Book Review: Blunder – Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions
Hello to everyone.
You see it all around you
Good lovin’ gone bad
And usually it’s too late when you
Realize what you had
Have forgotten which musical group did this song many years ago (in the 1980s).
Here is an essay that may be of interest and benefit to many readers. 2,000 words, yes, but worth considering.
Recently finished reading Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions written by Zachary Shore, 2008, Bloomsbury USA (New York). Paperback, 232 pages plus notes and index.
(Am currently reading a book on the history of the unconscious (in philosophy and in psychology), and will happily share any useful insights from that book in a future essay.)
In his book, Mr. Shore, identifies several traps – that we can easily fall into in our thinking – which negatively affect and impair our decision making. These are called cognition traps. He devotes a chapter to each and illustrates the detrimental effects of each trap with historical (mostly 20th century) examples. (The author earned a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University.) Even though many of the examples involve the decisions and actions of statesmen, doctors, corporate executives, and military leaders, the principles involved also apply to our individual thought processes in our daily decision making. We are susceptible to being tripped up by these cognition traps in our interpersonal relationships with our spouse, family members and friends.
Let’s briefly review the major cognition traps addressed in the book. We cannot do justice to the author’s work here, but we will try to capture the major points. Interested readers can obtain a copy of the book and read it, and think about the issues raised. (Your local major bookstore, if they do not have it on hand, can likely order it for you. Large public or college libraries may have a copy or two. Amazon.com is an online source for this book.)
1. Exposure Anxiety: the fear of being seen as weak. This occurs when individuals, groups or institutions do not want to be seen as capable of error(s) or as weak. (My 2 cents: Certain bureaucratic churches suffer from this. And, politicians go to great lengths to defend mistaken policies.) Decisions and courses of action are thus taken with the purpose of maintaining the perception of strength or the perception of competence and wisdom. One can see where this trap can come into play with how political leaders and military officers approach certain challenges and crises. But true strength of judgment (and of personal character) allows for admitting error or incomplete knowledge, or the lack of an instant solution to a crisis. Decisions need to be made that address constructive solutions to challenges and crises. When decisions are geared to propping up perceptions for public consumption, underlying causes of problems are either not addressed or are not addressed adequately. It is better to grapple with the problem and seek the aid and insights of others, than to make an uninformed or misinformed decision or overreact with harsh measures out of fear of being seen as weak. (My observation: Not a few individuals have serious difficulty with admitting to themselves, in the privacy of their thoughts, that they can (and do) make errors and that they do not have all the answers. Maintaining the perception in others that they are strong and wise is very important to these individuals.)
2. Causefusion: confusing the causes of complex events. This is more common than many people realize. The author gives various examples of this trap. If the cause(s) of a problem are not correctly identified and understood, it is unlikely the proposed solutions will work effectively. Correlations among factors being mistaken for causal relationships, and coincidences of factors that are not properly understood, make it difficult at times to identify causes. In the medical field, this cognition trap shows up when prescribed treatments address and alleviate the symptoms, but do not remove the cause(s) of the patient’s illness (be it physical or mental illness); or when the prescribed treatments actually worsen the patient’s condition.
Causefusion can involve mis-identifiying the cause to a problem. It can also involve not correctly identifying all the causes to a complex problem. For example, if a problem has 3 or 4 causes or major contributing factors, and only one or two of these are identified as causing the problem, then proposed solutions are not likely to fully succeed. (Understanding the interrelationships among the various causes and contributing factors is also necessary, and not always easy to achieve.) Mr. Shore even gives an example of where the causal flow was actually running in the opposite direction and the proposed cure was actually causing the problem (yet another form of causefusion).
3. Flatview: seeing the world in one dimension. This cognition trap is related to causefusion. The flatview trap leads a person to assume that there is only one possible cause or variable behind a problem or challenge. Mohammed Mossadegh, leader of Iran in the early 1950s, was overthrown (by the CIA) because his nationalization of British oil assets in Iran was seen by the US government as proof that he was a communist. The leaders in Washington could not consider (or even imagine) that there was another motive behind Mossadegh’s actions, namely that he wanted his country’s citizens to benefit from their oil reserves (which had not happened with British control and exploitation of Iran’s oil). His actions were nationalistic and not communist. Sadly, the Iranian people have never forgotten this episode (now 60 years ago) and it is a continuing source of enmity between the 2 nations. (Similarly, US advisers to President Johnson and Johnson himself could not view Ho Chi Minh as anything other than a communist. Ho interacted with the Vietnamese as both a nationalist and a communist. The Vietnamese saw their struggle in more than one dimension.)
As well, in this chapter, the author takes up the epidemic of gun violence committed by young males in the US. (I do agree that we are not raising our boys properly in this country. In the US, we have a rather skewed view of masculinity that reflects a poor understanding of both boys and men.) A broader, less simplistic understanding of boys’ emotional needs and challenges is needed by both parents and teachers.
4. Cure-allism: believing that one size really fits all. This is the cognition trap of thinking or assuming that one specific solution or cure, that has worked in one instance, is thus universally applicable to all other instances of the same (or a similar) problem. The examples given by the author involve applying the same cures to financial crises or economic development challenges in widely different countries or regions of the world. Needless to say, these “universal” cures are not universally applicable or workable (as his examples demonstrate).
5. Infomania: the obsessive relationship to information. 2 principal variants here, that of the infomiser and that of the infovoider. The infomiser believes that his or her position is strengthened and his/her agenda more likely to be furthered by the willful hoarding of information from superiors, peers, and subordinates. This often backfires and actually over time undermines the infomiser’s position and goals. The infovoider, on the other hand, thinks that it is better to ignore or avoid information that contradicts his/her views. Again, this cognition trap leads one to failure.
6. Mirror Imaging: thinking the other side thinks like us. (Actually, we touched on this ourselves in the earlier essay “We think differently and why” posted on August 23.) Numerous examples illustrate the danger of assuming that enemies, potential adversaries, or even friends think as we do. Often times, they do not think as we do. When we assume they do think as we do, and then make further assumptions as to their actions or reactions in a struggle or crisis, we miscalculate and that can lead us to major mistakes or blunders (politically, socially, diplomatically, and/or militarily).
On a more hopeful note, the author gives 2 examples where this cognition trap was avoided. US President Eisenhower fought back against all his top advisers that urged him to commit ground troops in Vietnam in 1954 to save France’s colonial position and hence prevent a communist victory there. He saw that the Vietnamese people were not simply communist (many of them were communist leaning), but that they were fighting to free their country of foreign control. Eisenhower saw that if the US stepped in, the Vietnamese would see it as an example of American colonialism and would fight against the US forces. The Vietnamese themselves were not viewing the struggle solely as one of communism versus capitalism as Eisenhower’s advisers saw the conflict. (These advisers also suffered from flatview.)
President Kennedy, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, worked hard at trying to see how the Soviets viewed the crisis. He took measured actions (such as using a naval blockade to prevent Soviet ships from delivering more missile parts and refused to order the bombing of missile sites and airfields in Cuba) while he tried to gauge possible Soviet intentions and responses. His thoughtful and measured approach helped to avoid escalating the crisis and allowed time for both sides to begin to work with each other to resolve the crisis.
7. Static Cling: refusal to accept a changing world. Numerous examples are given of people who could not accept that the world had changed irrevocably and there was no going back to the past. The trap to be avoided here is that of essentially being stubborn and rigid for the sake of being stubborn and rigid. By clinging to outmoded practices, customs, and ways of thinking, a person narrows his/her possibilities for growth and success.
The author advises striving consciously to be flexible in one’s thinking, be willing to consider other points of view (other perspectives), and to not be overly attached to our preconceived ideas, expectations or biases (which can be very incorrect). Avoid rushing to conclusions. It is not so much what we think as how we think that makes the difference in our decision making. Maintaining a healthy skepticism vis-a-vis quick fixes or simple solutions to complex problems is also helpful in avoiding some of these cognition traps. Complex problems usually have multiple causes and/or contributing factors, and require complex (multi-faceted) solutions. Simplistic solutions often do not address all the causes. As well, Mr. Shore points out that there is nuance, there is much “gray” area in these crises, challenges, and problems. Not everything in the real world is the proverbial black or white.
I have fallen into some of these cognition traps in my adult life, especially when making the biggest mistakes of my life. By not recognizing these cognition traps during stressful times and consequently making bad, even destructive decisions, I was in effect victimizing myself and others. (Hindsight, as they say, is always 20-20.)
The author’s thesis is food for thought and can be of benefit to everyone. We all are prey to cognition traps if we are not careful. As Mr. Shore points out several times in the book, it is hard to overcome some of our habitual ways of thinking, and it is difficult to be consciously on guard during stressful times. This takes ongoing effort. However, by consciously striving to avoid the various common mental traps in our thinking, we can make better, more constructive decisions and thereby pursue more constructive courses of action in our lives. Life will never be perfect for any of us, but we can work to make life better for ourselves and our loved ones by avoiding those mistakes that are avoidable. Not to sound trite here, but the old adage comes to mind: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or, in other words, it is preferrable to be pro-active than reactive.
Thanks for reading this essay. Please feel free to pass it on to anyone you may know that might benefit from its contents.
Before signing off, here is a link to part 1 of The Demon With A Glass Hand (an Outer Limits science fiction episode from 1964). The successive parts follow and you can easily continue through them in proper sequence. If you enjoy vintage sci-fi, this one is pretty good. (All six parts together only take about 51 minutes to view.)
Best wishes to all!