Saturday, 30 January 2010

'Irrationality', by Stuart Sutherland

This book was given to me as a birthday present by a friend (Peter Hart). It seemed quite apposite amidst the collapse of the world’s financial system in October. It is written by a Professor of psychology, and so has solid academic background, but it is written in an easy non-specialist style.

He shows us through over 200 page of densely packed argument how often we humans fall short of rational behaviour and decision-making. It is quite sobering. In the end one realises that the ideal of pure rational thinking occupies a very small portion of our thought. This has profound consequences, since disciplines such as Economics are built on the premise of rational behaviour. We also tend to think of ourselves as rational, and this book proves that we often are not. We tend to see the foibles of others more readily than our own, but the mirror held up by this book should make us humble. Try doing the many tests he gives in the book to show your own failures of rational thinking.

Sutherland sets a very strict high bar for rational thinking. Failures to evaluate mathematical and probabilistic calculations are failures of rational thinking. He is correct. You can’t argue against it. But he seems to be defining rationality in a daunting way. Sometimes I find I can’t fully agree with his harsh logic, since he does not always take into account the human dimension, where many of our decisions are performed in non-laboratory situations.

The implications are vitally important. He shows how doctors, researchers, generals, civil servants, politicians and businessmen make less than optimal decisions. These have disastrous consequences on companies, society and even human life. The teaching of rational thinking should be a higher priority in our education system.

A thought-provoking book and one I intend to re-read. However my main complaint about the book is its severe essay style. It should be broken up with sub-headings for easier reference. Also the answers should be physically removed from the questions – say on to the next page. Often he gives the answer in the very next sentence, within the same paragraph. So the eye cannot dwell on the question, and can easily slip down to the answer, preventing one from thinking through the problem at leisure.

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