The meaning of life? Don’t ask

They arrive on bookshop tables with comforting regularity: Blink, Nudge, Sway, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Black Swan. Abstract, playful titles that suggest a theory of everything. In the past decade, the stream of behavioural economics titles for the general reader has intensified. They are books that stray dangerously close to pop psychology, but are rescued from the self-help shelf by dint of being the preferred bedtime reading of the modern politician.

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is the latest in the chain. Kahneman, a 77-year-old Israeli-American psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, is soon to visit London and is booked to give the customary No 10 seminar - another brainy visitor who might offer some helpful psychological trick of the light.

They might have picked the wrong guy in Kahneman, who is tentative to the point of self-defeating. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes two systems of human thought: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is our instinctive, intuitive mode of thinking; System 2 is more considered and logical. Often we only use System 1 - relying on gut instinct to make choices, rather than rationally considering all eventualities. System 1 sometimes gets it right. But it can also be guilty of propelling us into poor decision-making.

If the book was called How to Change Your Life and Make Better Decisions, TODAY! or - in the Malcolm Gladwell vein, Slow - you might expect a final chapter that instructs the reader in how to more frequently employ System 2 to one's advantage, and how to be wary of the pitfalls of System 1. But Kahneman, when we speak on the phone, reveals that he is "not a great believer in self-help" or good intentions.

At the end of the book, Kahneman uses himself as an example to illustrate the limitations of his research: "System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to my age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognise situations in which errors are likely - and I have made much more progress in recognising the errors of others than my own."

Misery index

Kahneman tells me he would prefer to "measure misery" than well-being to influence public policy, for example. "It's not so much that you can't measure well-being - you can. But there is a moral question as to what the business of government is, and I would prefer to reduce misery rather than increase happiness." He believes that unrealistic optimism was largely responsible for the 2008 financial crisis - from people buying mortgages they couldn't afford to financial institutions failing accurately to calculate risk.

I ask him what he hopes to achieve when he visits No 10. “I really have no idea," he replies. "I think the nature of the conversation is going to be that they will tell me things that they are doing and maybe I'll have a reaction - I don't know what." He pauses. "I'm not going to come with a blueprint."

Kahneman might not offer Plan B on a plate, but he is a master of humility - something that might be of equal value to our politicians, if they could get their heads round the idea.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood