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Reviews Written by
Dr. M. L. Poulter "Bias and Belief" (Bristol, UK)

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Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour
Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour
by Ori Brafman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Engaging but frustratingly superficial, 17 Jun. 2009
What the authors call a "Sway" is what is more generally called a cognitive bias. This is a well-written, quite short, rush through the subject, mainly focusing on real-world examples. It tells decision-makers that things can go badly wrong due to natural human biases - from confirmation bias to conformity - and gives lots of interesting examples. There are 42 endnotes pointing to relevant scientific research. However, where it falls down is that I don't feel that it teaches the reader how to think systematically about the subject: identifying biases, seeing clearly why a particular bias is the explanation for the behaviour they are talking about. This is partly made up for by the Epilogue which collects some tips for how to prevent yourself from being swayed. There are already several really excellent non-technical books on cognitive biases, including Sutherland's "Irrationality", Fine's "A Mind of its Own" and Ariely's "Predictably Irrational" (see my Listmania list). Then again, for someone who wants a quick introduction, "Sway" might be ideal.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Sex And Science
Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Sex And Science
by Mary Roach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the funniest books I've ever read, 9 Jun. 2009
Mary Roach brings two qualities to her history of sex research. Firstly, her sense of humour: she doesn't miss a chance for a witty aside, and this topic gives lots of opportunities for them. Her description of a visit to a sex toy factory had me absolutely howling, and there are moments like that throughout the book. Second is her dogged determination to track down the documents, people and um... apparatus that tell the history of sexology from all angles. Her appetite for understanding even led to volunteering herself and her husband as subjects in a sex study. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have turned out as a puerile "naughty interesting facts" kind of book. Instead, it's a laugh-out-loud page-turner telling an often heroic and sometimes appalling story of how scientists have fought against (or often promoted) social or religious taboos, helping us understand our own and our partner's bodies and responses.

Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics--and Why it Matters
Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics--and Why it Matters
by Peter Ubel
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Research and reflections on health, wealth and happiness, 19 May 2009
Despite the title, this book sings the praises of the free market. However, it soundly debunks a libertarian free-market fundamentalism that draws its legitimacy from the rational-choice assumptions of economics.

The author is a medical doctor and decision scientist, not to mention an accessible writer. The book is based on many important scientific studies, including the author's own research, so there's a high fact-to-opinion ratio. In his medical work, Ubel sees first-hand the obesity crisis, the stressful conditions in which we make medical decisions and the inefficiency of a market medical system. This in turn shows the danger of believing that people always make decisions in their own best interest.

Other writers have criticised free-market economics for ignoring market failures (such as pollution) or for ignoring the moral dimension of decision-making. Ubel instead shows that rational-choice economics has been refuted - no, not by the financial crisis - by decades of behavioural research, in laboratory and real-world experiments on decision making. The fact is that the brain has many decision-making modules. Maybe one of them wants you above all to get fit, eat right and avoid diabetes, but when you are out shopping it's a different module that chooses to buy the doughnuts.

Human behaviour responds to incentives, but as this book shows, incentives are not the whole story. There are framing effects, comparison effects, social pressure, and the many human quirks which are exploited by marketers to make you buy stuff you don't really want. To rational-choice economists, incentives are the whole story, hence their theory of "rational addiction", and Ubel shows what a fallacy this is.

Thaler and Susstein's "Nudge" has brought the policy implications of behavioural economics to public awareness. However, that book reflects the political atmosphere of the US where it's beyond the pale to challenge that the individual knows best. As a result, it reads as oddly right-wing to a European audience. This isn't the case with "Free Market Madness". Ubel believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but doesn't want us to sacrifice our happiness on the altar of freedom, like so many of his patients have. Ariely's "Predictably Irrational" is more wide-ranging, but Ubel is more specific about where orthodox economics has gone wrong. All three books are valuable contributions and deserve to be read with each other, with Ubel's in particular being a serious wake-up call to our political discussion.

Despite its significance, I can't give this the highest rating because after an excellent first few chapters, the argument becomes more diffuse. He gives examples of how we make decisions irrationally, and how the free-market fundamentalists are ignoring the science, but it's not structured as tightly as it could have been. Perhaps that's pedantic: the book is persuasive enough to show me that some of my own beliefs, however appealing, were wrong.

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts
Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts
by Carol Tavris
Edition: Paperback

45 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping read for anyone interested in human nature, 18 April 2009
For clear, engaging explanations of psychological research, this is one of the best books you can get. Cognitive biases are like optical illusions, distorting our decisions, memories and judgement. This book focuses in particular on self-directed biases: the distortions of memory and explanation that make sure that each of us is the hero, not the villain, or our own life story.

When corrupt police frame innocent people, how do they justify to themselves what they are doing? When a couple divorce, how can two former lovers come to hate each other with such passion? When political or military mistakes lead to thousands of deaths, how do the decision-makers live with themselves? The authors take academic research (on cognitive dissonance, stereotypes, obedience and more) and apply it to a wide spectrum of issues from the White House to Mel Gibson's racism.

It is eye-opening to read how malleable and unreliable memory is, and how easy it is to create feedback loops of increasing certainty from just a glimmer of evidence. An appalling example is the recovered memory craze of the 80s and 90s, which is discussed at length. The book isn't entirely downbeat, even though it explains how prosecutions, marriages or therapy sessions can go terribly wrong. It shows how easy it is for good people to hurt others, but that we can avoid these traps with humility and self-questioning. They call science "a form of arrogance control".

A theme running through the work of these two psychologists is how science can address real problems of human conflict. That warm, humane spirit pervades this book and I think anybody curious about the science or the solutions would benefit from reading it.

Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges To Envisioning The Worst
Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges To Envisioning The Worst
by Karen A. Cerulo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £24.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Frustratingly bad book on a fascinating topic, 18 April 2009
This starts out so well, but wanders into such dubious and frankly mad territory that I can't recommend it. The theme of the book is how we find it difficult to define or imagine the worst: in particular, worst outcomes such as business failure or loss of a child. Cerulo, a sociologist, argues that this asymmetry is part of our (Western, and USA in particular) culture.

This blindness to the worst has profound costs. In organisations, we have disasters like the Bay of Pigs, Hurricane Katrina or the 9/11 attacks. The banking crisis which occurred since the book was published may be the best illustration of all. At an individual level, people prepare inadequately for severe illness, death or other misfortune. Culturally, she claims, we resist anything that makes us think about the worst.

After a strong first few chapters, including some interesting material on relationship breakups ("I never imagined she might want a divorce"), Cerulo starts shoehorning the evidence into her idea, in a way that is often painful to watch. Despite the fact that World War I is called the "Great War", it wasn't actually great, she tells us. The Oscars, celebrating the best films, get far more attention than the Razzies, celebrating the worst. Radio host Art Bell has been ridiculed for interviewing end-of-the-world nuts, and to Cerulo this is an example of our resistance to imagining the worst. This is a ridiculously one-dimensional analysis of why we find such people annoying or risible. She could have made the reverse point: that despite all the ridicule and lack of evidence, fantasies about UFOs coming to end the world are still culturally embedded. Clearly, we often are culturally obsessed with the worst outcome (terrorism, the Y2K bug etc.), and Cerulo has to interpret this as the exception that proves the rule. Because she deals in interpretation rather than controlled experiment, she can make the evidence come out how she likes.

The book's many references are useful, and from this material Malcolm Gladwell would have written a rip-roaring bestseller. Tavris and Aronson's Mistakes Were Made is a much better introduction to this fascinating subject.

The Halo Effect: How Managers Let Themselves Be Deceived
The Halo Effect: How Managers Let Themselves Be Deceived
by Phil Rosenzweig
Edition: Paperback

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy it for your own manager!, 15 April 2009
This is a definitive book about critical thinking in the context of business success. A lot of people claim to understand why businesses succeed or fail, whether in journalism such as Fortune magazine, in bestselling books such as In Search of Excellence or in academia. With admirable clarity, Rosenzweig sets out the scientific failings of these, boiling down the errors to a list of nine "delusions" which infect even some of the most prestigious business research.

For instance, business writers neglect the role of external factors in performance (similar to what Taleb's Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets says about the financial sector). They mistake correlation for causality. They amass huge corpuses of data without addressing the known biases in that data. The Halo Effect of the title is an example of what is known in psychology as attribute substitution. Researchers want to measure a company's customer focus (or strategic leadership, commitment to its people, etc.) to correlate against performance (such as profitability). However, customer focus is incredibly hard to measure, so in practice the estimates are based on the company's profitability. It shouldn't be surprising that this gives a strong positive correlation, as they are in effect correlating a variable against itself.

The book considers a succession of cases where companies were described as well-led, customer focused and innovative when their share price increased, but as soon as their fortunes changed suddenly "became" complacent, reckless or outdated in the eyes of commentators, or vice versa. It looks in detail at some of the books that claim to offer the secrets of success. Not only does he undermine the arguments of these books with straightforward science, but he shows that lasting business success, in the sense of staying ahead of the market for more than a generation, has *never happened*. He teaches you to recognise the delusions so you can apply the same critique to other claims.

The book examines some contrasting business science which is more rigorous but makes more modest claims, then concludes by discussing how to manage without pseudoscience. This involves that we acknowledge the role of chance and uncertainty, and stop looking for a list of "secrets" that will make success inevitable.

The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (Penguin Press Science)
The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (Penguin Press Science)
by Douglas R. Hofstadter
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A blissful marriage of philosophy and literature, 1 Feb. 2008
The "Fantasies" are selections from all sorts of literature dealing with the mind, consciousness and personal identity. The writers are people whose minds play on the border of art and science, from novelist Jorge Luis Borges to logician Raymond Smullyan. We get many bizarre thought experiments as well as science-based speculation, including Alan Turing's classic paper on machine intelligence.

The "Reflections" are companion essays by a hugely influential computer scientist and arguably the world's most prominent philosopher of mind, in which they draw together these thoughts into a long, sustained argument for a particular view of the relations between matter, mind and personality. Opposing views are aired and discussed at length.

The total effect is top-notch brain candy and a wonderful starting point for anyone who wants to think seriously about the mind. It was very useful for me to read before interviewing to study Philosophy at university. The thought experiments provided by the authors include a conversation with a self-aware ant colony, a book that preserves Einstein's consciousness by encoding all the patterns of his brain and the distorted sense of place felt by someone whose brain communicates with his body by long-distance radio link.

You are Worthless: Depressing Nuggets of Wisdom Sure to Ruin Your Day
You are Worthless: Depressing Nuggets of Wisdom Sure to Ruin Your Day
by Oswald T. Pratt
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Funnier and more illuminating than all those "Little Books" put together, 5 Jan. 2008
"There are certain tried-and-true techniques you can use to take control of your life, get the job you want, get the pay you deserve, and have a very satisfying, successful career. You will never learn these techniques." These and other insights are presented in the ultimate antidote to the torrent of syrupy self-help books full of calming, positive "affirmations".

Scott Dikkers (one of the editors of The Onion) has put together a stream of the bleakest reflections and darkest thoughts from a depressive, self-loathing state of mind. Yet I have watched several people I know howl with laughter at this book. What's going on?

Partly it's because some of the aphorisms are dead-on-the-money observations of things that we try to ignore. Partly it's because the whining tone of the book satirises how we feel when we're at our most depressed and self-pitying, daring us not to be worthless losers.

I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who was contemplating suicide, but for the rest of the population it's an ideal replacement for a shelf-full of verbal treacle.

When prophecy fails:  A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the end of the world
When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the end of the world
by L. Festinger
Edition: Hardcover

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Belief and reality collide like a motorway pile-up, 5 Jan. 2008
This book is why I gave up reading fiction. No novel is as exciting or as revealing of the human condition as a true story like this.

Studying historical examples, a university research group comes up with a theory about the dynamics of apocalyptic cults. When they hear of a local group who believe they are in contact with aliens who will soon bring about the end of the world, they find the ideal opportunity to test the theory. This book is the record of the scientists' infiltration of the group to observe how its members cope with the failure of prophecy.

In a story woven together from the perspectives of the different investigators, we get to see the hilariously desperate attempts of the group members to validate their sci-fi belief system, and the bizarre home life of the lady whose "channelled" messages from space are the focus of the group.

The behaviour of the investigators as they try to cover their real activities draws suspicion, and the medium interprets this as a sign that they are themselves alien visitors. As the disappointing non-end-of-the-world arrives, the investigators find themselves irreversibly involved in the group they are supposed to be objectively studying. This book was gripping enough to make me get up early to spend all day in a bleak departmental library.

by Stuart Sutherland
Edition: Paperback

304 of 313 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still the best popular book on this topic, 5 Jan. 2008
This review is from: Irrationality (Paperback)
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.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 1, 2012 10:37 PM BST

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