Sunday 24 March 2019


Finished March 1
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson

I really enjoyed the insights from this book and posted a couple of excerpts to friends as I was reading. He gave great examples of decision making, both personal and societal. His first societal example is the decision to bury Collect Pond, a source of fresh water, in New York City in the early nineteenth century. There was another option put forward, but the short-sightedness about the city's growth ultimately resulted in the bad decision. Johnson talks about how, although we often see ourselves today as looking at the short-term, we actually are able to make better long-term decisions today than we were then.
Johnson's first personal example of long-term decision making is also from the nineteenth century, and consists of a list found in Darwin's notebooks, on two facing pages in two columns, with one column listing reasons to marry and the other reasons not to. We know that he did marry six months later, so we know the decision he reached, which his also wrote at the bottom of the second page.
This idea of listing pros and cons is a much-used tool in making decisions. I've certainly used in in my own life at several instances. What Darwin's example doesn't show is the weight he gave each point in the list, the argument for which Benjamin Franklin gave in a eighteenth-century letter to Joseph Priestley about a decision he was making at the time. Franklin called this Moral or Prudential Algebra.
We have more tools available to us now, and we usually term these types of decisions deliberative decision making. The systems we use today are engineered to keep us from falling into preconceived assumptions.
A societal decision that is more present day that Johnson comes back to repeatedly through the book is the decision by the U.S. Government to go into the compound in Pakistan where they suspected Osama bin Laden was hiding. Johnson gradually shows all the different elements of information and decision making tools that were used in this case, how they were calculated and guarded against failure, and looked beyond the attack itself into outcomes and how they would manage different scenarios of those.
As he shows, these complex decisions have been shown to have several qualities: they involve multiple variables; they require full-spectrum analysis; they force us to predict the future; they involve varied levels of uncertainty; they often involve conflicting objectives; they harbor undiscovered options; they are prone to System 1 failings; and they are vulnerable to failures of collective intelligence.
This last point is important to understand. By definition, groups bring a wider set of perspectives and knowledge to the decision making process. But they are also vulnerable to their own set of failings: collective biases and distortions due to social dynamics. There are a number of tools designed to overcome such vulnerabilities.
Techniques such as making a full-spectrum map of all the variables and potential paths available; predictions about where those paths might lead, and weighing the various possible outcomes against the objectives. Johnson devotes a chapter to each of these three elements of decision making.
He then has two chapters: one on large social decisions, such as battling climate change, and one on personal decision making, such as those facing the characters in George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Literature, and real life both are used in many examples in the book, and this use of examples really worked for me in understanding the decision making process better.
I highly recommend this book.

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