book review article


My Main Page with Links to My Other Book Reviews


Decision Making

by John Mullen and Byron Roth

"If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of potential -- for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints; possibility never." -- Soren Kierkegaard


     Yeah, possibility can be a big, big disappointment. Anyone care for some warm, calculating decisions instead? Care to violate the unspoken rule that thou shalt make carefree or reckless major decisions? Rich in practical applications, the first half of Decision Making alone is worth the money.


     Roth and Mullen cover basic statistics and philosophical errors. Methods of generating and selecting alternatives receive extensive coverage.


     This work, in short, covers hard-core decision making for major decisions. If, for example, we donate thousands to charities and are more serious about beneficial results than how donations make us feel, this work helps. This work is not for deciding how many garbanzo beans belong in today's bean salad.


     Humans are terrible intuitive thinkers. We waste much of the year, then lose an hour to daylight savings and act as if one hour were suddenly very, very important. Why didn't we value those other hours as much?


     The authors argue what we do with our brains matters more than intelligence. Would we, for example, walk a mile to save five dollars on sunglasses but not to save five dollars on a couch? If so, we made a framing error. In both cases we save five dollars. Framing errors often resemble the "penny wise, pound foolish" cliché. We buy high price items without exploring enough alternatives, yet we carefully calculate the dimes to insert in a parking meter.


     Finishing a degree in zucchini cooking, after learning that zucchinis have been banned for causing cancer, results from the error of failing to ignore sunk costs. Quitting after investing time, effort, and money pains us, but it often must be done. Benefits and costs now and in the future matter most.


     The authors describe a grape poisoning scare. The grapes in question had far less cyanide than ordinary lima beans or apple seeds. The media failed to compare the risks with known risks. (Somewhere I heard that under 0.1 percent of pesticides are human made. Americans consume by weight 1000 times more plant-made pesticides than human-made pesticides. That, of course, says nothing about their comparative toxicities.)


     Roth and Mullen cover availability biases, cognitive dissonance, halo-effects, and confirmation biases, reminding us to create helpful environments, so we do not rely too much on will power. To watch less television, for example, cancel cable, throw away the antenna, bolt the TV to the most loathed part of the home. Or throw the television away. Engage in binding precommitments. Agree to pay someone five dollars every time you watch TV. Have someone tie you to a tree (not serious). Do not let environments manipulate. Choose environments, and use them as allies. Set up environments so it takes bizarre, brazen acts of willfulness or weak will to do wrong.


     To produce better alternatives, brainstorm--think of alternatives by the dozen, including ludicrous alternatives, while reserving judgment till later. Or have individuals anonymously write ideas, then let others write anonymous comments--the Delphi technique. Or spend time doing better research. Or use a combination of methods.


      Decision Making describes decision trees, a method of diagramming alternatives and calculating expected values in detail. The expected value equals the probability of an outcome times the value of the outcome should it occur. If the probability of getting a parking ticket in a spot equals one in four, and the cost of the ticket is $60, then the expected value of parking there is negative $15, not counting the hassle of the ticket and other costs or benefits (not that anyone should waste time with this type of parking decision). When making decisions, the expected value matters more than the probability of an outcome. Evidence sufficient to require action is not the same as evidence sufficient to prove something with a high probability. We should assume a robber possesses a real gun, not a finger gun, when he has a bulge in his coat pocket. The expected value of getting shot equals horrific, though the probability of a real gun might be low. We don't need proof beyond a reasonable doubt or the preponderance of evidence to avoid stray pit bulls. (Oddly, if many individuals had one in a million odds of winning 50 million in the lottery, they would line up to buy tickets. If an important moral course had a 98 percent probability of success, they would howl about how boring, uncertain, or "subjective" morality is.)


     A problem that plagues us: We stop using problem-solving strategies because they psychologically tax us. Instead of finding better problems, better solutions, and better arguments, we revert to habitual thinking: The first feeling is right, the first plausible solution is best, and one reason is enough. We label the most obvious, pressing, or habitual problems the most important.


Some points:

·        How we think about events can often screw our heads up more than the events, unless, of course, the events are as bad as a spike through the skull.

·        The authors remind us not to confuse worrying, then leaping in the dark with good decision-making procedures.

·        We should, in some cases, see choices as a thrill and adventure rather than as a burden.

·        We often have ambivalences toward strategies, approaching them as if they were inherently inhuman. In the face of uncertainty and conflict we can zone out or we can pursue the challenges.

·        Sometimes the ends justify the means. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes the means justify the ends. Sometimes they do not.

·        Our efforts should move toward great value, away from distraction or damage control.

·        There is rarely a one and only cause of something.

·        Causes are often ripples in a pond.

·        Avoid focusing too much on details or too much on big pictures.

·        We often know, intuitively, how to do better, but we often do not know how to arrive at optimal or satisfactory alternatives.


     The errors in this work are but quibbles, such things as "centrifugal" force. If you're looking for easy infotainment, don't buy this book. Here be technical language. Those fanatically committed to the leap in the dark method of decision-making, perhaps because of alleged esthetic value, should not buy this book. Highly recommended.


book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009


My Main Page with Links to My Other Book Reviews