping.

      When you are struggling to fall asleep, one technique is to count back from 1000 by 7s. What you are trying to do is subvert your rational mind by keeping it busy.

      So the practical side of Kahneman, which he does not address much, is: just what techniques will wrangle the rational mind best, and work for getting to sleep or in sex therapy.


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