Thinking Fast and Sl…

Thinking Fast and Sl...

Earlier today, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw something striking, though maybe not surprising.

According to the tweet, only 7% of people that start Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” end up finishing the book.

Curious of how this was determined, I picked up a copy of the book that stat was plucked from: “Everbody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are”.

Towards the end of the book, the author tells us how a clever researcher figured this out:

“Then, one day, a friend of mine emailed me a study by Jordan Ellenberg. Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, was curious about how many people actually finish books. He thought of an ingenious way to test it using Big Data. Amazon reports how many people quote various lines in books. Ellenberg realized he could compare how frequently quotes were highlighted at the beginning of the book versus the end of the book. This would give a rough guide to readers’ propensity to make it to the end. By his measure, more than 90 percent of readers finished Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch. In contrast, only about 7 percent made it through Nobel Prize economist Daniel Kahneman’s magnum opus, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Fewer than 3 percent, this rough methodology estimated, made it to the end of economist Thomas Piketty’s much discussed and praised Capital in the 21st Century. In other words, people tend not to finish treatises by economists.”


And good news for you. Imagine how much more you’ll know than most of your colleagues if you just muscle your way through books like “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

This stat also highlights how weak intention (also known as motivation) is.

Every single person that laid out hard-earned cash for “Thinking Fast and Slow” did so with the intention of completing the book (and learning a ton). All of them were motivated.

But only a tiny fraction of that starting group crossed the finish line.

This highlights something we behavioral scientists have known for some time: Motivation is a fickle mistress. It works like gangbusters for getting people to do one-time behaviors—such as purchasing an item or signing up for a newsletter. For long-term behavior change, though, it’s not nearly as effective. Don’t rely on it.

For long term behaviors, making the desired task as *easy* as possible is the way to go. This is why “Thinking Fast and Slow” has such a low completion rate… it’s a moderately challenging (and long) book. It requires a decent amount of thought to get through some of the sections, and a lot of the concepts in the book are going to be alien (and thus require a lot of effort) to understand.

I bet that the readers with a background in psychology and research have a MUCH higher completion rate. Why? Because they have the necessary background knowledge to comprehend each section. It’s *easier* for them.

So if we were put on a project to increase the completion rate of “Thinking Fast and Slow”, I’d make sure we spent a lot of our initial time mapping out all of the concepts in the book… which concepts are foundational, which build on that foundation, etc. Then, I’d make sure that the book taught those concepts appropriately, so that foundational concepts came first, and so on. You’d be surprised by how poorly most educational materials do this. This is partly due to the “curse of knowledge”. People that are expert in a topic are bad at knowing what other people don’t know, and assume that seemingly basic topics are understood by a lay audience—since they’re so familiar to them. They’re like the fish that can’t see the water that they live within.

If the material is presented in a conceptually appropriate manner, though, and the *ease* of reading is enhanced… I have no doubt we could double, triple, even quadruple the number of people who finish it. But that would mean more of your coworkers would finish the book, and we don’t want that 😉

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