Daniel Kahneman opens his book on cognitive biases, thinking errors, and observed processes within the field of cognitive psychology in an interesting place. Thinking Fast and Slow begins with Kahneman praising gossip, and explaining his hope for the readers of his book. He does not hope that readers of his book will avoid gossip and stop talking about others behind their backs. He hopes readers will gossip better, and understand the thought processes, mental limitations of the human mind, and mental errors that go into all of our gossip.
Kahneman writes, “The hope for informed gossip is that there are distinctive patterns in the errors people make. Systematic errors are known as biases, and they recur predictably in particular circumstances.”
What he hopes for is that understanding how the brain works will help us all have better conversations at the water cooler, or at lunch with a colleague, or in the evening when we get home and want to vent to a spouse or parent or pet. Gossip can be a powerful tool in developing and shaping the norms of society, and if we are going to give gossip so much power, we should at least do our best to ensure that our gossiping is well informed, accurate, and that when we gossip we understand how our minds are reaching our gossipy conclusions.
Certainly Kahneman’s real hope is that writing about and explaining gossip in a way that more people can access than simply putting his ideas in academic journals will lead to fewer negative externalities in the world from biases, prejudices, and simple cognitive errors. However, for most people, Kahneman thinks the water cooler gossip forum is where his ideas and research will really impact people’s conversations.
The point is that the human mind doesn’t exactly work the way we tend to think it does. It feels as though we have one thought that rationally flows from another thought. That we are observant, considerate, and are willing to come to conclusions based on fact and observed reality. Through his research in the book, Kahneman shows us that our brains are predictable in the errors they make. They are not as rational as we believe, and our thoughts don’t flow coherently from one idea to the next. The observations we make are always incomplete relative to the full information of the reality around us, and our choices and actions are far more motivated by what we want to believe is true than is actually true in reality. Knowing all of this, Kahneman hopes, will make us more cognizant and reflective in our gossip, hopefully helping the world to be a slightly more accurate and enjoyable place to be.