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Business is Beautiful: The Hard Art of Standing Apart
Business is Beautiful: The Hard Art of Standing Apart
by Jean-Baptiste Danet
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 19.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Business as art rather than science, 18 Feb 2014
The central argument of Business is Beautiful is the heretical idea that perhaps we have reached the end of the line with the approach to business dictated by the dreary methodology of management science. `We've dissected the subject of business to death with the cold, dispassionate scalpel of statistical analysis,' argue the authors.

Businesses seek to inspire emotions in us: joy, surprise and desire, for example. The businesses that fail to inspire us in this way will fail. Successful businesses engage us in an emotional, rather than in a rational, way. Apple never said that its computers were better than other computers because of any particular feature or benefit; they said `Think different' and, `The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do,' and they left it to us to decide if this was the kind of company that we would like to do business with.

Management scientists will no doubt attempt to analyse emotional intangibles, and are probably busy inventing measures that will help them to quantify `joy' and `desire'. We could continue to invest more money and to develop ever more complex technologies in the search for the elusive, scientifically-proven route to business success. Or, as Business is Beautiful refreshingly suggests, we could admit that there are `intangible drivers of commercial success that defy measurement.'

Just as art and science are not entirely incompatible, the authors argue, so neither are business and human interests. `If you don't take your business personally, then each day you come into work you will die a little. You must bring yourself into work.' Business, the book is arguing (and as you may well guess), is (or could be) beautiful.

The authors identify five qualities that they believe are exhibited by successful businesses, and argue that these are not `measurable' in the usual sense: Integrity, Curiosity, Elegance, Craft and Prosperity.

It's a good list. We may have other qualities that we would add; the core point is that these are not `metrics'. There is no system that can be followed that will deliver elegance, or craft or - by implication - prosperity, by which the authors mean a general prosperity of the whole community, rather than the enrichment of a few directors and shareholders.

The book goes on to illustrate this general philosophy and these specific business qualities via interviews with executives and founders from an impressive selection of businesses - many familiar: 3M; Conde Nast; Arup; BMW - and some less well known (at least to me): the Parisian electric car-sharing enterprise, Autolib'; the customer-obsessed Brazilian retail chain Pao de Azucar; Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospitals, who are developing a new business model for delivering affordable heart surgery in Asia and Africa.

Some of the quotes from the interviews with these companies' spokespersons could have used a little more editing, but it is never a bad thing to have verbatim quotes from successful businessmen and women, talking about why they believe their businesses are successful.

The book has the kind of production values that you would expect from a book that promotes elegance and craft.

A thoroughly enjoyable read and another step towards an intelligent, twenty-first century model for business.


Making Capitalism Fit For Society
Making Capitalism Fit For Society
by Colin Crouch
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.71

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Making the case for social democracy, 14 Nov 2013
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The central argument of Making Capitalism Fit for Society is that it is time for social democracy to promote its benefits more assertively in the face of what Crouch sees as the growing ascendancy of free-market neoliberalism.

Crouch has some interesting things to say about neoliberalism, the most interesting of which is that the reality of neoliberal politics (I think we can take it that Crouch has the USA particularly in mind) is not, actually, neo-liberalism.

Crouch identifies three kinds of neoliberalism. The first,'pure' neo-liberalism, seeks to establish perfect markets in all areas of life; the role of the state is limited but important, focussing on protecting property rights and ensuring that there is genuine competition in the markets which increasingly are relied on to deliver all of society's needs. The second form accepts that market forces in their pure form are not appropriate for delivering certain public goods or for dealing with 'externalities'(the unintended by-products of free market behaviour, such as pollution, for which the unregulated polluter may not pay the full 'social' cost). The third form is what, Crouch argues, currently passes for 'neoliberalism' in practice, but is in fact a kind of plutocracy, because huge amounts of wealth and power have been accrued by large corporations and a few individuals, the effect of which is to create 'a politicized economy very remote from what economists understand by a neoliberal economy.'

'Once it engages in politics,' Crouch argues a little later in the book, 'neoliberal economics loses its innocence.'

His argument against the ability of markets to run every aspect of our lives are, essentially and familiarly, that there is seldom sufficient competition or information to create the conditions necessary for a perfect market and, as mentioned earlier, that markets are bad at delivering public goods and at dealing with negative externalities.

Crouch is interesting on the subject of the growing tendency to outsource public services to private companies, by way of example. In fact, he argues, very few organisations are involved in tendering for these services, and the main field of expertise of the successful companies is their knowledge of how to win government contracts. Such contracts then typically run for a substantial period of time, since it would be disruptive to change providers too often. The result is an effective monopoly, and there is an inevitable tendency to re-appoint the established incumbent when the contract is up for renewal. Not very 'free market' at all, then. Private contractors are more able to pay very low wages than the state, for which this is politically difficult, allowing proponents to argue that the outsourcing has lowered costs to the benefit of the public. But the state often ends up subsidising these low wages through tax credits and other subsidies paid for by the tax payer. It is uncertain, argues Crouch, that such outsourced services are genuinely more cost-efficient than a state-run service.

Crouch is, of course, on especially strong ground when discussing the effects of limited or absent regulation on financial markets. We've all seen where that led, and we've all helped to pick up the tab for the bankers who made themselves extremely rich by taking excessive risks, threatening the global economy and requiring a publically funded bail-out. I also liked Crouch's highlighting of the fact that the conditions imposed by the European Union, the IMF and the OECD when bailing out failed economies - such as Greece - tend to insist on the kind of unregulated, free labour markets that do not actually exist in reality in other, non-failed economies.

Crouch suggests that neoliberalism is a 'one size fits all' solution, based in essence on the role of corporations and the maximisation of shareholder value, whereas social democracy can embrace and encourage a far healthier variety of solutions: mutualism, cooperatives and the funding of enterprises by (ideally small) banks rather than by the stock market, a form of funding that was common when the industrial revolution was catching hold in nineteenth-century Britain.

Crouch's philosophy is summed up by his call for 'widespread use of markets where possible and useful, but a willingness to check, regulate and offset their effects where they threaten to destroy some widely shared goals and values.' It hard to argue with that (unless, of course, you are a neoliberal of the first kind).

It is a little ironic that Crouch himself acknowledges that social democrats can be seen as fitting into the category of 'neoliberalism of the second kind', which leaves one wondering whether we are indeed 'all neoliberals now' after all, in which case Crouch's argument for the desperate need for `assertive social democracy' would seem a little Quixotic: social democracy is alive and well, and disguised as a form of neoliberalism. And I suspect, in fact, that many neoliberals (especially 'neoliberals of the third kind') would argue that we are, in fact (and unhappily so, as they would see it) actually 'all social democrats now.'

The book is not an easy read - not in the sense that the concepts are difficult to grasp, but in the sense that Crouch, perhaps inevitably, does tend to assume that the reader is just as enthralled by the detail of the argument as he himself is, and his writing style tends towards the academic. I did find my mind wandering on several occasions - to such interesting topics as `those windows are a bit dirty; I really should give them a good clean.'

Crouch is a heavyweight sociologist and political scientist, and this book will make an important contribution to the debate which will be mainly held, one imagines, between political scientists, economists, policy makers and people made of sterner political stuff than I.

One final comment: Crouch does tend to write about 'us' and 'them'; he implies that 'people' need to be defended, not just against unfettered market forces, but against business in general, which is implied to be rapacious, immoral and untrustworthy. It is not impossible to hope that corporations - which are led, managed and staffed by 'us' - will, as seems to be happening, become increasingly conscious of their social obligations and even a force for good. Crouch does talk about other, better forms of organisational structure, but it seems a little old-fashioned to argue that the classic shareholder-owned corporation is, in effect, inherently malicious. To give an example of Crouch's apparent stance: 'Of course general product advertising does much to give giant corporations a popular friendly image that they would not enjoy if the public saw them just as vast accumulations of wealth and power.'


Revolutions that Made the Earth
Revolutions that Made the Earth
by Tim Lenton
Edition: Paperback
Price: 17.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life, the universe and everything, 28 Sep 2013
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If ever there was a book that addressed the big issues of our time (or, indeed of any time), this is it. How did life gain a sustainable foothold on our planet? What had to happen to make this possible, and how likely or unlikely were those things, on a cosmic scale? What does this tell us about the likelihood of life on other planets elsewhere in the universe? (Less likely, it seems, than I had unwittingly assumed). If there have been a number of key 'revolutions' that have made life on earth possible and sustainable, does the huge current impact of human life on our planet represent a new revolution? Will human activity, so demanding of natural resources and so damaging to the global environment, lead to disaster or, since we are the first life form to be conscious observers of the results of our own activities, will we take action to avoid this disaster?

Phew! This is an excellent book, painstakingly researched and written with both rigour and verve. It represents scientific debate at the highest level - it is absolutely not 'popular science' - but the authors have been careful to allow the interested layman to follow the plot. You may well (like me) have to skip some aspects of probability distribution with regard to the 'critical steps' needed for the evolution of advanced life forms or some of the details of electron transfer in photosynthesis (sadly, I used to be able to follow at least some of that stuff; no longer, clearly!) but you will never lose the general drift of the argument. I should add that Lenton and Watson believe that the 'critical steps' analysis of the evolution of life is too simplistic, and that the real `revolutions' that have driven the evolution of life (like 'The Oxygen Revolution') are complex series of events.

The authors argue that that every 'revolution' that has enabled the increasing complexity of life on earth has been based on an increase in energy processing and the recycling of essential materials (like carbon and water) within the biosphere. Coupled with this has been the ability to transfer increasing amounts of information (via genetic materials). If the Human Revolution is real, they argue, then we should take very careful note of these facts if we want our revolution to be successful: we are processing vastly more energy than ever before (through our use of fossil fuels) and we are transmitting more information across generations than ever before (through our development of language). We are not doing so well on the recycling front (I am being flippant: read on).

Each revolution has had dramatic consequences, some of which could have led to the destruction of the biosphere: we are where we are today because of a series of successful revolutions, some highly unlikely. Our own revolution will be (and clearly is) equally fraught with dangers.

The authors are, in effect, proponents of James Lovelock's 'Gaia' theory (the theory that the organic and inorganic systems on planet earth are a self-regulating system). The Gaia theory is, however, dangerously self-confirming: our planetary system sustains life by means of an astoundingly complex set of interactions, but is this the almost inevitable outcome of the evolution of life ('Probable Gaia') or does planet earth just happen to have allowed the right conditions to arise by a series of fortuitous events ('Lucky Gaia')?

Lenton and Watson argue that, at a relatively low level of complexity of life - the microbial level - 'life will inadvertently (but inevitably) get entangled in environmental feedback loops' most of which will be benign, with the occasional possibility of self-induced extinction. Further up the evolutionary chain, things get dicier. The authors suggest that the development of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria is the most significant (and most unlikely) event in the development of life on earth, one that allowed significant further complexity to develop.

This has great consequences for the likelihood of life on other planets. There are, apparently, 250 star systems within 30 light years of our own, We can hope to find basic life forms on a very few planets in these star systems - those that exist in a habitable zone around their own star - but the authors would expect to find oxygenic photosynthesis in perhaps one in ten, or fewer, of those planets that have rudimentary life forms. Ergo: probably no advanced life forms within 30 light years' radius of the solar system. Less chance, it seems, of an alien spacecraft landing in my back yard than I might have hoped.

The sheer number of factors that have to come into play to enable complex life forms to evolve are daunting: planets need to be in the habitable zone around their sun, which changes over time (our sun's habitable zone will move past us in a few more billion years, ending life on earth) and it takes billions of years for complex life forms to evolve. The authors reckon that the earth has a 5-6 billion year window in which life could potentially be sustained, and we are about 4.5 billion years into this phase. So we have 'only' 0.5 to 1.5 billion years left. Our earth has other things in its favour: a magnetic field (thanks to its iron core) that deflects the Solar Wind; a 'cold trap' that keeps water in the atmosphere; an enduring internal heat source caused by radiation; a tectonic plate system that recycles carbon and water as rocks are melted down in the earth's core and their life-supporting ingredients are returned to the atmosphere thorough volcanic eruptions.

Our number will eventually be up, when the suns' habitable zone leaves us behind as it drifts further towards the edge of the solar system and we frazzle in its increasing heat, but Lenton and Watson think that we might survive for a reasonable portion of this aeon, rather than quickly bring about our own demise through our greed and recklessness. Energy, they argue, is the only problem. Our current reliance on fossil fuels is both highly polluting and ultimately, of course unsustainable; fossil fuels will very soon run out. We do indeed run the risk of 'runaway' climactic changes, where increases in global temperature trigger other results that create a positive feedback loop that result in a hostile environment in which most or even all life forms could not exist. Reassuringly, they remind us that most foreseeable consequences of our current activities do not result in a 'runaway': a runaway results only when a consequence is triggered that causes an event of greater magnitude than the initial cause, whereas, for example, the release of methane from the Arctic tundra caused by the melting of the permafrost will result in further global warming, but on a smaller scale than the warming that caused it in the first place: we would be heading towards a convergence, not a runaway - a 1.01% increase in temperature as opposed to a 1% increase in temperature, to use their hypothetical illustration.

The authors are reassuringly pragmatic: most alternative thinking suggests that we should retrench, or as they put it, 'retreat', and concludes that there must be less humans on the planet, making less of an impact on the environment and gobbling up less resources. This, they argue refreshingly, is both unlikely and boring. There is little chance that people in developed economies will give up their new luxuries and excitements, or that emerging economies will not also seek these things. To do so also feels like an abandonment of progress: a deliberate retreat to a less advanced form of civilisation.

But if we have the sustainable energy source - the authors consider nuclear fission, fusion and renewables - then a very large number of human beings could sustain a very high quality of life on this planet, using that energy source to recycle our essential materials (just as the biosphere had always needed to recycle its essential materials) and reducing our harmful waste products (like CO2 and the run-off of fertilisers into the ocean, which really might switch the oceans into an anoxic state in the not too distant future).

But I must not end on a negative note, since the book does not: it offers the very real hope that our ingenuity and our awareness of our potential predicament will enable a solution, provided we can find the necessary energy source. And they remind us never to assume that any one individual is unable to make an impact on problems that seem so daunting. Every major development in the evolution of life begins with an individual: there is always the first individual that sparks a revolution, like the first cyanobacterium to achieve photosynthesis.


The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (J-B Lencioni Series)
The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (J-B Lencioni Series)
by Patrick M. Lencioni
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.91

5.0 out of 5 stars Deceptively straightforward; potentially powerful, 24 Aug 2013
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I was won over by this book. Lencioni reminds me of Marshall Goldsmith ('What Got You Here Won't Get You There' etc.): he offers a great deal of sound, straightforward advice about how to operate successfully within organisations, much of which is in fact based on very insightful observations, based on a lifetime in consultancy, of the way in which people in organisations actually behave and, more importantly, interact.

The book's first chapter is a bit of a hard sell. No shame in that. Lencioni sets out to sell us the idea that organisational health is the most important thing in business - no, I mean THE most important thing. Really, really the most important thing. Did you know that organisational health will give your business a competitive advantage? I mean a really HUGE competitive advantage? That organisational health trumps everything else in business?

You get the point (you really do!) - the chapter reads like one of those maddeningly successful direct marketing mailshots that has you running up a mental white flag by page three and agreeing that, on reflection, your life has indeed been blighted by the absence of whatever they are selling and that you absolutely must ACT NOW to remedy the situation. But Lencioni soon begins to spell out what a healthy organisation would look like and to set out his action plan for improving the health of any organisation, and I began to be won over.

Many books about organisational behaviour offer a brilliant analysis of what is wrong with the organisation and suggest some profound changes that are needed to remedy this, but leave one wondering just how many companies will actually change their behaviour as a result, no matter how compellingly the author has spelled out the advantages. It's not that the new ideas don't make sense, or are not genuinely exciting, it's just that they often require truly fundamental changes to the way that organisations are structured and run. What Lencioni recommends, in contrast, is relatively simple, clearly understandable, and eminently do-able. I found myself recognising all too many of the aspects of unhealthy organisational behaviour but, more importantly, seeing also how Lencioni's recommended solution was sane, practical and achievable. Although Lencioni is not, on the face of it, proposing a radical overhaul of organisational structure, his programme for a healthier way of conducting business would, in fact, have quite profound effects on how organisations are run.

Lencioni starts with 'building a cohesive leadership team', and has interesting things to say about how this involves building a high degree of trust among the leadership team, which involves a greater degree of interpersonal reaction than is usually considered necessary or even desirable. Senior teams tend to relate to each other at the 'purely professional' level, representing their own departmental interests, vying with each other for the boss's attention and focussing mainly on achieving their own agenda while looking more brilliant than their colleagues. Exactly, says Lencioni. Teams like this are not learning from each other, and are certainly not working together to achieve the overall objectives of the organisation. To do this, the leadership team need to be more aware of each other's personal strengths and weaknesses, more prepared to engage in constructive criticism and debate and, as a result, to be individually a little more vulnerable than we are usually comfortable with. Lencioni successfully paints an appealing picture of the benefits of a genuinely cohesive leadership team, working together to achieve common objectives, holding other team members accountable, playing to each other's strengths and reminding each other, in an intelligent and constructive way, of their individual weaknesses.

And then, of course, the team needs to be clear on exactly what those common objectives are: we need 'clarity'. His recommendation for finding clarity is to answer six fundamental questions: Why do we [the organisation] exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is most important right now? Who must do what? It's a good and deceptively simple-looking list. The first three of those questions are actually very hard to answer, and any team that knew and fully agreed on all of the answers would indeed have a considerable advantage over the great majority of their competitors.

Lencioni illustrates his points with down-to-earth, recognisable and relevant illustrations from his consulting experience. Having argued for a cohesive leadership team and the need to achieve clarity, the last two points in his four-point action plan seem a little like over-egging the pudding: 'overcommunicate clarity' and 'reinforce clarity'. But the sections addressing these ideas continue to offer sensible, practical suggestions about how to spread a clear understanding of core objectives throughout the organisation and to ensure that the clarity persists.

I especially liked Lencini's focus on 'what is the most important thing right now'. It is difficult, but literally invaluable, for organisations to be clear on 'why we exist', 'how we behave' and 'what we do' but even with clarity on these defining ideals, organisations are often still derailed by failing to focus enough on some fundamental issue that threatens their very existence. 'The high point of being a leader in an organisation is wrestling with difficult decisions and situations,' writes Lencioni, while pointing out that, in practice, leadership teams tend to try to deal with such fundamental, life or death business issues far too superficially in a badly structured meeting that is attempting to achieve several other things at the same time.

His recommendation for a programme of meetings with different purposes and functions is, again, pragmatic and entirely sane. What, as Lencioni says, could be more exciting than addressing a core business issue in a constructive and focussed 'adhoc topical meeting' with a team of committed colleagues, and without anything else on the agenda but finding a solution to the particular business problem? And how often in business does that actually happen?

A deceptively simple and very readable book that offers achievable suggestions for changes to our working practises that would have profound effects on our effectiveness - and on the satisfaction that we get from our working lives.

Jonathan Gifford - author of '100 Great Business Leaders'


The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future
The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future
by John Gerzema
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.91

4.0 out of 5 stars Would be equally comfortable telling women to get in touch with their masculine side?, 18 Aug 2013
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This is a clever and interesting book that makes a valuable contribution to the vital debate about how we should build the organisations of the future (since our current organisational structures are clearly failing). So criticising the book seems perverse and small-minded - like taking a pop at Mother Theresa. But I can't help myself. So: this is an interesting book and I urge you to read it, but...

My first problem is that I have an aversion to the approach that takes an interesting idea and tries to turn it into a programme or, indeed, a doctrine - so much so that if a young entrepreneur were to tell me that they were starting a new venture and that it was a, like, you know, Athena Doctrine kind of thing? I would be obliged to poke them in the eye. Which would not be very Athena Doctrine of me.

But I have some more grown up quibbles too. My main issue is that I really do not think that it is useful to attach a label of any kind to sets of valuable human characteristics - like empathy, creativity, intuition, adaptability etc. In the case of the 'Athena Doctrine', of course, the label that Gerzema and D'Antonio have attached to these and other valuable characteristics is 'feminine'. Since they themselves argue later in the book that we should attempt take a 'gender neutral' approach to people, it's hard to see why they think that it is useful to say, in effect, that we should all get in touch with our feminine side.

Funnily enough, the authors recount in their introduction how they ran their ideas past a female academic who 'scrunched up her face like a professor listening to a student offering a terrible answer' and concluded, "I object to you calling these things feminine." I'm on her side. But the guys went ahead and did it anyway.

The authors had surveyed 64,000 people around the world and found that (surprise surprise) we are pretty consistent in perceiving certain characteristics as feminine and others as masculine. You could probably write the list yourself. 'Masculine' attributes include rugged, dominant, rigid, ambitious, overbearing etc. and feminine characteristics include trustworthy, flexible, social, emotional etc. etc. Now this just tells me that we are disappointingly stereotyped in our thinking about gender and that we really should perhaps start thinking about 'useful' and 'damaging' behaviour traits rather than 'masculine' and 'feminine' ones. But never mind.

The next bit in the authors' research is the part that I really do have a problem with. They went on to ask the same audience to rate the importance of the attributes that have now been categorised as masculine or feminine to such things as leadership, success, morality and happiness. The answer is: a majority of people around the world tend to associate 'feminine' attributes with these things.

Now, when the authors talk about 'leadership', it is easy to agree that having leaders who are more empathetic, caring, reasonable, concerned etc would be a good thing. But when the authors talk about morality, for example, I don't know what they are trying to say. The fact that we associate the so-called 'feminine' characteristics of 'loyalty, reason, empathy and selflessness' with morality really does NOT mean that morality is, in any meaningful sense, 'feminine'. Men are clearly capable of moral behaviour, and it seems nonsensical to say that they are calling on their 'feminine' characteristics in order to be moral. There is a hint of a logical fallacy here, as in: All lemons are yellow; Canaries are yellow; Therefore canaries are lemons.

There is another problem with the authors' general methodology. Gerzema and D'Antonio are saying, essentially, that their survey shows that a majority of people around the world think that many 'feminine' qualities are strongly related to, for example, leadership. Therefore leaders should strive to be more feminine. When you say that quickly, it sounds quite reasonable. But it is entirely possible that another survey would show that a majority of people believe, for example, that the characteristics strongly related to being a successful attorney (for example) are predominantly masculine (analytical, logical, aggressive, assertive etc). Would we be so happy to draw the conclusion that female attorneys should therefore strive to be more masculine? I wouldn't, personally speaking, want to say that to an agressive female attorney's face.

Putting to one side my nevertheless fundamental problems with this whole approach of classifying human characteristics in such a simplistic way based on the results of a survey (be it never so grand), the authors also fall into a trap that any self-respecting statistician should be able to avoid. They start to assume that respondents to their survey are walking the talk: they assume that, if a majority of respondents in any particular country, for example, have said that they think 'feminine' characteristics are desirable for this that and the other, then these respondents are fully signed up to a feminist agenda. But a majority of respondents to a survey about health may very well agree that eating less and keeping fit are highly desirable characteristics, and yet themselves be lazy and obese. When Gerzema and D'Antonio argue that there is a correlation between 'countries with higher levels of feminine thinking and behaviour' and per capita GDP, they are making an entirely unwarrantable leap. I can also think of many men who would agree that leaders need to be empathetic, nurturing, caring and sharing but who are, in fact, unreconstructed male chauvinist pigs who run their own empires like particularly malevolent sergeant majors. You may know a few of those yourself. There is (as the authors should well know) a huge gap between what people may say in response to a survey and the way in which they actually behave. In the context of leadership, it is also worth considering what your average respondent is likely to say are the ideal characteristics of a leader. 'Dominant, aggressive and stubborn' (all 'masculine' characteristics, of course)? Probably not.

The authors, by pinning their colours to the mast of gender, are in danger of the kind of stereotyping that they presumably wish to avoid. They don't help their case by falling into a couple of elephant traps of their own making. On page 19, having simply announced that non-profit organisations have 'feminine-leaning ideals' and that 'much of the non-profit sector is feminine in style and focus' (why should non-profit organisations be the exclusive domain of femininity?) they commit this complete howler: 'Of course', they write, 'non-profit organisations also depend on lots of masculine energy.' Masculine energy? I beg your pardon?! The sexist lapse is even more unforgivable since, a few pages earlier, they had shown that 'energetic' was one of the characteristics considered by their survey panel to be gender neutral.

Another example of the thin ice on which they are skating is revealed when they discuss the role of women in the Israeli military, While acknowledging that Israeli women can and do serve in combat roles, they write (p79) that 'Those who possess such traditionally feminine qualities as patience and empathy can prove invaluable in danger points like checkpoints.' So, women soldiers could serve on the front line but, really, their feminine qualities are best used defusing the aggression of (presumably male) motorists at checkpoints. Careful guys - you could be losing your women readers at this point (and, again, I wouldn't like to debate that particular point in person with an Israeli woman solider).

My final, perhaps biggest concern, lies with the enterprises that the authors use to illustrate the reality of the Athena Doctrine. It is very impressive that the authors have taken the trouble to trek around the world, meeting people face to face and recording their conversations. Maybe someone should tell them that the telephone has been invented, but their efforts undeniably give the book a sense of journalistic realism. The enterprises that they describe are often fascinating - this is the book's greatest strength - and they are all in some way, undeniably 'modern': there is a vague thread connecting them that has something to do with networking, trust, higher purpose, social contribution and the like. All wonderful things. But the authors are often reduced to merely asserting that these are 'Athena Doctrine' ('feminine') kind of enterprises. I couldn't for the life of me see what justification they had for making that claim in the majority of cases.

Here are a few examples, chosen at random. The UK-based WhipCar: a clever idea that lets people rent other people's cars when they would otherwise be sitting unused in the driveway. It works, largely because people rent off other real people and feel obliged not to trash their cars. Israel's Tmura organization persuades young entrepreneurs to donate shares in their currently worthless start-ups to the charitable venture. The accumulating value of shares in the few enterprises that become commercially successful is used for charitable purposes. Nice idea. Germany's Friendsurance allows groups of people who have some form of connection to buy insurance: low numbers of claims results in rebates of premiums; peer pressure encourage people to behave responsibly. Sign me up. What is essentially feminine or 'Athena Doctrine' about these enterprises? You tell me.

Other examples, such as India's Self Employed Women's Association or Peru's Women's House, have a clear feminist agenda - but where's the news in that? My favourite non-example was Peru's celebrity Chef, Gaston Acurio. He's a celebrity chef, and he is helping to bring the world to Peru and Peruvian food to the world. Good for him - but what, in the name of Athena, is feminine about that?

I think that it is of genuine interest (and is potentially a hopeful sign) that a majority of people around the world are saying that the successful leaders and organisations of the future are likely to be those that are empathetic, concerned, trustworthy, emotionally intelligent and all the rest of it. It is also undeniably true that these qualities are traditionally seen as feminine, for good reason: I buy into the idea that women are biologically 'wired' to be more like this than are men because of our deep past.

But shouldn't we be trying to rise above our biological nature and our old-fashioned stereotypes? Is saying 'men need to get in touch with their feminine side' really twenty-first century thinking? I'm probably being a miserable old (male) curmudgeon. Read the book anyway.


Subliminal: The New Unconscious and What it Teaches Us
Subliminal: The New Unconscious and What it Teaches Us
by Leonard Mlodinow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rehabilitating the unconscious mind, 2 Aug 2013
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If you enjoyed Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, then you should enjoy this book by Mlodinow, though, as several other reviewers have commented, Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist by trade, whereas Kahneman is a fully-fledged psychologist. The end result of Mlodinow's efforts is popular social cognitive neuroscience written by a highly intelligent author. It's an honourable genre.

I found Mlodinow's book to be potentially more intriguing than Kahneman's, because it deals with the `unconscious' mind - a concept that Kahneman avoids. The concept of the unconscious has been tarnished, especially for psychologists, by its association with the charming but unscientific conjectures of psychoanalysts such as Freud (who popularised the concept) and Jung (who took the idea on to a further level of delightful battiness with his idea of the collective unconscious and other hugely enjoyable nonsense). There remained the nagging feeling that Freud and Jung were exploring a real aspect of the human experience, even though they were reduced to inventing explanations for our strange behaviour in the absence of any scientific understanding of what was really going on in the human brain/mind - conscious or unconscious.

Mlodinow takes up the baton on behalf of the unconscious, and coins the new term 'subliminal' to sidestep the dodgy, unscientific connotations of the older term. 'Our subliminal brain is invisible to us,' writes Mlodinow, 'yet it influences our conscious experience of the world in the most fundamental of ways: how we view ourselves and others, the meanings we attach to the everyday events of our lives, our abilities to make quick judgement calls and decisions that can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, and the actions we engage in as a result of all these instinctual experiences.'

His heart isn't really in the whole 'subliminal' thing, however, and he quickly fesses up to his real aim: to move towards a 'new science of the unconscious'. Referring to the new brain scanning technologies that allow us to see what is happening in our brains when we experience certain things, Mlodinow argues that it is possible 'for the first time in history, for there to be an actual science of the unconscious' and he declares his aim: 'The new science of the unconscious is the subject of this book.'

If the unconscious mind is of interest to you, then this is probably all you need to let you know that you will enjoy this book. I did.

Mlodinow discusses how our minds assemble what we experience from raw sensory data: how the brain creates what we 'see' from imperfect signals, for example; how what we experience is a combination of data and the mind's expectations, and how disturbingly unreliable our memories are. But for me the book's most interesting subject matter comes after this, when Mlodinow begins to explore how 'our social perception ... appears to proceed along pathways that are not associated with awareness, intention, or conscious effort.' In other words, how most of the really clever things that we do, like our instinctual understanding of what other people are feeling, happens outside what we think of as our conscious minds.

Mlodinow explores the way in which this essential aspect of being human also leads us into some difficult places in the modern world: we jump to conclusions about people; we like and trust 'our' group and mistrust other groups; our decision-making is affected by emotional factors of which we are, in general, completely unaware, and our concept of 'self' is a right old hotchpotch of whatever helps us come to terms with the things that we have done, often for reasons that were not available to our conscious minds.

I'm not sure that an improving 'science of the unconscious' will actually enable us to live the examined life that all good rationalists aspire to, but it will be a lot of fun finding out why we actually do the things that we do.

I enjoyed this book, with the slight caveat that I felt I learned rather more about Mlodinow's mum than I really needed to know. But in a nice way.

-- Jonathan Gifford, author of 'Blindsided: How business an society are shaped by our irrational and unpredictable behaviour'


Firm Commitment: Why the corporation is failing us and how to restore trust in it
Firm Commitment: Why the corporation is failing us and how to restore trust in it
by Colin Mayer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to fix the corporation, 8 July 2013
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Early in this fascinating exploration of corporate ownership and governance, Colin Mayer examines the classic defence - or perhaps the classic celebration - of shareholder value. Shareholders are the ultimate owners of corporations, runs this argument, and they have no protection; they have invested their money, which might be lost. Without shareholders, capitalism loses its foundation. Therefore, shareholders' interests must be protected at all costs by the corporation's hired executives. Thanks to the joys of the free market, this relationship may not be as single-mindedly focussed on supplying a cash return on capital invested as it might sound: it is in shareholders' interest that employees are trained (so that they are more productive) and treated reasonably well (to avoid the cost of replacing disgruntled employees). If the market puts a premium on environmentally-friendly, or well-made and reliable goods, then the executives can (and should) pursue that route because the shareholders will benefit from the premium charged for such goods. All is well in a laissez-fare world driven by the overarching necessity of keeping shareholders happy.

But, argues Mayer, the corporate world isn't actually like that. Shareholders are not the only parties with 'irrecoverable capital' invested in corporations - other stakeholders are equally exposed. If I devote my life to the furtherance of an organisation, and it disappears, I have lost something irrecoverable. If I am a lender or a supplier to the corporation, and it vanishes, I stand to lose a great deal.'The interests of these other parties,' writes Mayer, 'should at least rank alongside those of shareholders and, depending on the degree and extent of their commitment, potentially, ahead of shareholders.' These stakeholders are exposed by their commitment to the organisation in a way that is directly analogous to the financial commitment of the shareholder. Commitment, as you have guessed from the title of the book, is Mayer's main theme. 'Corporations are commitment devices,' he argues. The trust of various stakeholders 'derives not from the piece of paper that I hold in my hand but from the sacrifice that I see you making on my behalf.' Mayer proposes an intriguing rallying call: 'no representation without commitment.'

Some stakeholder commitments may be even more significant than that of the shareholder. Mayer takes the example of a corporation funded partly by shareholder equity and partly (as is almost universally the case) by debt. As the level of debt ('leverage') increases, so it is entirely rational for shareholders to demand that the organisation takes on ever greater levels of risk: if creditors will pick up the tab for substantial losses in the case of disaster, then risky bets look increasingly attractive from the single-minded shareholder viewpoint. As shareholding is increasingly dispersed and the interests of shareholders are increasingly short term, so shareholders are likely to demand that corporations take such risks to fund short term gains at the expense of the corporation's future - and, by extension, at the expense of future generations of stakeholders.

Mayer's recommendations for a better way of doing business are robust,thought-provoking and entirely pragmatic. There are various alternatives, argues Mayer, and they will not suit every case. Heavy-handed regulation of corporate governance is doomed to fail for precisely this reason.

A core proposal of Mayer's is for the greater use of 'trust firms', in which a board of trustees, who do not interfere with the day-to-day running of the firm, guard the corporation's stated values and principles. India's tea-to-automobiles-to-communications Tata Group is a highly successful and exactly relevant example. Another core idea is the creative use of voting rights: if long-term shareholders were given greater voting rights than short-term shareholders, many dangerous incentives would be removed as votes become proportional to the outstanding life of the shares. 'Younger' long-term shareholders would have an incentive to nurture the organisation so that it would survive to provide, for example, their future pension rights; they would also have incentive to make the organisation productive and rewarding for 'older' long-term shareholders, since they would hope to be treated similarly as newer long-term shareholders become the voting majority.

The book's sleeve notes tell me that Colin Mayer is former Dean and current professor at the Sad Business School at Oxford University and a previous chairman of a European economics consultancy firm. These are impressive and reassuring credentials:the man knows of what he speaks. Mayer's prose is a bit academic, and a few passages needed re-reading a few times for me to get his drift. It doesn't matter. I found this an exciting book: the corporation is immensely important to the future of us all; it is currently failing on almost every front. Mayer has some deeply thought-through and cogent suggestions for quite simple ways in which the corporation could begin to serve us all better.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 12, 2013 7:34 PM BST


Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships
Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships
by Dario Maestripieri
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.89

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inheriting behavioural patterns from our pre-human ancestors, 9 Sep 2012
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Maestripieri, a Professor of comparative human development and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, argues that the inheritance by humans of behavioural patterns from distant, non-human ancestors is as real as the inheritance of structural items - that, just as we can spot the traces of a common ancestor in the structure of some relatively complex organ, so we can see behavioural patterns in human beings that reflect responses that have proved to be behaviourally useful to the common ancestry that we share with our cousins, the apes. Some more basic reactions, like the fear response, almost certainly take us further down the tree of life to even more distant ancestors.

Maestripieri obviously feels the need to prove his point: apparently some scientists argue that the very recent and dramatic development of the human brain means that 'all bets are off' - that our recently gained mental complexity means that we can ignore any possible influence of ancient behaviour patterns: human behaviour, on this analysis, will transcend, or is, at least, capable of transcending, any evolutionary influences. Maestripieri argues, at the conclusion of his book, that 'our new mental powers have not replaced the psychological and behavioural dispositions that we have inherited from our primate ancestors.'

Not being an expert in the field, I rather thought that we had crossed this bridge some time ago. Konrad Lorenz did a good job of popularising ethology, the science of animal behaviour, and I thought that Desmond Morris, in The Naked Ape, had argued compellingly for a link between primate behaviour and human behavioural traits. Presumably the scientists are still arguing about whether our behavioural traits are indeed inherited from other species or are a parallel but uniquely human response.

I think that this reveals my minor disappointments with this book. I don't need to be sold on the idea that our behaviour is derived in part from our distant ancestors, but I would like to see a larger number of detailed examples from Maestripieri's research that seem to confirm that this is true. Maestripieri does offer some fascinating insights into our behaviour by comparing, for example, the way we behave in confined spaces (elevators) with strangers, to similar behaviour in macaques. In one of his most compelling sections, he outlines three entirely believable `career strategies' that might be employed by humans in modern corporations, and compares these with directly comparable scenarios in which apes of relatively junior status attempt to rise up the social ranking of their own groups. Without giving away the answer, direct and early challenges of the head honcho are not recommended; serious networking and alliance-building before launching a well-timed coup are more likely to succeed.

But for much of the rest of the book, Maestripieri gives us examples of human behaviour (the tendency of his Italian compatriots to indulge in various forms of nepotism and mild corruption, for example) and then, in effect, says,'You can see that kind of behaviour in monkeys too.' Because we are all so instinctively (ha ha ) expert in the subtleties of human behaviour, his account of our behaviour tended to leave me a little underwhelmed. Maestripieri is no novelist, and his accounts of our behaviour often left me thinking, `Yes, yes, I know all about that, so tell me about the primates.' Maestripieri does indeed give us some fascinating detail about primate behaviour that does, indeed, potentially illuminate the likely motivation for aspects of our own behaviour, but my overall impression was that Maestripieri was so keen to popularise his material that he failed to give us enough insight into his expert field - primatology - and gave us instead a slightly lightweight tour of human behaviour, albeit one that is illuminated by the fact that many elements of this behaviour almost certainly does represent behavioural `algorithms' inherited from our more or less distant ancestors. I would have far preferred a detailed and heavyweight tour of M's research with primates, and have been left, to some extent, to draw my own conclusions.

But I may be making too much fuss about this: this is still a highly enjoyable book and a useful contribution to the growing body of evidence as to how large areas of human behaviour are far from `rational' in the way that we like to believe.

I was particularly interested in Maestripieri's comments on the demonstration of 'market' behaviour in apes and other intelligent animals: when a resource is scarce, they are prepared to go to a lot more trouble ('expense') to acquire it. Once again I may be quibbling, but the author in several instances states that these examples of animal behaviour 'illustrate' biological market theory,or are 'exactly as predicted by biological market theory' as if the theory were the reality and the behaviour were the proof, whereas what we are seeing is clearly the very genesis of market behaviour: when animals reach a certain level of sentience, they realise that some resources, in some circumstances, are worth more effort than others. 'Market theory' is not some law of physics that is 'illustrated' by animal behaviour, it is our inadequate attempt to explain the complexity of how humans (and animals) behave in these circumstances. The failure to explore in more depth these fascinating examples of market behaviour in animals rather undermined, for me, the book's claim to be 'an undercover investigation of the evolution and economics of human relationships' - Maestripieri's conclusion seems to be: 'human behaviour illustrates biological market theory in the same way as does animal behaviour' which, for me, puts the cart (the theory) before the horse (the behaviour). Cleaner fishes, for example, have apparently worked out that they need to be nicer to occasional customers ('floaters') than regulars ('residents') because the occasionals won't come back if they don't get good service, but the residents have no choice. Now THAT is interesting: it puts cleaner fish on an evolutionary par with most marketing professionals. (And I assume the cleaner fish's 'residents' feel like you and I do when the local storekeeper breaks off in the middle of serving us to take a phone call from a client who can't be bothered to turn up in person.)

I do have one other particular issue to raise: in some passages, Maestripieri talks as if some of the great apes are aware that testicles are an essential part of reproduction - that ripping off an enemy's testicles would leave him unable to reproduce, and that allowing another ape to hold one's own testicles is an act of great trust, for the same reason.

Aristotle thought that testicles were simply 'weights' that held the really vital internal ducts in the right place - that is, he knew, of course, that castration leads to infertility, but didn't think that the testicles themselves were the source or even receptacles of semen. Since Aristotle was a bit hazy on the subject, can we really assume that the great apes are anatomically clear on the matter? Or do they rip off enemies' testicles just because they can, and is letting a fellow ape hold your gonads an act of trust just because it really hurts if he doesn't treat them nicely?

It's just a thought.


Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles
Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles
by Ruchir Sharma
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 21.56

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strong clues as to how the future may look, 6 Aug 2012
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The author of this book, Ruchir Sharma, is head of Emerging Market investment at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. He is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Economic Times. He spends a week per month in a developing country somewhere on the globe 'kicking its tyres' to get a feel for what is really going on with the economy. This is a man who can be assumed to know his stuff - his essential 'stuff' being: 'is this particular economy likely to flourish and should you consider investing in it?'

I am, sadly, not personally seeking an investment home for a few billions of spare cash, but I read the book out of a growing curiosity about what the global economy may come to look like in the relatively near future: about the real likelihood of a decline of the West and the apparently inexorable rise of China and other emerging economies. This book gave me everything I wanted, and more.

Sharma's key point is that it is no longer useful or sensible to talk about 'emerging markets' as one investment opportunity: these markets make up nearly 40% of the global economy and about 15% of the value of the world's stock markets and there are highly significant differences between individual economies. Here's the basic plot: a 'breakout nation' (the ones investors might be especially interested in) is one that can exceed, or at least match, the growth rate for its income class. To get a rounded view of individual markets, Sharma monitors per capita income (so much more revealing than GDP), but also some more idiosyncratic measures, such as the cost of a cocktail or a hotel room (the high relative cost of cocktails and hotel rooms in Brazil, Russia and South Africa suggests that their currency is over-valued, affecting their future competitiveness)and whether local businesses are investing their money at home or overseas (perhaps not a measure of impressive global ambitions, but rather a reflection of mistrust of the economic situation at home).

Sharma's focus on per capita income is especially revealing. For the relatively small economy of the Czech Republic, for example, which has a relatively high $20,000 per capita income, 'breaking out' would require a potentially achievable growth of around 3 to 4 percent. For China, currently still in the region of $5,000 per capita average income, 'anything less than 6 to 7 percent [growth] will feel like a recession.' Sharma drives home the point in his chapter dedicated to the current Chinese economy and its immediate prospects: 'In 1998, for China to grow its $1 trillion economy by 10 percent, it had to expand its economic activities by $100 billion and consume only 10 percent of the world's industrial commodities - the raw materials that include everything from oil to copper to steel. In 2011, to grow its $6 trillion economy that fast, it needed to expand by $600 billion a year and suck in more than 30 percent of global commodity production.' It's a simple point: it much easier to grow fast from a smaller base. Now China`s workforce is becoming more expensive: more middle class and more middle aged, as the country's population growth begins to decline. This leads to one of Sharma's key conclusions (key, that is, if you are a bit over-obsessed with China, as most of us are): growth in the Chinese economy will inevitably slow down,believes Sharma, to maybe 6 or 7 percent. This will not, clearly, be disastrous for China (despite the fact that this may feel like going backwards to the Chinese themselves) and it may calm fears about China's role in the world: Sharma records that a 2011 Gallup poll recorded that 52% of Americans thought that China was the world's leading economy, while only 32% of thought that America's was. America is, in fact, the world's leading economy: China's economy is one third of the size, and average income is one tenth of America's. Concerns about America's economic future, says Sharma, may well be 'over-wrought'.

China is, of course, only one chapter in the book's analysis of world markets. Sharma focuses his microscope on every significant 'emerging' nation. India? Perhaps over-reliant on the 'demographic divided'; large numbers of working-age people are only an advantage if they can be put to productive work, and India's population has yet to emulate the Chinese model, where higher proportions of the population have moved from the countryside to more productive and higher-paying jobs in urban areas. Brazil? Not enough investment in infrastructure (roads and factories), too dependent on exporting commodities; too quick to develop a welfare state. Mexico? An oligopoly, where state monopolies were sold off and immediately turned into private monopolies. Russia? 'An oil state that has lost its way' - a bit of a mixture of Brazil and Mexico. South Africa? Sill living on the 'peace dividend': the nation's gratefulness for the end to apartheid and the avoidance of what could easily have become civil war. Sri Lanka? Well-placed to benefit seriously from the real 'peace dividend' resulting from the end of their own civil conflict. South Korea? 'The gold medallist': adaptive; innovative; focussed on high-value manufacturing; prepared to undergo brief periods of 'creative destruction' when changing economic circumstances reveal structural weaknesses. An object lesson to us all, in fact.

Two fundamental points that Sharma makes resonated particularly with me. The first is that the West as become too concerned with 'soft landings' and that bringing these about by means of government-sponsored economic measures tends merely to prolong economic agony, whereas short sharp shocks (the South Korean way) can be invigorating. The second is that free-market democracies are not the only route to economic success and that several command economies have been remarkably successful. The secret, however, he suggests, lies in the dynamism and vision of key leaders (for example, China's arguably pivotal reformer, the late Deng Xiaping).

There is even an uplifting conclusion to the book. China's current insatiable appetite for resources (oil, metals etc) will soon tail off - and anyway, as Sharma reminds us, China is mainly using resources that would have been used elsewhere, before so much manufacturing moved to China. Sharma believes that current pessimistic fears about the exhaustion of the world's resources is over-blown and that a 'commodity.com' bubble can be clearly seen in the fact that the daily volume of trades in energy futures (speculative bets on the future price of energy) is twenty-two times higher than the daily global demand for energy: our fears about future resources are driving a fever of speculative activity that will surely end in a commodities price crash. This will be good news for many of us - but not, for example, for commodity-based economies such as Russia and Brazil. In the meantime, as more and more economies become slowly wealthier, we will all have more neighbours to sell things to.

Please do not imagine that I have been able even to mention every interesting fact and idea covered in this book. It's a bit of dense read; one can sense its origins as a collection of 'special reports' for the Wall Street Journal etc, but it has been well transformed into a good read, with interesting bits of colour from Sharma's obviously jet-setting lifestyle. I had a mild (well, severe) attack of status anxiety when Sharma recounts that, when he was reluctant to fly to the previously Tamil rebel region of Sri Lanka in the only-available single-engine helicopter (a model with a bit of a reputation for crashing) his 'accommodating hosts arranged for the air force to take me up in a twin-engine helicopter.' Remind me to try that trick if I ever holiday, tourist class, in Sri Lanka, as I hope to. I guess if Mr Sharma likes what he sees in a country, that could be rather more significant in terms of future inward investment than if the Gifford family takes a fancy to a place.

I have one very minor gripe: the book's few photographs are slightly randomly positioned in the text, leading to sudden geographic confusion. Thus a photograph of Manila crops up in a section on Indonesia; the section of the Philippines comes several pages later. The index confirms that a photograph of Nigeria's burgeoning film industry, `Nollywood' is on page 186, whereas the reference in the text comes full 25 pages later. Maybe it's my newspaper and magazine background: I like my pictures to illustrate the text I am reading. But I am being pedantic.

In the meantime, having small-mindedly moaned about some interesting photographs and failed utterly to list every interesting area covered in this book, I'm off to read it all over again.


The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves
The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves
by Dan Ariely
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.50

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, enlightening and only mildly annoying, 13 July 2012
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I find Dan Ariely's books to be enjoyable, enlightening and mildly annoying, in equal measures. The mildly annoying bit is surely unfair (and unreasonable) of me. I do tend to find Ariely's determinedly jaunty tone a bit wearying: he writes as if his readers were a pleasant but especially dim-witted intake of undergraduates. This is probably the secret of his publishing success: as the great H. L. Mencken said, 'No one has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people' (you and me, in this context). I am also a bit resistant to the notion that things about the human condition with which we are entirely familiar cannot be taken to be really true until they have been 'proved' to be true by psychologists. Most of the simple but ingenious experiments of Mr Ariely and his fellows tend to confirm several facts about human nature of which we were, in general, already aware. I don't have a problem with that and I enjoyed reading the book. I doubt, however, if you will find that you have learned anything about human nature that you had not already learned from your own experience, and nothing that Ariely and his team 'discover' about our behaviour has not been rather more convincingly portrayed by our great playwrights and novelists.

Ariely, to be fair, sets out to write popular science, and he succeeds admirably, although - as ever with the genre - some of the science gets lost in amongst the popularisation. All of his experiments are thought-provoking, though some of his conclusions are more compelling than others. Some leave one wondering, 'Can we really draw that conclusion so emphatically from that data?' Be that as it may, the ingenious tests seem to prove Ariely's central point: pretty much anyone will cheat if they think they are going to get away with it but that, nevertheless, 'most people cheat just enough to still feel good about themselves.' Our notion of ourselves as being decent and upright folk will only withstand so much evidence to the contrary.

Ariely enhances this core tenet with elaborations about social effects, all of which are interesting but few of which are earth-shattering (if we see that other people are cheating, we're more likely to join in, especially if they are part of our social set; if we feel we're being observed, we're less likely to cheat) and with some of those interesting but occasionally slightly dubious other conclusions: willpower is limited and can be depleted, and we are more likely to succumb to temptation when we have already forced ourselves to resist a number of previous temptations (on that analysis, how does anyone ever give up smoking?); wearing sunglasses that we know to be fake designer sunglasses makes us more likely to cheat ('the wearers of fake sunglasses showed a much greater tendency to abandon their moral constraints and cheat at full throttle'). The moral of this tale would seem to be never to ask a friend wearing fake sunglasses to look after your handbag in the pub garden while you go to the loo.

All that said, this is a jolly and informative romp through some genuinely interesting current psychological thinking, entertainingly and readably presented. I have to declare an interest at this point: one of the chapters in this book is called `Blinded by our own motivations' and, in another chapter, Ariely writes that, 'We may not always know why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel.' As the man who has written a book called Blindsided on exactly that theme, I cannot help but say, in this particular context, that Dan Ariely is clearly a deeply perceptive and highly intelligent chap (demonstrably so, since he agrees with me).

I do, however, have a few gripes. Ariely concludes, as a result of a particular set of experiments, that people with a particularly creative mindset are more likely to deceive than others: their enhanced 'story-telling' abilities allow them to be comfortable with various version of reality that may not exactly coincide with what you and I thought had actually happened. ('The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not.') But then the psychologists discover that one sees the same effect in people who have been merely 'primed' for creativity by being exposed to a number of carefully-chosen words in the course of the experiment: 'creative', 'original', 'novel', 'new' and 'ingenious', for example. Since Ariely is attempting to make a conclusion based on the fundamental structure of individuals' brains (creative people have more white matter in their noddles and are therefore able to 'make more connections between different memories and ideas' than other people) it seems a bit cavalier (and unlikely) to suggest that merely introducing the notion of creativity via a few words can reconstruct conditions that he had previously argued were the result of the intrinsic physical make up of some individuals' brains.

I also wonder what Ariely is even thinking of when he says 'So where do we stand on self-deception? Should we maintain it? Eliminate it?' I thought that everything that Ariely had said in the book up until this point (page 158) had made it pretty clear that we didn't have much choice in the matter. And Ariely seems to want to discover the 'function' of self-deception. One of his core conclusions is that 'self-deception is similar to its cousins, overconfidence and optimism' in that it can help us deal with stress, carry out tedious tasks and get us to try new and different experiences (if we didn't deceive ourselves, we would realise that we were doomed to either boredom or failure, or both).

My fundamental complaint is that Ariely seems to begin with the premise that all human beings are essentially honest and then to drop his carefully manufactured bombshell (We are all far less honest than we think!) on our unsuspecting heads. I'm also far from sure that self-deception has any kind of benign 'function', as Ariely suggests: as social animals, most of us are aware that mere anarchy is the route to social disaster, but that doesn't mean that we can't help ourselves to just a little bit of something that might technically belong to somebody else. As self-aggrandising idiots, we also think that we are capable of anything. This leads us (happily) to attempt things that we should realise that we are incapable of. As Ariely says, 'we persist in deceiving ourselves in part to maintain a positive self-image. We gloss over our failures, highlight our successes (even when they are not entirely our own), and love to blame other people and outside circumstances when our failures are undeniable.' That is a lovely summing up of a critical part of the human condition, but I am uncertain about Ariely's suggestion that we have any choice as to whether to deceive ourselves or not, or that self-deception is some kind of advantageous evolutionary pressure that helps us to cope with the realities of human life. I feel rather that self-deception is simply a part of the human condition and that we might be far more evolutionarily successful (but also far more boring) if, like the Vulcan, Spock ,from Star Trek, we didn't actually practice self-deception in the way that we do.

But I wouldn't be making these moans and gripes if Ariely's book hadn't set me off on a number of trains of thought. If you are interested in human behaviour and psychology, you will enjoy this book.


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