Author: Rolf Dobelli
The Art of Thinking Clearly is a journey through the multitude of cognitive biases and fallacies that blur our thinking and cloud our judgement. It explores the negative influence of 99 decision-making shortcuts. The author, who is not a psychologist, was inspired to collect these pearls by a chance discussion with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. Each of the book’s brief chapters addresses a specific bias or fallacy. Many of the biases are fairly well known such as confirmation (page 23), availability (page 35), hindsight (page 45), and framing (page 130). Others are rare gems such as the fundamental attribution error (page 112), the illusion of control (page 54), the incentive super-response tendency (page 57), and the hedonic treadmill (page 142). Some of the concepts are striking for their names such as deformation professionale (page 280), the Forer or Barnum effect (page 196), and the Zeigarnick effect (page 283).
Some of the fallacies have striking alternative names; the scarcity error for example is the Romeo and Juliet effect (page 87) while the sunk cost fallacy is the Concorde effect (page 18). The Pygmalion of Rosenthal effect is discussed under expectation bias (page 191). A few of the fallacies appeared counterintuitive; the choice paradox for instance demonstrates how an excess of choices may breed discontent (page 66) whilst motivation crowding shows that ‘financial reward erodes any other motivation and leads to poorer performance (page 172).
The book has a catchy title for each chapter and this succinct puts in lay terms the essence of the fallacy or bias the chapter discusses. ‘Why you should visit cemeteries’ for example illustrates the survivorship bias, the tendency for people to ‘systematically overestimate their chances of success’. This is because previous successes are highly visible whilst failures are often unpublicised and therefore ignored (page 5). The author also narrates interesting anecdotes throughout the book and these illustrate each bias or illusion. One striking example is the story of a tortilla in New Mexico engraved with the image of Jesus; the author uses this to explain the clustering illusion (page 11). Each chapter also often ends with a concise rule; with regards to the image on the tortilla for example, he says ‘if you think you have discovered a pattern, first consider it pure chance’ (page 13).
It is noteworthy that the author refers specifically to healthcare in relation to several biases. ‘The dubious efficacy of doctors, consultants, and psychotherapists’ for example is the title of the chapter that discusses regression to the mean, the concept which explains, among other things, why patients may get better independent of the intervention they receive (page 60). The discusses several other biases which affect risk estimation in healthcare; these include neglect of probability (page 81) and base rate neglect (page 88). The author also uses a healthcare scenario to explain the consequences of the action bias (page 133); he says ‘if a patient’s illness cannot yet be diagnosed with certainty and doctors must choose between intervening… or waiting and setting, they are prone to taking action’ (page 134). Medical decision-making may also be influenced by alternative blindness and the author says ‘forget about the rock and the hard place, and open your eyes to the other, superior alternatives (page 219). Other biases well worth understanding for doctors are ambiguity aversion (page 243), the introspection illusion (page 205), the planning fallacy (page 91), and the Will Rogers phenomenon (page 180).
The book’s title suggests that the author will discuss cognitive skills but biases and fallacies do not strictly come under thinking skills. Furthermore some of the topics were strictly not fallacies; examples are neomania (page 212), procrastination (page 259), envy (page 264) and the news illusion (page 301). The content is nevertheless excellent and well-written. The author deserves credit for the care and detail he applied to each chapter. The book was easy to read as the author avoided narrating the complex psychological experiments on which these fallacies are based.
This is a comprehensive review of an important subject. Doctors should have an understanding of these concepts because they strongly influence our judgments. The book demonstrates how the fallacies and biases lead to wrong assumptions, and how these impact on the personal and professional judgments we make. I recommend it.
- Publisher, place, date: Sceptre, London, 2013
- Edition: 1st
- Number of chapters: 99
- Pages: 326
- ISBN: 978-1-444-75954-9
- Price: £6.74
- Star rating: 4 stars