The Art Of Choosing

Link: This review appears on Amazon-UK here. And on Amazon-US here.

With a researcher’s and practitioner’s interest in decision-making, I did not have to ponder over the choice to buy this book. Nor did I struggle with reading its 268 pages (not including acknowledgment and references) in just over 4 hours. Professor Sheena Iyengar has written an engaging treatise on what choice means to human beings, how we make choices in the face of sometimes confounding contradictions and uncertainties, and how the sheer option and the act of choosing can affect our well-being. The illustrative examples and stories cover a wide range – from the trivial, such as picking between two colours of nail polish, to the serious life-and-death choice of whether to keep a sick neo-nate on life support or to turn it off.

Using many such stories from research, Professor Iyengar shows how the desire for choice, as a way to exercise control, is universal. She demonstrates how our “framing” of choices depends upon the stories we have been told, and our beliefs that may arise from our culture, religion, ethnicity etc. A freedom to choose may be a “freedom to” or “freedom from”, as Erich Fromm has written so how in an increasingly globalised world do we reconcile all these differences in perspective? Professor Iyengar proposes a sort of “metaphorical multilingualism”, using the example of how she herself uses the language of sighted people although she is functionally blind.

Professor Iyengar takes us on a fascinating exploration of American history to show how choice relates to identity, and then shows yet how many more people are alike than not although they prefer to think otherwise. Such contradictions contained within us in Walt Whitmanesque multitudes, she argues that we constantly rearrange our identities to appear independent-thinking, identity being a dynamic process not a static object. We adjust our behaviours and lives to reinforce that identity seeking, she writes, common ground without being copycats. If you pick only one chapter to read from this book, I would recommend Chapter 3.

Further we learn how choices are not just about possibility, but also responsibility and consequences, foreseeable or otherwise. Professor Iyengar discusses our automatic (subconscious) and our reflective (conscious) brain, and how trouble arises when the two are in disagreement. What follows is a thought-provoking discourse on how we use heuristics and employ our preferences and biases, sometimes using them to colour our search for information, which ends with a soft suggestion that sometimes it may be better to throw in our lot with others or their experience.

Is there such a thing as too much choice? Research suggests that to be the case. Choice, as we see, is not an unconditional good. There are limits to human cognition and we may need to cultivate expertise to deal with the surfeit on offer. And then there are complex choices, such as in medically serious situations, which require us to put a “value” on things which have “worth” for us, exacting a mental cost which we are unable to assess fully at the time of making the choice. Choice, Professor Iyengar concludes, is an art with its uncertainties and contradictions, and in its mystery lies its puissance: a conclusion most readers of this book may choose to agree with.

It was difficult for me to give the book 4 stars instead of 5. Here is why I struggled. While the stories are fascinating, some sections meander and one can lose the thread pretty quickly. Having read the book, I can empathise with how difficult the editorial choices might have been: which of the research references to keep, and which to edit away. It was a choice and the editor chose to keep them all in. A research described in Chapter 3 discusses using a scale where research subjects had to determine if something was “moderately unique” or “very unique”. This was mildly irritating. These phrases may be colloquial usage but that does not make them correct.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A thought-provoking book which most will benefit from reading. However as Professor Iyengar warns, introspection or self-examination is not everyone’s cup of tea, so it is unlikely to be a comforting read for all. It does however offer several points of departure for thinking about things around us. From brand marketing to politics, to how various nations are dealing with the recession.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

Link: You can vote for this review on Amazon-UK here. Thanks.

What is middle age? As human life expectancy changes, so does this marker. I did wonder about those in today’s world who are born with a life expectancy in the 30s or 40s. Surely their teenage years can’t be called their “middle age”. Luckily for the purposes of containing such definitional wild goose chases, Ms Strauch points out quickly that most researchers consider middle age to be between 40 and 68.

Both our body and brain change with age but few of us know that our brain doesn’t decline, if that is the word for what happens to our skin and fitness with age, at the same rate as our body does. In fact, this book aims to show that the change that occurs in the brain isn’t a decline at all but that the brain continues to remain at its peak for longer than we imagine. While our ability to retain bits of data such as people’s names may suffer, our judgment – our knowledge combined with our ability to make connections – improves and we generally start becoming happier. She also explains why the soi-disant midlife crisis really doesn’t exist.

Organised in three parts addressing what changes, why the change and how to improve our brain, the book presents a simplified overview of existing research on the aging of the brain. In the process, Ms Strauch uncovers phenomena such as how the use of both of the brain’s halves – bilateralisation – helps the brain adapt to the changes brought by age, and how myelin (the white matter) continues to grow with age aiding the brain’s processing abilities.

I found the third section “Healthier Brains” particularly interesting. Ms Strauch casts a wide net here, discussing evidence of how aerobic or heart-rate raising exercise helps brain cell growth; and how the beliefs regarding anti-oxidant rich foods, low-calorie diets and ORAC etc have never had a clinical trial; and how low distress and rich social connections can help the brain cope and remain high-functioning.

If you are the sort of reader, who likes to read the bibliography as much as you do the book, then you may be a bit disappointed. This book is not of the calibre of Dr Louann Brizendine’s books on the female and the male brains. Unlike Dr Brizendine, Ms Strauch is not a specialist in the subject of brain science. And that is also why she has succeeded in writing an accessible and simple book on a timely topic.

That said, I think that the book could have been much shorter that the 230 pages (including references) or 198 pages (including Epilogue). I sometimes found myself nodding off because the argument appears to be being made a bit too slowly. Good editing would have made this book a quicker read. The time we saved could have been spent enjoying some time doing a brain gym puzzle perhaps, or eating blueberries and nattering with a friend, all of which evidently would help our brains.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book, written accessibly and simply, has wide appeal. After all sooner than later, most of us will reach “middle age”, however it may be being defined at the time. It is better to understand why and how our brains are changing, if nothing else, then just to avoid worrying.

Honest Signals

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This book belongs – very, very broadly – with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudges. These books present an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision-making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not so the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based “honest signalling”, which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted in the book are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a “sociometer” which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes four kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. The last three chapters describe how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Chapters 1 focuses on four kinds of signals which are expensive to fake: influence (which signals control or attention), mimicry (empathy/ trust), activity (interest) and consistency or variability (where the former signals a focused mind and the latter signals an openness to input from others). In this review, letters I, M, A, C/V refer to these signals.

Chapter 2 describes how people use combinations of signals to indicate the social role they are taking, such as exploring (I, A), listening (A, C/ V), teaching (I, M, C) and leading (I, A, C).

I found Chapter 3 fascinating. The author describes how mirror neurons read signals and help develop or construct meaning such as dominance, deception etc. Social circuits formed through exchange of signals in a group situation may explain situations such as mood contagion. The discussion then moves on to charisma, which is an innate talent at reading and responding to social signalling. Signals also change people in an instance of what the author calls “self-inflicted brainwashing”. In group situations, signals, responses to signals and the resultant shifting coalitions are better predictors of outcomes, the author argues, than strategy, motivation, experience or personal characteristics.

Further detail on social roles – task roles (orienteer, giver, seeker, follower) and group roles (attacker, protagonist, supporter, neutral) – are discussed next. A manager or team leader would probably know from experience that 1 30-second slice of a group’s interaction is a reliable indicator of the various group and task roles at work, and that social roles can spread within a group. In an organisational context, such group dynamics can contribute to organisational intelligence.

It is harder to précis the last three chapters which are dense with ideas that could have benefited from a longer discussion. Perhaps future writings will do greater justice to the application aspects of this fascinating research.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

A main limitation of the book is the compact treatment of a fairly vast and promising subject. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories often feel incomplete, half-told, rushed. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn’t face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland’s research with it.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to “implement” the framework, it is hardly “honest” signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The Checklist Manifesto

Link: You can vote on my Amazon Review here.

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right comes close on the heels of Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. Both books are about lists and both emphasise the ability of lists to bring about order and control. Both books attracted me because I am a consummate list-maker. More “practical” than “poetic”, a taxonomical distinction that Eco proposes in his book, I write my lists in blue, striking out the “done” items in red, thus also making it a motivational tool. It is therefore safe to say that the title of Gawande’s book was immediately attractive.

Despite my prejudicial preference for lists and reading about lists, it is a credit to the engaging quality of Atul Gawande’s writing that the book kept me absorbed for the 3 hours it took to read all 193 pages of it.

The author proposes “checklists” as a functional tool to deal with the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of making mistakes in the face of complex problems. Using stories from construction management, airline piloting and disaster management, and surgery, he shows how checklists can be used to break down complex tasks into simpler steps, thus helping prevent expensive mistakes. The author delves further into two kinds of lists (Do-Confirm or Read-Do) using a story from how the airline manufacturing industry writes their “user manuals”.

Early on, he points out that checklists are not some silver bullet, and that there is judgement involved. Some situations may benefit from checklists, while others may not need any. Later in the book, he also admits that to many, lists are protocols and embody rigidity. He then proceeds to illustrate why this needn’t be so and to demonstrate the importance of team work and how checklists enable that discipline, especially in disasters.

I found Chapters 7 and 8 most interesting. The stories told so far describe the complexity of the work/ task itself but these two chapters introduce another layer, that of institutional complexity.

Chapter 7 details the WHO sponsored study to examine if checklists made any difference to safety, infections, post-surgery deaths in 8 quite disparate hospitals around the world. The settings varied from a hospital in Tanzania where 4 surgeons, aided by 5 untrained anaesthesia staff, work on thousands of surgeries; to one in New Zealand that has 92 anaesthetists for some 20,000 surgeries per year, a number also dealt with in an Indian hospital using just 7 anaesthetists. The settings were also culturally diverse adding a layer of complexity not foreseen in the design of the checklist. For instance, the author mentions a different kind of English being spoken in an English NHS hospital, and observes the interplay of gender segregation and professional responsibility in a Jordanian surgery theatre. The results – from using the checklist – regarding reduction in technical problems, complications, infections and deaths were encouraging, for all cultural settings and even allowing for the Hawthorne Effect.

In Chapter 8, much mainstream media coverage of Jan 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson River” is debunked while the author tells the story of the pilots Sullenberger and Stiles and their calm use of appropriate procedures, while their cabin crew prepared passengers for and then monitored safe evacuation, to strengthen his thesis. The other half of Chapter 8 particularly resonated with me because I work with investors and entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the 3 investors who have incorporated checklists into their investment decisions, favouring dispassionate analysis over irrational exuberance, so to speak.

The title is deceptively simple for this is a profound book, written accessibly and clearly. It is a defence of rational, systems-thinking approach to solving complex problems, to creating team work and collegiality amongst narrow specialists while ensuring desirable outcomes, no matter what the setting.

Managers, entrepreneurs, investors as well as professional project managers such as event planners would do well to read, ponder, internalise and practise the idea proposed in the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The varied examples from learned professions such as surgery, airline piloting, construction management and investing should make the book broadly readable.

The Tiger That Isn’t, or why you needn’t be afraid of numbers

Link: You can vote on the Amazon review of this book here.

“I think numbers are the best way to represent the world’s uncertainties”, “I see numbers, I question them and I can interpret them for the less numerate”, “I see numbers and I freeze”.

These three possible options are based on a rough categorisation of the attitudes I have seen towards numbers. Depending on my mood, they can amuse me or cause me despair.

In fact, I believe that, with the right degree of scepticism, and a willingness and an ability to question numbers both in absolute and relative terms, it is possible for everyone to make sense of numbers thrown at us every day. That is pretty much the premise – and the promise – of The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through A World of Numbers, by the journalist Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, an Oxford Don. The book delivers brilliantly on the premise and the promise.

The introduction of the book says, rightly, that it is written from the point of view of the consumers of numbers; in fact, it is written for the consumers of numbers, which means people like you and me. Each chapter presents some examples that illustrate a typical problem with comprehending numbers, and then proceeds to demonstrate how to see those numbers in context and how to make sense of them. There are, in addition to the introduction, eleven chapters dealing with numbers-related issues including Size, Chance, Averages, Risk (my personal favourite), Data (my favourite heading in this book “Know the Unknowns”) and Causation. While most of the examples are British – understandably because both authors are British – it is not difficult for the reader to apply the ‘lessons’ to numbers being bandied about in his or her own country.

Aimed at the non-numerate reader, the tone of the book is easy, the language accessible, the explanations lucid. Yet the book is not patronising in the least, which, in my book, is a considerable achievement in explaining apparently complex things. At 184 pages in all, it is not a hugely difficult read; the section on Further Reading will serve those, whose curiosities are piqued and whose courage with numbers restored on reading this book.

Reviewing this book is not easy. I could summarise all chapters for you, but it would be pointless. Yet not saying much about the contents of the individual chapters may make the review meaningless.

So here is a possibility.  If some numbers in the news have been bothering you, do leave a comment and I shall try and explain them in a manner consistent with that suggested by Blastland and Dilnot. It is however worth every one of the 90 or so minutes you will spend on the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I am known for buying books as presents for friends of all ages. This book would make an ideal present for a curious teenager, as well as those adults who have let 10 simple symbols terrify them for years. For younger readers, I would suggest conversations around the themes of the chapters so that they can get a feel for the numbers being bandied about.