Why do doctors, generals, civil servants and others consistently make wrong decisions that cause enormous harm to others? Irrational beliefs and behaviours are virtually universal.
In this iconoclastic book Stuart Sutherland analyses causes of irrationality and examines why we are irrational, the different kinds of irrationality, the damage it does us and the possible cures.
When renowned psychologist Stuart Sutherland died of a heart attack in 1992, he left a wide array of published works, ranging from studies of zoology to a memoir of his life as a manic depressive. Irrationality, his treatise on the nature of human error, is the often overlooked gem in this diverse body of work. Narrating this amusing study with appropriately pedantic gusto is newcomer Chris Dyer, who lets the wit and wisdom of Sutherland's research speak for itself.
The bulk of the book is divided into chapters, each of which takes on a different reason why human beings are prone to making silly decisions. The selection of data, culled mainly from studies in Britain and the US, is by turns horrifyingly familiar and puzzlingly obscure. Prepare to have your faith restored in the value of having taken that statistics class in high school. Dyer animates a whole host of numbers, turning them into bits of anecdotal fun with which we cannot help but identify. From doctors who peer review the same article twice but are only willing to publish it once, to gamblers who double down like fools, to bureaucrats who pay thousands of dollars to a company for lighting gas lamps in a town with no gas lamps, to passengers freezing on a bus where nobody gets up to close the window, you will sometimes feel outraged that people could be so stupid the rest of the time, you will be wondering how you yourself could be so stupid.
This is a compendium of research that stands the test of time. Human error is still human error, and does not require any updates. Such a wealth of cautionary tales is tempting to use as a self-help guide, and indeed, there are tips for avoiding the pitfalls of each particular kind of irrationality at the end of every chapter. Still, Dyer lets the author's good sense of humor shine though, and what you will take away from this book is not so much a better way to make decisions, but a sense that your own case of faulty reasoning skills has not been quite as disastrous as many other cases. Megan Volpert
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