Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Gut Feelings - Gerd Gigerenzer *****

Although this book dates back to 2007 (it was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2008), the information within doesn’t seem dated. Psychologist and behavioural expert Gerd Gigerenzer has written a number of books about risk and probability in recent years, and while this book has some of that, this book is focused on the secrets of fast and effective decision making. That is not to say that it is a self-help book, but rather a description, based on neurological and psychological research, of how the brain uses heuristics in order to make decisions with limited information, though readers will find much of the information useful when thinking about decisions.
Gigerenzer explains how intuition works in easy to understand terminology and also uses numerous examples throughout the book to illustrate how intuition is the basis for decision making, such as how we are able to catch a ball without conducting calculations of its speed or distance. 
In short, Gigerenzer describes the processes of 'system 1' to use the terminology from Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Interestingly, Gigerenzer takes issue with the ‘Linda is a bank teller’ puzzle that Kahneman and Tversky used to illustrate the ‘conjunction fallacy’. Gigerenzer argues, very effectively and persuasively, that such logical puzzles are ‘content blind' as they ignore the content and goals of thinking, and that our intelligence has developed to operate in an uncertain world and not the artificial certainty of a logical system. In any event, it is the first persuasive and rigorous counter argument to many of the premises of Thinking Fast and Slow that I have come across.
In another chapter, Gigerenzer discusses the ‘string heuristic’ ideas as related to how people choose which party or politician to vote for. Basically, voters arrange the complexity of the political landscape to one dimension: left-Right. They then arrange the parties like pearls on a string and, by picking the up the string at one’s ideal point, the voters arrange their preferences for other parties. I found this idea quite fascinating and an excellent explanation of when polls show how voters move between parties that are not close to each other ideologically; the parties may be close on the given issue that the voter has based his decision on.
Gigerenzer has written an excellent book and has a real talent for using examples and terminology that make these interesting ideas accessible for the everyday reader. If you’re interested in risk, probability, logic and how our brains weigh such things, and how we are more astute than we think we are, then this is a top quality read.
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Review by Ian Bald

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