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Good thinking?

23 February 2010 No Comment

Yes, the Riley blog is back after its Christmas and New Year break.

Being away gave me the opportunity to do some reading and one book that I enjoyed and strongly recommend was Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland.

My copy is a 2007 edition of this 1992 book by Sutherland, who was Professor of Psychology at Sussex University. He died in 1998.

Essentially the book is about the many errors of thinking to which we humans are prone; in particular he considers the way we form unshakeable opinions or rush into decisions based on a firm misunderstanding of reality. This is critical stuff for anyone who is in business or, indeed, anyone who isn’t.

In his review of the book, Nicholas Lezard wrote in The Guardian:

“The advance of civilisation and the cultivation of the collective mind would be improved if it were this book, rather than the Bible, that were placed in bedside cabinets of hotels throughout the world…There are few books about psychology that can make you laugh out loud; this is one of them. You must buy this book.”

The chapter titles give you a vague idea of where Sutherland takes us: The wrong impression; Obedience; Conformity; In-groups and Out-groups; Organisational folly; and so on.

For me – burdened with a training in auditing – the chapter on risk was particularly engaging though perhaps lacking the humour to be found in other chapters. I’d like to quote one section of this.

After pointing out that it is often difficult to foresee all the possible chains through which a risk could develop, the following is related:

“As a further example of a disaster caused by irrationality at all levels consider the sinking of the car ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise in calm seas outside Zeebrugge with the loss of 180 lives. The immediate cause was water entering the car decks because the ship sailed with the bow doors open. The following factors contributed to the disaster: 1. Although the captain had asked for an automatic signal on the bridge showing the state of the doors, none had been supplied. 2. The assistant bosun who should have closed the doors was fast asleep. 3. The officer who should have checked that they were closed had been called away on other duties, because of a shortage of crew. 4. The Herald had originally been designed to ply between Dover and Calais: since the ramp at Zeebrugge was lower than that at Calais, the ship had to take on ballast water to lower it sufficiently to load the cars at Zeebrugge. Because the captain had been ordered to save twenty minutes on the crossing, there was no time to pump out the ballast before leaving, so that the ship was unduly low in the water. 5. Because of the time pressure, the Captain left at full speed, thus creating a bow wave which swept into the car decks.

“Two points should be made. First, had any one of these factors been absent, the ship might well not have sunk. Second…..the main responsibility must lie with the managers…”

So this was caused by an extraordinary array of coincidences, but led to an accident that led us all to think – how could something so daft have happened? Well, the book explains.

The chapter ‘The failure of intuition’ points out that intuition is the strange instinct that tells a person he is right, whether he is or not.

If you want to be equipped to take better decisions, read this book.

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