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Irrationality [Paperback]

Stuart Sutherland
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)

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Book Description

10 Jan 2007
This is an iconoclastic volume on the causes and effects of irrational behaviour. Why do doctors, army generals, high-ranking government officials, and other people in positions of power make bad decisions that cause harm to others? On the other hand, why do people insist on sitting through an awful play or film just because the tickets were expensive? Irrational beliefs and behaviour are virtually universal. It is not only gamblers and parapsychologists that fall into simple statistical traps to do with sample sizes or simple assumptions, but experts of all types, selection committees, and everyday people. "Irrationality" is an iconoclastic volume that draws on a mass of intriguing research to examine why we are irrational, the different types of irrationality, the damage it does us, and the possible cures. It also argues that we could significantly reduce irrationality and its effects - but only if we first recognize just how irrational we really are.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pinter & Martin Ltd.; 2nd Revised edition edition (10 Jan 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1905177070
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905177073
  • Product Dimensions: 14.1 x 1.4 x 22.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 119,857 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Stuart Sutherland, born in 1928, was Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex where he founded the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology. A prolific columnist and contributor to theObserver, the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph, and is best known for his iconoclastic bookIrrationality, which was first published in 1992, and Breakdown, his candid and movingly personal account of his manic depression, due to be reissued by Pinter & Martin early 2010.
He died of a heart attack in 1998.

Product Description


Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science
Superb! The thinking man's self help book; it left me infinitely wiser, but I know it won't change my behaviour one tiny bit.

Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
You must buy this book, for every home should have it.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion
Extremely gripping and unusually well written.

Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Terrifying, sometimes comic, very readable and totally enthralling.

Book Description

Superb! The thinking man's self help book; it left me infinitely wiser, but I know it won't change my behaviour one tiny bit.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
297 of 304 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still the best popular book on this topic 5 Jan 2008
This is a wonderful achievement of science popularisation. Sutherland had a gift for succinctly and non-technically summarising psychology experiments. In this book he surveys more than one hundred and sixty different studies that expose failings of human reasoning and judgement. Overconfidence, conformity, biased assessment of evidence and inconsistency are among the follies given their own chapters. One chapter deals with organizational (bureaucratic) irrationality.

The point is not the banal one that there are stupid people about. It is that we all make systematic errors and biases that can lead to disaster in predictable ways. The example applications include reasoning about medical tests, military disasters, the paranormal, the Rorschach test, gambling and daft purchasing decisions.

If society took the recommendations in this book, we would give up job interviews, stop awarding school prizes, totally reform the procedures for criminal trials and change many of the incentive structures we use to motivate people. Each chapter ends with a set of personal lessons for minimising the damage of one's inevitable human irrationality.

This is a potentially very depressing book, but its humiliating lesson is one that, for a better public life and personal life, we need to learn. You can either learn it from a huge corpus of technical psychology literature or from this little paperback.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and informative 22 Feb 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Irrationality pulls in information from a vast array of experiments and psychological studies, presenting them in an interesting and easy to understand way. Bullet-point summaries at the end of each chapter provide a useful and sometimes amusing recap of detailed explorations of human fallibility. Sutherland establishes some of the most common causes of irrational behaviour in the first few chapters, allowing them to be referred to throughout.

Towards the latter half of the book he does occasionally drift into territory most would describe as "incorrect" rather than "irrational": I did feel at times that he had lost sight of his original remit, particularly when he was defending his classification of some human errors as irrational. However, for the most part he keeps a good pace and straight course through the subject matter.

Some of the evidence cited is a little thin (very small sample sizes, unpublished papers), but in a pop-science book which covers so much ground a bit of license can arguably be allowed.

Overall a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.
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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
We all act on impulse and make quick decisions every day. That may be irrational but if we had to think long and hard about every decision we made then our lives would never get anywhere.

Fortunately, most of our decisions have very limited consequences if they turn out to be wrong, but sometimes a bad decision can cost a lot of money, even human lives. Then it is best to be sure that the decision was the best possible based on all the facts. Even when buying a new home or a new car, one could well save oneself some grief and perhaps a lot of money if the deal was approached in a rational manner.

As this book points out, many lives and lots of money have been lost and many projects have failed because of bad decisions due to pride, prejudice, by misinterpreting facts in ones own favor, by fear of non-conformity and many other irrational reasons.

This book is an excellent tour through a lot of topics, all of which are aspects of irrational behavior. Through many (painfully :-/ ) clear examples the author illustrates the various types of irrational behavior and how they can lead to bad or wrong decisions. For example, the "availability error" where too much emphasis is put on whatever comes first to mind, or the "halo effect" where too much emphasis is put on first impressions. These traps catch us every day and are among the advertisers' best weapons.

If you want to improve you own decision making - in you personal life as well as you professional life - or you just want to know why other people often make such bad decisions this book can give you a lot of insight into how easily people can make flawed decisions and thus what to be wary of the next time you face an important decision.

English is not my first language but I use English a lot.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, Literate, Popular Account 14 April 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Stuart Sutherland's book examines the body of evidence for human irrationality amassed during close to half a century psychology research. Although first published in 1992 , Irrationality still provides a wide (if by no means comprehensive) account of relevant research.

The book covers, roughly, two groups of interrelated phenomena: perception and reasoning biases and mechanisms of social influence: authority, social conformity, group identification and influence, self-serving biases, stereotyping, all kinds of mental shortcuts; struggles to use logical and statistical reasoning,

I have to admit to being a psychologist by education, so the vast majority (but not all) of the content of Irrationality was not new to me, but Sutherland did a good job of presenting the most significant phenomena in one lucid, concise and well written volume accessible to non-specialists but substantiated by descriptions of actual experiments (and not just their conclusions) and well referenced too.

His language is elegant and understated. It's not a book delivered in a modern street-smart colloquial but in a highly literate, cultured voice: lucid, rational and sophisticated. He doesn't use specialist jargon, though, and the book should be accessible to any educated lay reader, although descriptions of some experimental setups were (necessarily) rather convoluted.

The parts of the book in which Sutherland engages in philosophical speculation and moral musings are infused with a constant undercurrent of wry humour and often delightful exasperation.

The weakest chapter is undoubtedly the one dealing with irrationalities in organisations: too much of what Sutherland quotes is subject to political interpretation.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars It is not safe to sit on the fence
It has helped me understand how irrationality becomes suicidal in life
Published 1 month ago by given masamba
4.0 out of 5 stars However I would thoroughly recommend it especially if you have some...
Really interesting but some of the calculations were too difficult for me to follow and the book lacked a bit of impetus towards the end. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Judith Paice
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 2 months ago by lbarrett
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
4.0 out of 5 stars Opens the eyes, but I am not sure it ...
Opens the eyes, but I am not sure it can make you any less irrational (which the author acknowledges at the outset).
Published 3 months ago by RJU
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read, inciteful
A good read, interesting and thought provoking, sometimes a little repetitive - recommended if you're interested in decision making processes.
Published 5 months ago by GSC
4.0 out of 5 stars Competent and readable
Most of us like to think we possess above-average intelligence (irrational in itself!), but the author demonstrates how we frequently make the most mundane decisions based on... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Sanderling2000
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a life changer
I cannot rate this highly enough, everyone should read this....

it is change how you think and look at the world, for the better!
Published 8 months ago by D. G. Thomas
2.0 out of 5 stars Ooops
I found this book.....well.....a bit irrational tbh. It's all very low level everyday irrationality so nothing on the irrationality of two world wars within fifty years of each... Read more
Published 8 months ago by TalkingMammal
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly an interesting book
Except for the final few chapters (Utility, failure of intuition, etc) the book is very interesting and highly readable. Read more
Published 8 months ago by P. Perhac
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