by Reid Hastie and Robyn M. Dawes
Sage Publications, 2001
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D. on Feb 13th 2002
This book should be prefaced with
the following warning:
Using the information contained
could result in changes in your life.
For many years Ive
kept a well-worn copy of the
first (1988) edition of this book within ready reach in my studys closest
bookshelf. Unlike the majority of books
in my bookcases, this one clearly shows the passage of time - - its edges are
tattered and its pages are marred with washed-out streaks of green and yellow
fact is, at times I find the uncertain nature of the world especially
frustrating, and Dawes book has been my primer in trying to learn better ways
to maneuver through the minefields of illogic and irrationality in our society,
and in trying to make sense of the illusions and deceptions (both unintentional
and intentionally-produced) of the carnival show that is our everyday
first edition of the book was very well received in professional and academic
communities, and received the 1990 William James Award from the American
Psychological Associations Division One. That edition has been long out of
print, however, and used copies are only occasionally available from book
dealers. (Apparently very few people
desire to part with their copies.)
was very good news a year or so ago when I learned from Prof. Dawes about plans
for the publication of this new edition.
was surprised and impressed to find that while this current book preserves the
title as well as the theme from its forerunner, it is actually a completely new
formulation of the subject; it is not just a new edition but a new work
that, while incorporating much from the previous book of the same title, covers
new ground. In this new book, Robyn Dawes (who was sole author of
the first book), is joined by Reid Hastie, another widely recognized
authority on human decision-making processes.
characteristic directness, the authors of this fast-paced but thorough book
state their basic premise on the very first page:
evolved from ancestors . . . who lived in small groups and spent most of their
waking hours foraging for sustenance.
When we werent searching for something to eat or drink, we were looking
for safe places to live, selecting mates, and protecting the offspring from
those unions. Our success in
accomplishing these survival tasks did not arise because of acute senses or
especially powerful physical capacities.
We dominate this planet today because of our distinctive capacity for
good decision making. (p. 1)
But the reader soon
learns that, ironically, humans werent designed to be especially good decision
makers in the kind of world in which we now live. The kinds of errors we make arent random but are instead
systematic and even predictable.
Fortunately, with a little effort we can learn decision-making skills
that are more useful and effective for the situations in which we now find
authors familiarity with the professional literature shines through in every
chapter. The initial chapter addresses
the process of thinking, differentiates between automatic and
controlled thinking, describes the computational model of thinking, and
points out the limitations of a strict behaviorist approach to human thought
and activities. The study of
decision-making processes is traced from the renaissance period up to present
day. Subsequent chapters consider the
cognitive processing that follows from the basic perception of sensory data,
the roles and influence of emotions, attitudes, and values in decision-making,
and presents an outline of a rationality-based decision-making process.
reader is continually reminded that while every normally functioning human
being thinks, not everyone thinks rationally, logically, scientifically,
or effectively. As mentioned above,
objective decision-making is a skill that needs to be learned. Humans have innate mental tendencies and
biases that are in large part due to our mental apparatus and therefore to our
evolutionary past. These natural
biases are presumed to be universal and transcultural, deriving from neural
circuitry. (The focus of this book is
not on the predispositions and biases that are due to our own individual
natures and personalities, or the biases and tendencies that arise from the
social attitudes and other influences of the various cultures in which we are
example of a natural or innate tendency is that we see order or patterns in the
world even when no pattern in fact exists.
The coin toss experiment demonstrates this. Ask someone to simulate (in their mind, without using coins) a
number of tosses of a fair coin, and to record the results of each (mental)
toss as either heads or tails. Most
people will produce records that show much more regular variation (as in
H-T-H-T-HH-TT, etc.) than is produced by actual coin tossing. In other words, we have an innate tendency
to (unconsciously) project onto the world much more regularity than is actually
present in it. We tend to see patterns
where there are none.
the other fundamental (and numerous) irrationalities explained and demonstrated
in this book are honoring sunk costs and ignoring the base-rates of phenomena
when predicting outcomes.
book should be required reading for all college students. Even high schools should offer courses
explaining at least the most basic of the principles covered in this book. And if executives and business managers were
required to master the knowledge contained in this book, who knows how much
more smoothly our economy would run?
course, many politicians, advertisers, salespersons, and noisy advocates of
various kinds would prefer that no one read this book. That should be recommendation enough!
© 2002 Keith Harris
Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley
Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests
include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research
(and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human
nature by evolutionary forces.