WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: Noise by Cass R. Sunstein, Daniel Kahneman, and Olivier Sibonyy Ben Woodwarda D. Hodges

This book took me a long time to read, because I kept getting bogged down in the statistics side of what they were talking about. I’m not naturally a numbers person!

The book is basically about why human beings tend to be poorer than they think at making judgements, and also explains that we tend to disagree much more than we think. Perhaps that’s why we are frequently so startled by conflict – we tend to believe that people perceive and think about the world similarly to us. As the authors write, “We do not go through life imagining alternative ways of seeing what we see”. They also point out that in many organisations, conflict avoidance is at least as importance as making the right decision. In other words, where conflict is discouraged, we never get the opportunity to learn about and from the fact that others may have different opinions!

The book contains an interesting discussion about the impact of our mood on how we think and make judgements. The authors explain that while a good mood may make us more cooperative in a negotiation setting, the downside of a good mood is that we are more likely to accept our first impressions as true without challenging them, and let our biases affect our thinking.

The authors acknowledge that judgement (like conflict) is difficult because the world is a complicated and uncertain place. They discuss the two most common problems with judgment – one is bias (where people tend to make judgements for or against certain things based on their personal predispositions) and the other is noise (where people’s judgements tend to be inconsistent based on irrelevant considerations). I found the discussion about the kinds of things that should not influence our judgement, but do, fascinating. Some seem obvious, others more surprising. Things like stress and fatigue, the order in which information is provided, the number of people involved in the decision making, social pressures, and whether we are hungry, all have a significant impact.

The book also highlights what was discussed in The Righteous Mind, that when we feel emotionally that something is right, we frequently confuse this feeling with rational confidence in the validity of our own judgement. As Jonathan Haidt describes it, the elephant directs the rider.

The book also considers the impact of narrative, and how creating a coherent story by piecing together selected information can then prevent further inquiry and lead to poorer decision making.

The book is long and contains many references to and explanations of statistical tools, but it also includes case studies and illustrations of the principles that are accessable to the non-statistically-minded. It’s not an easy read, but worth persevering!

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