Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland

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Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Wonderfully written examination of human irrational behaviours and cognitive mechanisms; convincing, well researched and even with advice on how to watch out and try to minimise your own unreason. Highly recommended for all.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Pinter and Martin
ISBN: 978-1905177073

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The belief that humans are, essentially, rational dates to the Greek antiquity, and although intellectual and philosophical fashions changed throughout the epochs, the capacity to reason and behave in a rational manner is often considered to be a defining characteristics of mature humanity. Irrational behaviours have been seen as an evidence of psychiatric or otherwise pathology.

And yet there is plentiful (and growing) evidence of irrationality in human thinking and behaviour. Although capable of reason, human animals are certainly not rational by default.

Stuart Sutherland's book examines the body of evidence for human irrationality amassed during close to half a century psychology research. Although first published in 1992 , Irrationality still provides a wide (if by no means comprehensive) account of relevant research.

Sutherland shows when and why we fall foul of human capacity for unreason, each summarised with a semi-serious, semi-facetious 'moral' (the advice ranges from entirely reasonable to absurd).

The book covers, roughly, two groups of interrelated phenomena: perception and reasoning biases and mechanisms of social influence: authority, social conformity, group identification and influence, self-serving biases, stereotyping, all kinds of mental shortcuts; struggles to use logical and statistical reasoning and more.

This knowledge is applicable to day to day behaviours as much as to big life decisions and serious social problems. Why do essentially good people agree to apply highly painful electric shocks to others? Why do people believe in homeopathy and UFOs? How do we decide which car to buy and which person to trust? Are human beings good at objectively gathering and considering evidence? And how can we improve?

I have to admit to being a psychologist by education, so the vast majority (but not all) of the content of Irrationality was not new to me, but Sutherland did a good job of presenting the most significant phenomena in one lucid, concise and well written volume accessible to non-specialists but substantiated by descriptions of actual experiments (and not just their conclusions) and well referenced too.

His language is elegant and understated. It's not a book delivered in a modern street-smart colloquial but in a highly literate, cultured voice: lucid, rational and sophisticated. He doesn't use specialist jargon, though, and the book should be accessible to any educated lay reader, although descriptions of some experimental set-ups were (necessarily) rather convoluted.

The parts of Irrationality in which Sutherland engages in philosophical speculation and moral musings are infused with a constant undercurrent of wry humour and often delightful exasperation.

The weakest chapter is undoubtedly the one dealing with irrationalities in organisations: too much of what Sutherland quotes is subject to political interpretation. By assuming that using a purely economic calculus of costs and profits is the only rational way to run an organisation, he undermines his original assertion that there is no way to define a rational goal.

In fact, the use of a similar abstractly economical assumptions is the source of perhaps the most obvious controversies as to which of the described behaviours are truly irrational. Sutherland quotes an instance of a theatre goer who loses a £20 ticket and decides not to buy a replacement: this is supposedly an irrational behaviour, because it leads to a pure and unmitigated loss of the cost of the ticket. He proceeds to ask whether the same person would not buy a ticket if they lost a £20 note? I suspect many would not: after all only a few of us have unlimited spending money and for many the new ticket would mean spending well above the budget for the particular night out. Similarly, the insistence by a particular sub-group of workers on a wage that is lower in absolute terms but higher than a wage of their colleagues is only irrational if we assume that all that matters is the actual amount of money in the pocket: but it's been shown that the relative prosperity and poverty matter as much as absolute ones.

In those instances Irrationality reveals itself as very much a book of its time, when the neo-classical economics with its idea that money is an adequate (and the only needed) measure of everything was at its peak.

But these are just fairly minor niggles. Most of the material in Irrationality is truly riveting and most non-specialist readers will find a lot of fascinating and clearly presented material in Prof. Sutherland's book.

The last chapters attempt to explain the reasons for human irrationality and consider whether absolute rationality is actually even a desirable goal in itself.

I have been a covert to the evolutionary psychology framework of thinking about human mental apparatus since the last years of my degree and thus all of this irrationality makes a rather perfect sense to me. Our brains, and the basic wiring of our minds, are not designed. They evolved, and evolution is a rather messy process: it makes use of what is already there, and it operates by a mixture of random change and natural selection pressures. It produces, invariably, imperfect results.

What amazes me is not the fact that humans are, in their daily life, so 'irrational', but that the minds that evolved by natural selection of two-legged apes roaming in the grasslands were capable of transcending the limitations of their specialist equipment and coming up with such abstractly rational creations as formal logic, mathematics, statistical reasoning and scientific method.

Thus, reading Irrationality reinforced my paradoxical, and probably irrational itself, impression that human beings are truly a wonderful piece of work, noble in reason (if rather less frequently than it seems).

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre teaches how to read and interpret health reporting, while The Tiger that Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot tries to rectify human shortcomings in statistical reasoning.

Booklists.jpg Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland is in the Top Ten Books For The Defenders Of Reason.
Buy Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland at

Buy Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland at


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