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Remembering Daniel Kahneman

Mar 28 2024 • 3 min read

Photo by Remy Steinegger. Copyright by World Economic Forum

It was with great sadness that we learnt of the news that the towering figure of the behavioural science world, Daniel Kahneman, passed away. We know that there are already many wonderful tributes online that detail the life of the psychologist who famously won the Nobel prize in economics.

I was lucky enough to meet Daniel Kahneman on several occasions. One of my abiding memories was of his incredible humility. Unlike anyone I had ever come across, certainly anyone operating at the centre of government (where I’d spent most of my working career), he was willing and able to say ‘I don’t know’ if he didn’t feel he had the knowledge or reading to back up what he was saying. This of course also meant that when he did give a view on a subject matter, you knew it was worth listening to.

He used this humility to remind us about the role of chance in our lives (which successful individuals invariably pay little attention to), and in explaining what his findings meant for anyone aspiring to eliminate bias from their own decision making. Trying to do so, he warned us, would ironically be a sign of over-confidence. Being the world’s most celebrated behavioural scientist did not mean, for example, that he was not susceptible to anchoring effects (‘never buy a couch at the same time that you are buying a house’, he advised from personal experience).

And it led to very practical insights. His brilliant work on the ‘planning fallacy’, which he began in the 1970s with Amos Tversky but was still working on in the 2000s, explains our all-too-human tendency to underestimate the time, cost and risks of projects (why is it that your home renovation always overruns, or a government mega project never keeps to budget?).

And this invariably led to very practical advice, like getting an outsider to give a view on timeframes for a project, and advocating for the running of premortems (as devised by Gary Klein), which involves thinking through, in advance, what might have ‘killed’ a project. And then working through, in advance, the steps you will take to mitigate them.

At CogCo, one of our favourite Kahneman insights is the peak-end rule, which documents how we judge an experience based on how we felt at the most intense point (i.e. the peak) and at its end. At the end of Kahneman’s great life, so full of towering peaks, it seems apt to focus on the great influence he had on so many of us.

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