Breaking: college professor discovers books

March 19, 2023

I have previously lamented my general inability to fit book-reading into my life.

Well, guess what — I’m currently reading an actual book, and I’m learning a lot from it!

The book is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011). It’s about how people make decisions, usually relying on our brain’s fast, intuitive “System 1” while occasionally consulting our slower, more deliberative “System 2.”

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating that humans are often less rational than economists have assumed. He has plenty to teach us about decision-making. However, my biggest “Aha!” moment did not concern the clever psychology experiments summarized throughout the book, but rather the meaning of the word “shotgun.”

Here is the key passage (from Chapter 8, “How Judgments Happen”): “The control over intended computations is far from precise: we often compute much more than we need or want. I call this excess computation the mental shotgun. It is impossible to aim at a single point with a shotgun because it shoots pellets that scatter, and it seems almost equally difficult for System 1 not to do more than System 2 charges it to do.”

The bit about shotguns was meant only as a quick reminder of how they work, but for me, that was quite a revelation in and of itself. “Wait a minute!!!!” screamed my brain. “You mean to tell me that shotguns don’t fire bullets!?!?” I was so stunned that, as a sanity check, I called my dad (who knows about firearms, like most adults, especially in a state like Vermont, which has a relatively large population of hunters).

I realized that, for many years, I had held some contradictory ideas in my head without ever noticing the contradictions. On the one hand, I was vaguely aware of “shot” as being a bunch of little pellets of lead or something — an idea consistent with my recollection of the Dick Cheney hunting accident and my understanding of the term “buckshot.” On the other hand, I had never considered what one might call a gun that shoots shot, and instead had assumed that shotguns shoot bullets, like revolvers, which I pictured as being flatter than shotguns but also somehow synonymous with shotguns.

It was satisfying to (finally, at age 49) resolve these paradoxes in part because my understanding of a bunch of shotgun-related metaphors was instantly enriched. Within my own field of biology, for example, there’s shotgun sequencing, in which chromosomes are blasted apart into many small pieces. Twenty years after the human genome was sequenced with this game-changing technique, the name suddenly makes much more sense.

So, in conclusion: these things known as “books” are really something! Apparently they’re just chock-full of useful information! You all should check ’em out sometime.

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