What Our Greatest Psychologists Say About Psychology and Society

Kahneman and Tversky are America's leading psychologists -- or are they?

Posted Oct 21, 2011

If you search the Psychology Today Web site for the names Kahneman and Tversky appearing together, you get 19 hits (less than two pages), all of them PT blog posts.

Yet Daniel Kahneman and long-time colleague Amos Tversky (Tversky is no longer alive) are the most widely acknowledged psychologists of our time.  In today's Times, columnist David Brooks says the two "will be remembered hundreds of years from now" for how they changed the way we think of ourselves. Kahneman, meanwhile, is the only psychologist ever to have won the Nobel Prize.

But that Nobel Prize was in economics (there is no Nobel for psychology, and the one for medicine is given for basic medical science, and not for clinical therapeutics).  As the paucity of PT cites indicates, K & T are not on every psychologists' lips.  Their work focuses on cognitive hermeneutics (patterns of thinking and responding) and biases and has been widely adopted as a necessary corrective to idealized versions of economic thought steeped in rational decision-making.

Freud and K & T

Speaking of unacknowledged -- not to say unconscious -- sources of thinking and behavior inevitably suggests the name Sigmund Freud.  Yet virtually no one connects K & T with Freud, and Freud's stock -- from a time earlier last century when his name was synonymous with psychotherapy -- has plummeted in recent decades.  Should Freud receive more credit primarily for his recognition that a large pool of cognitive activity operating below the surface of consciousness is so critical to human functioning?

CBT and K & T

The leading school of thought in American psychology is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims -- a la Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck (a psychiatrist) -- to address irrational, dysfunctional thinking that negatively impacts people's behavior.  CBT and K & T both are non-reductive -- that is, they address the impact of human thought on behavior rather than biological or genetic substructures that many claim to underlie both thinking and action. 

And, like K & T, CBT concentrates on misguided and erroneous human thought.  Unlike K & T, CBT views such thinking as idiosyncratic (rather than comprising heuristics that typify human thought) and eminently correctable (rather than being fundamental to our thinking).  Although K & T suggest ways to correct for dysfunctional heuristics and biases, these correctives are most often off-the-cuff afterthoughts; it's not what they study.  CBT is basically optimistic, K & T pessimistic.

K & T and Society

While David Brooks lauds K & T's work, it runs counter to his own political instincts.  That is, as a conservative, Brooks likes to emphasize how idealistic -- and just plain average -- Americans strike out on paths to realize their goals and to improve society.  But if human thinking is as deeply and persistently flawed as K & T portray it to be, then society and its inhabitants are mainly going to be bumping their heads up against walls.

To demonstrate that this is so, Brooks can simply leaf through the pages of his own newspaper (in fact, many of Brooks' own columns are about how misguided Americans and their representatives are).  For example, the same edition of the Times where his K & T column (entitled "Who You Are") appeared provides ready examples. 

Two primary symbols over which politicians are busy fighting this election season are debt and immigration.  And both these discussions reveal deep strands of irrationality.  Nobel-winning economist and fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman consistently argues that reducing public spending will prolong the recession.  Yet, the favorite boogeyman for Republican politicians and candidates is public spending and resulting debt.  Today's Times details how states, as they have pulled in their spending on public services and reduced their payrolls, are collecting far less taxes than they anticipated driving them deeper into debt and prolonging America's economic slump.

Meanwhile, as Republicans vie to see who can be the most antagonistic to Latino alien immigrants, another Times columnist, Timothy Egan, describes how Washington state can't find workers to pick its apple crop.  With Latino workers no longer welcome in much of the United States, native-born Americans simply refuse to take on such back-breaking and low-paying labor.  Both of these symbolic issues (debt and immigration) are examples of the operation of heuristics and cognitive biases that make it impossible for Americans to rationally assess competing policies.

Have K & T Changed Our Society?

All in all, while their work is widely cited and influential in academic economics, it is hard to identify K & T's influence on applied psychological thought in America.  This is due either to the lack of exposure for their ideas in popular venues, or else because their work doesn't have that much broad, practical application.

You tell me.