Skip to main content

Mindware - Richard Nisbett *****

There's no doubt that Richard Nisbett's book, subtitled 'tools for smart thinking' is great, despite two issues. I want to get those issues out of the way first before we get onto the good stuff, with which it is packed. One issue is the writing style. This is a touch clumsy and could do with a little professional help. Nisbett has a tendency to overuse unnecessary jargon in sentences like this:
Our construal of objects and events is influenced not just by the schemas that are activated in particular contexts, but by the framing of judgments we have to make.
Nor ideally worded. The second issue I suspect comes more from the publisher, which is the attempt to frame this book (sorry, couldn't resist the italics) as a self-help title as much as popular science. It doesn't work particularly well as a practical self-help toolkit - it's not structured in a way to make this a good use, particularly because a large part of the book is focused on how we get things wrong, rather than how to do things better.

But what makes this book a pure delight is the way that it analyses our human take on the world and shows the flaws in the typical ways that we think which, if overcome, would enable us to make better decisions. Some of this is fairly theoretical, starting with the nature of inference and exploring the holes in the Popperian disdain for inference, but there's also an exploration of the results of a plethora of experiments which take everyday decisions and situations and try to understand what is happening.

One great example is over the analytic input of the subconscious. Nisbett shows us how the old saw about leaving a problem overnight to reach a better decision really works. He describes an experiment where different people are shown a range of apartments and asked to decide which is 'best'. (As always with psychology experiments, there is room for questioning here as 'best' is so subjective with accommodation, but the experimenters try their best using a series of criteria against which each apartment is scored.) The subjects are divided into three groups. Some have to make an almost instant decision, others are allowed to weigh up the pros and cons, while a third group doesn't actually think about the problem but makes their decision after sleeping on it. By far the best results come from the third group, while the 'instant' decision maker are as effective as those weighing up the options. This neatly takes the wind out of the usual moan that people make a decision about house buying far too quickly.  The subconscious can do a surprising amount of the heavy lifting for us (though, as Nisbett points out, it's hopeless at doing sums).

A very interesting section for those who are fans of Freakonomics and its successor books is where Nisbett tears apart a technique often used in the 'Freak' decision process - multiple regression analysis, where the idea is to analyse data by correcting for various unwanted variables, leaving the one being studied dominant. Nisbett, tongue in cheek, refers to it as 'eekonomics'. It's an infamously poor approach (the reason why cohort studies on diet etc. are so difficult to use), because it's almost impossible to be sure you've allowed for all the variables, and the impact of some can be little more than guesswork. Instead, Nisbett suggests, it would be much better to do far more experimental work in these fields, with proper double blind controls, even though he admits that's not always possible.

With other sections on correlation versus causality, sample sizes, the nature of logic and dialectic, and more, there's plenty of meat here in a truly fascinating read about the nature of human decision making, where it goes wrong and how (at least in principle) we could do it better. It's not always big stuff. He points out how we often fail to deal with the way that money we've spent is already written off. There's no point carrying on with something you are now getting no value out of due to changing circumstances, or a bad initial decision, just because you've already spent a lot on it. Yet we all tend to do it (as do governments).

The part contrasting 'Western' logic with 'Eastern' dialectic towards the end of the book is probably the least satisfactory as it doesn't really explain how the dialectic approach can produce specific useful results rather than fuzzy statements, but it's still interesting. Overall, an ideal book for anyone who raises an eyebrow at statistics in the press. If, for example, you are a fan of Radio 4's More or Less, this book takes the whole look at the way we make informed decisions using numbers to a new level.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…