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on 22 August 2017
This book should be included in the curriculum of every school. It can be life changing for most normal people. It takes the mystery out of why some of us don't understand others and why we all can and do make what really are plain stupid decisions. It should be mandatory and tested reading reading for every politician in the, also police, social workers and all legal professionals. The knowledge in this book could have saved lives, millions of them in the past, and certainly still could in the future. I have read it twice and still keep it handy to read the odd chapter or page again. Don't just think about it just buy it and read it straight away.
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on 5 January 2008
This is a wonderful achievement of science popularisation. Sutherland had a gift for succinctly and non-technically summarising psychology experiments. In this book he surveys more than one hundred and sixty different studies that expose failings of human reasoning and judgement. Overconfidence, conformity, biased assessment of evidence and inconsistency are among the follies given their own chapters. One chapter deals with organizational (bureaucratic) irrationality.

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

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

This is a potentially very depressing book, but its humiliating lesson is one that, for a better public life and personal life, we need to learn. You can either learn it from a huge corpus of technical psychology literature or from this little paperback.
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on 28 July 2008
We all act on impulse and make quick decisions every day. That may be irrational but if we had to think long and hard about every decision we made then our lives would never get anywhere.

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

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

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

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

English is not my first language but I use English a lot. With this background I found the book fairly easy to read, although it is my impression that you do need to be quite proficient in the English language to get the full benefit of the book.

For those seeking more information about the topics and examples presented by the author, the book has a comprehensive list of the background material, with reference to the page where it is used, as well as a list of supplemental literature for the curious reader.

I warmly recommend this book to any Vulcan wannabe as well as to any person with the responsibility to make decisions that can affect other people's lives, jobs, careers, health etc.
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on 19 January 2012
Perhaps the only book I have ever stopped reading mid-way through due to frustration.

The premise of this book is promising but unfortunately it fails to deliver. The author labours many points in a very academic way. This in itself wouldn't be too bad if the book was still relevant. Having been first published in 1992 this book has aged badly. A number of the points it makes are woefully out of date and the author ocassionally comes across as being rather grumpy. The entire chapter devoted to public sector inefficiency might have been relevant in 1992 but times have drastically changed and it now reads like a Richard Littlejohn-style moan lacking in relevance or fact. Finally, the reference to homosexuality as a "severe emotional problem" is just downright offensive and factually wrong.

A more modern take on the subject matter at hand would be welcomed.
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on 5 December 2015
This really should be read by everyone interested in making decisions of any kind, properly.

I come from a background of science and engineering, and am somewhat obsessed by evidence-based approaches not just to 'science' in its narrow definition, but to all aspects of life, particularly politics and economics, where wrong decisions so often occur due to misunderstandings of evidence, failure to reason properly and emotional prejudice clouding judgement.

This book lays out the numerous ways we deceive ourselves, as do doctors failing to understand mammograms, politicians going to war and all manner of other thinking failures. It is full of documented examples of reasoning failures. Even with a reasonable understanding of scientific rationalist thinking from my education, I was surprised at the number of ways exposed in this excellent book in which we fail to think clearly, and consequently make wrong and sometimes catastrophic decisions.

It's very nicely written as well, and will undoubtedly arm readers with a better ability to make personal decisions and spot the errors in received orthodoxies.
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on 21 August 2010
I am surprised at so many positive reviews of this book. Maybe like at least one other reviewer here the "halo effect" is working on me too. I spotted a couple of negative points and so judged the rest of the book harshly.
It is written in an overly flowery style such that I had to keep re-reading paragraphs to find the point, plus it is unscientific in the extreme. He makes claims with no evidence, no supporting referencing (and don't get me started on a referencing system which requires me to look at the back of the book to find out whether there IS a reference) and fails to expand on many points.
Two points, in the first 60 pages, struck me so strongly as without foundation that I became sceptical of everything else. One being the assertion that people hold soldiers responsible for atrocities(his word) such as the losses in WWI rather than holding the administration to account (i.e General Haig) seems wide of the mark.
If you want to read about this topic read "The Drunkards Walk", or "Mistakes were made(but not by me)" better written, more evidence based conclusions more interesting.
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on 22 February 2009
Irrationality pulls in information from a vast array of experiments and psychological studies, presenting them in an interesting and easy to understand way. Bullet-point summaries at the end of each chapter provide a useful and sometimes amusing recap of detailed explorations of human fallibility. Sutherland establishes some of the most common causes of irrational behaviour in the first few chapters, allowing them to be referred to throughout.

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

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

Overall a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.
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VINE VOICEon 27 July 2008
The actuarial method has proved successful in predicting happiness in marriage, if you subtract the average number of times a couple makes love a week from the number of rows they have a week. This is just one of dozens of quirky insights from Stuart Sutherland, who will turn lots of your thinking on its head.

This is not a systematic book, it's just a stroll through some fascinating subjects, with the odd valuable lesson thrown in. Sutherland is not afraid to be prejudiced. He writes off psychoanalysis in a few paragraphs, he demolishes any pride you might have in your intuition, or any secret belief you may have in the paranormal.

I have a business, and I remember when I started applying for loans. The bank manager told me they did it all by computer now. I was horrified. Sutherland explains why they do it. It put me off applying for one - but actually, in retrospect, if they examined my credit record, it was immaculate. I just assumed a computer would be bureaucratic. Which might not be the case at all.

Also, I have had many very disappointing experiences in interviews. Sutherland describes exactly why interviews often don't result in the best candidate being selected.

I've often felt marginalised and disdained for not being a malleable member of committees and groups, so Sutherland's work is really comforting. I'd like to use some of his stories and examples in the speeches I write for CEOs, though I fear they may be just a bit too subversive.
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on 14 April 2009
Stuart Sutherland's book examines the body of evidence for human irrationality amassed during close to half a century psychology research. Although first published in 1992 , Irrationality still provides a wide (if by no means comprehensive) account of relevant research.

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

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

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

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

The weakest chapter is undoubtedly the one dealing with irrationalities in organisations: too much of what Sutherland quotes is subject to political interpretation. By assuming that using a purely economic calculus of costs and profits is the only rational way to run an organisation, he undermines his original assertion that there is no way to define a rational goal.

In fact, the use of a similar abstractly economical assumptions is the source of perhaps the most obvious controversies as to which of the described behaviours are truly irrational. Sutherland quotes an instance of a theatre goer who loses a £20 ticket and decides not to buy a replacement: this is supposedly an irrational behaviour, because it leads to a pure and unmitigated loss of the cost of the ticket. He proceeds to ask whether the same person would not buy a ticket if they lost a £20 note? I suspect many would not: after all only few of us have unlimited spending money and for many the new ticket would mean spending well above the budget for the particular night out. Similarly, the insistence by a particular sub-group of workers on a wage that is lower in absolute terms but higher than a wage of their colleagues is only irrational if we assume that all that matters is the actual amount of money in the pocket: but it's been shown that the relative prosperity and poverty matter as much as absolute ones.

In those instances Irrationality reveals itself as very much a book of its time, when the neo-classical economics with its idea that money is an adequate (and the only needed) measure of everything was at its peak.

But these are just fairly minor niggles. Most of the material in Irrationality is truly riveting and most non-specialist readers will find a lot of fascinating and clearly presented material in Prof. Sutherland's book.
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on 15 June 2009
A fascinating book!

Full with psychological experiments that keep your interest high throughout the book, this book offers a new perspection to the way you evaluate people's actions and reactions.

This book is succesful at conveying the thoughts of the writer, you could argue it is quite scientific in the sense that sometimes offers a deep analysis of the ideas, but not to the point that becomes tiring or too specialized. On the contrary, i think it achieves the perfect balance between enjoyable reading and a non-epidermic approach.

It is by no chance related to BAD SCIENCE, in fact some experiments are mentioned in both the books, though these books are a complementary to each other and in no way just same books in different version.

It analyses a lot of everyday actions, and how these actions have nothing to do with logic (rationallity). Why people become stubborn, why some people when presented with contrary to their beliefs arquments instead of changing their views become even more convinced for their believes etc, this book explores a variety of topics, that I personally found all to be extremely interesting.

In one word, i would say it teaches you how to filter what goes on around you, and become more "objective" with your surroundings.
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