Desktop Diaries: Daniel Kahneman

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is the latest subject in our Desktop Diaries series, although he has no desk. Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton University, won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences in 2002 for his research with the late Amos Tversky on our sometimes irrational intuitions and how they affect decision-making.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Flora Lichtman is here with our video pick. Flora, you have the next installment in our Desktop Diaries series in which you get to know scientists by asking them about their desk trinkets.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: That's right.

FLATOW: And who do we have today?

LICHTMAN: It's Daniel Kahneman today. He's a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and the author of "Thinking Fast and Slow," which you may have seen on many of the best book lists of the year, The Economist's lists and The New York Times' book reviews list. And Dr. Kahneman let us stop by his New York City apartment for the Desktop Diary. But here's the thing, Ira.

DR. DANIEL KAHNEMAN: No. No, desk. I haven't used a desk for many years.

LICHTMAN: And that's not all.

KAHNEMAN: I have always emphasized the willingness to discard.

LICHTMAN: So it's challenging.

FLATOW: Oh, gee, what a challenge, a Desktop Diary with no desk.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: No desk. No trinkets.

FLATOW: No trinkets. No desk.

LICHTMAN: Very clean this workspace.

FLATOW: Does he at least have a medal to go with the Nobel Prize? They gave him a medal?

LICHTMAN: Well, it's funny you should ask that. That was the first thing I wanted to see. We had to sort of ask him questions, get to know each other, but all I wanted to see was what the Nobel Prize looks like.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So eventually, we started talking about it and I asked, do you get a physical thing? I'm thinking like the Olympic...

FLATOW: Sure. Like put it around your neck.

LICHTMAN: ...they put around your neck.

FLATOW: Sure. Right.

LICHTMAN: And he said, oh, yeah, they do. And I can go get it for you. Let me show it you. So Dr. Kahneman walks over to the other room and the door slightly ajar. They don't really want to, you know, invade his personal space; this is home.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

LICHTMAN: But it becomes clear little by little that we're not finding it.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: There are some rummaging around.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I lost the medal.

LICHTMAN: It was amazing.

FLATOW: Honey, have you seen the medal?

LICHTMAN: It was amazing.

FLATOW: Way back, yeah.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. It was amazing. He didn't initially find it. But his wife knew where it was and so...

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR with a great story from Flora Lichtman about looking for a Nobel Prize medal. And you say he did, eventually, find?

LICHTMAN: It was so charming, though. You know, he was like, I haven't taken it out in that long, which makes sense, although I feel like I'd be sleeping with it, like, under my pillow or something, making myself feel better every day by looking at it. But anyway, we eventually saw it, and it's much bigger than an Olympic medal.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: It seemed to me it was quite large. And they also give you this other nice stuff, so he had a sort of dossier of pictures and...

FLATOW: Give you chocolate coins, too.

LICHTMAN: Really? I didn't know - those maybe were gone by now. It was 2002 when Dr. Kahneman got this award. But just to give you a sense of what Dr. Kahneman has done.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So he's a psychologist and he's done a lot of observational research over the course of his career on how people make decisions. But he got the Nobel Prize for economic sciences. And the reason is because before his work, one of the sort of basic tenants of economics and, you know, economists can - will know this story better than I do. But the basic premise is that people operated in their self-interest and that there are - people can be rational decision makers, you know, except maybe when passion or love or fear is involved. And what Dr. Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky, showed was that people make irrational decisions all the time.

FLATOW: Really?

LICHTMAN: That there - yeah, I know.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Well, look, it hasn't been show before.

FLATOW: He got the prize for that.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: They showed it through observation. So I wanted you to give you an example of one of the demonstrations that they did. This is Dr. Kahneman's favorite, he said.

KAHNEMAN: My personal favorite is what I've called now regressive prediction, that is that people make absurdly, extreme predictions on the basis of very weak evidence. If I tell you about this graduating senior and I call her Julie that she read at age four. And I ask you what's a GPA? You have an answer. An answer comes to mind. I mean, you know, that's ridiculous. And somehow, it's a very narrow range of answers, and it's that sort of answer that comes to everybody's minds. So I think that's my favorite. I find it mostly - a lot of it - I find amusing and sort of interesting being an observer. But I don't ask myself a lot until it mean about mankind or humankind or whatever. I don't.

LICHTMAN: So you get this sense that...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...you know, we - you shouldn't have an answer to something like that. These - the fact that Julie could read at age four shouldn't suggest to you a GPA 20 years down or 15 years down the line.

FLATOW: Great point. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. And it's our Video Pick of the Week. It's up there on our website at sciencefriday.com. It's Desktop Diaries, a challenge to Flora this week...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...having no desktop and no diary.

LICHTMAN: What a wonderful interview.

FLATOW: And a great...

LICHTMAN: What a great...

FLATOW: ...this great interview, little slice of life when he lived in the Upper West Side, was it?

LICHTMAN: No. The Village.

FLATOW: The Village.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. It was a beautiful...

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: Just for that, it might be worth looking.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: And check out all of other Desktop Diaries. We've done so many over the years. You know, Temple Grandin, Oliver Sacks, many - E.O. Wilson.

FLATOW: Many Desktop Diary - E.O. Wilson and they're there. And if you think - do you think you know what's on Brian Greene's desktop, for example, another spare one, right?

LICHTMAN: Exactly. I think...

I remember the Brian Greene shoot vividly when I got there and I said there's nothing here. We're in this (unintelligible). But other ones, we have lots of trinkets.

FLATOW: Lots of...

LICHTMAN: And they really end up being a kind of nice - they are windows to people's soul.

FLATOW: And we have a couple in the works, right?

LICHTMAN: We do. Jill Tarter. We met with who - you heard on the program last week and Tim White. So look forward to the - more coming up.

FLATOW: And they make up trinkets what we didn't have on the desktop this time. All right.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you, Flora.

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