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Thinking About Kahneman’s Contribution to Critical Thinking

A Nobel laureate on the importance of 'thinking slow.'

Key points

  • Kahneman won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work.
  • He found that people are often irrational about economics.

During my Ph.D. studies, I recall focusing on reconceptualising what we know of as critical thinking to include reflective judgment (not jumping to conclusions and taking your time in your decision-making to consider the nature limits, and certainty of knowing) on par with the commonly accepted skills and dispositions components. The importance of reflective judgment wasn’t a particularly novel idea – a good deal of research on reflective judgment and similar processes akin to critical thinking had already been conducted (see King and Kitchener, 1994; Kuhn, 1999; 2000; Stanovich, 1999). However, reflective judgment – as opposed to intuitive judgment – didn’t seem to have ‘the presence’ in the discussion of critical thinking that it does today.

The same month I submitted my Ph.D. back in 2011, a book was released that massively helped to accomplish what I had been working to help facilitate – changing the terrain of thought surrounding critical thinking: Thinking, Fast, and Slow. Its author, Daniel Kahneman, passed away a couple of weeks ago at age 90. Psychology students will likely recognise the name associated with Amos Tversky and their classic work together in the 1970s on the availability, representativeness, and anchoring and adjustment heuristics (for example, Tversky and Kahneman, 1974). Indeed, such heuristics, alongside the affect heuristic (Kahneman and Frederick, 2002; Slovic and colleagues, 2002) play a large role in how we think about thinking and barriers to critical thought. In 2002, Kahneman won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on prospect theory concerning loss aversion and people’s often irrational approach to economics. Indeed, Kahneman’s resume is full of awards and achievements.

However, the accomplishment I will remember him best for is the publication of Thinking, Fast, and Slow and its contribution to the field of critical thinking. Funny enough, I don’t recall the term, critical thinking being used very often in the book, if at all – and I read it two or three times. No, critical thinking was not the focus of his book; rather system 1 (fast) and 2 (slow) thinking (see also Stanovich, 1999) – intuitive and reflective judgment. Not only did this book put into the spotlight many of the mechanics of reflective judgment for fellow academics and researchers of cognitive psychology, it also did so l for non-academic audiences – becoming a New York Times bestseller. Moreover, it won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Current Interest, and the National Academy of Sciences Communication Award for Best Book (both in 2011). Good thinking was cool again in popular culture.

In the critical thinking literature, reflective judgment – regardless of what you want to call it (for example, system 2 thinking, epistemological understanding, ‘taking your time’) – is becoming more accepted as a core component of critical thinking. The field of critical thinking research and psychology more broadly, owes Kahneman a debt of gratitude for his contributions in helping shine a light on the importance of ‘thinking slow’. Thank you.


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. 2UK: Penguin.

Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. Heuristics and biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, 49(49-81), 74.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. CA: Jossey-Bass.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (2004). Reflective judgment: Theory and research on the development of epistemic assumptions through adulthood. Educational Psychologist, 39(1), 5–15.

Kuhn, D. (1999). A developmental model of critical thinking. Educational Researcher, 28(2), 16-46.

Kuhn, D. (2000). Metacognitive development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(5), 178-181.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). Rational actors or rational fools: Implications of the affect heuristic for behavioral economics. The Journal of Socio-economics, 31(4), 329-342.

Stanovich, K.E. (1999) Who is rational? Studies of individual differences in reasoning. Mahwah, Erlbaum.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases: Biases in judgments reveal some heuristics of thinking under uncertainty. Science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.

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