Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book Review: "Smart Choices" - a practical guide to making better life decisions

"Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Life Decisions"

by John Hammond, Ralph Keeney, Howard Raiffa

Originally published 1999, Harvard Business School Press

Link to review on Amazon

There are a lot of books about decision making and problem solving, and the vast majority of them are mediocre. There are a number of decent, readable accounts that give some simple tips and teach you about psychological principles, but these typically have very little in the way of solid tools. We all know it gets boring when the math starts or when we have start doing drills to learn basic skills. And the more specific they get with their methods, the less useful it becomes for our own problems. Books that cater to our creative side can help us learn how to break out of ruts, but they are weaker on helping us make good decisions more consistently.

Then there are systematic formal approaches by academics based on mathematical techniques, and these tend to be the equivalent of textbooks. Decision theory, mathematical modelling, strategy, optimization, probability, statistics, etc.. Great stuff. You can get a lot out of them if you put in the study, as far as useful tools and skills for hypothetical problems, but actually applying their lessons when you face a real problem is another matter. And as with most academic learning, practical transfer is left as an exercise for the reader. Also applying formal methods in situations where we already have good instincts, that often rubs us the wrong way. Using a spreadsheet to choose a mate? If you actually were to study systematic decision making and acquire the skills and habits for using those tools, you would surely make more decisions more consistently. But would you be wiser at knowing when to use these methods?

Smart Choices is closer to the first type of book, a practical guide to principles, but it has the soul of a textbook. No footnotes, bibligraphy, or exercises. But it does treat the subject matter very seriously. Maybe that's also part of why many of the reviewers on Amazon found the book boring. The authors' discipline in focusing on what really works while building on solid theory is clear throughout the book. As a result of this unique approach, this book has two great strengths in my opinion.

First, it is a surprisingly concise and admirably simple presentation of decision theory, with virtually no mathematics required. That's a signficant accomplishment in itself. The authors are deep experts in the technical aspects formal decision making, but have chosen a small set of simple tools to illustrate very general principles. When dealing with uncertainty, you create a risk profile for each alternative, listing the likelihood and consequences of each outcome for that alternative. Ok, not exactly rocket science, but who among us ever thinks of actually doing that to help them think through uncertainty? If you can't decide from the risk profile, you create a decision tree by identifying the things you can control and the things that remain uncertain, and their consequences. Very basic tools and advice and very powerful, with some practical advice for dealing with the messy details. It isn't so much the tools themselves that are the point here, it is the straightforward advice the authors offer on how and when to use them. There is a lot of experience condensed into a small book here.

The second strength of this book is that the authors make an unusually successful effort to bridge the different kinds of decision making genres, offering not only the outline of a formal process to guide you and specific tools to use within the process, but very clear practical explanations of why the steps are done as they are. The book begins with the usual mantra of systematic decision methods: having a process is better than not having a process. Sort of like having a map is better than not having a map. Ok. But before they jump into the how-to part that makes this a small practical guide, they also make their process criteria explicit. The process must help you to:

1. Focus on what's important
2. be logical and consistent
3. acknowledge objective and subjective factors, and blend analytical with intuitive thinking
4. require only as much information and analysis as neccessary to resolve the dilemma
5. encourage and guide the gathering of relevant information and informed opinion
6. be straightforward, reliable, easy to use, and flexible

This sounds great, but how can a formal decision process accomplish these things? And do the authors really provide one that manages this feat? It is their systematic and serious attempt to actually meet these 6 criteria, and their relative success at achieving it that makes for the greatest strength of this book.

The way they attempt this is to define each of their process step in very flexible terms, focusing on the critical relationships between the factors. Some trigger leads you to a loose problem definition with its associated concerns. The problem definition helps you identify means objectives (how you intend to meet your concerns). Means objectives help you figure out your more fundamental objectives. The objectives help you generate alternatives that meet those objectives. Analyzing consequences in various ways helps you evaluate the alternatives and even go back to generate new ones. Alternatives often have consequences that meet different objectives in different ways, so we have ways of helping to make tradeoffs.

There is a lot of theory and experience buried into these seemingly simple ideas, and it would be very easy to miss the value of this if the reader hasn't seen decision theory done less expertly in many other books. It is very easy to make the process too simple, too complicated, too rigid, or not provide enough guidance. I think the authors get it pretty much just right.

The reason it works in this book, in my opinion, is that by explaining the process in clear terms and not just providing the tools, the flexibility of the process becomes much clearer. It becomes obvious from the examples why you want to keep looking for better alternatives even in the later stages of the process, even as you eliminate alternatives that just won't work or just aren't as good as others. It becomes clear where and how to consider uncertainty. It becomes more evident where various thinking traps make their way into the process by causing us to persevere at the wrong problem, by not considering important objectives, but not looking closely enough at the consequences of each alternative, by not considering tradeoffs, by missing relationships between decisions, or by failing to account for your own personal risk tolerance. The guidelines for the process help you avoid each of these problems by helping you focus on the right things at the right point in the process, but without making it so rigid that you fall into a completely different trap.

There is no magic problem solving or decision making method that will solve your problems for you, but following the advice in this book will at the very least help you focus on the right things, ask the right questions at the right time during the process, and help explain your decisions better to others as well as to yourself. There are books that provide more details on specific tools, but this book stands out for its clear and practical presentation of the overall process of making decisions.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Updated Book Review: David Shenk's "The Genius in All of Us"

Review of "The Genius in All of Us," by David Shenk, Doubleday, 2010.

An effective deconstruction of hereditary talent, and clues for a new model of exceptional ability

Link to the review on Amazon:

It is easy to like or dislike this book from a casual reading based on how you feel about the premise: that everyone has the potential for genius, and that heredity is not destiny in any sense. This sounds at first like a liberal political statement, but Shenk's treatment is far more nuanced than that characterization would imply.

In brief, Shenk's book is a very good deconstruction of hereditary talent, a competent but one-sided (or upon reflection I'll say very selectively focused) review of supporting research in several fields, and an interesting but abbreviated practical introduction to the interactionist (gene X environment) paradigm of development.

Just to be clear, this book is not about the psychometric definition of genius in terms of how far down the bell curve one is on Raven's Progressive Matrices or standardized tests of any sort. Nor is it about clever calculating tricks or precocious abilities, although it does do a very nice job putting those into a larger perspective. This book is more centrally about the expansive and inclusive sense of genius meaning people that accomplish something truly special and significant, and the potential that any given person may be able to get to that point. Somehow. And that's where the nuance is needed and appropriate.

Ok, I didn't like this book all that much when I first read it, and I at first gave it a mediocre 3 star rating on Amazon. I felt it did a great job deconstructing the concept of hereditary talent, but I strongly criticized it for leaving a gap where we need a better theory of where talent comes from and what it is, since obviously we don't all become true geniuses. Even among the folks who appear to have the seeds of genius in them from early on, most don't become genius adults in the broader sense.

In my original review I said this was a one-sided review of the evidence for the interactionist model. I do think it's a very selective review, but one-sided implies that he deliberately ignores contradictory evidence. He doesn't do that. He just doesn't talk about the evidence that led to the model Shenk says is obsolete, that genes are akin to blueprints. That is, the evidence that different variations of allele sometimes have strikingly specific effects in a seemingly "normal" range of environments. The case for the model of heredity that Shenk is deconstructing is not entirely ignored, but it is glossed over in order to make his case for the interactionist model. I think that is why hereditarians like Galton, Spearman, and Charles Murray get so apparently shorted in this book, Shenk focuses entirely on what they get wrong and glosses over the things they may get right.

I suspect that we do inherit "predispositions" in some form under a very wide range of conditions, even if the underlying mechanism is more complex than we previously assumed. Even if changes in environments do alter the expression of genes, something like inheritance of traits clearly does happen in a wide range of "normal" environments, and we can't just ignore that completely because of additional complexity and things that change at the extremes. That's why I say this is a very selective review. But no, it isn't really one-sided, the selectiveness is appropriate for a deconstruction, although it does mark this as a deconstruction rather than a scholarly review.

The more important problem is that the model of talent that arises from this book is not particularly easy to understand. The author is strongly against thinking of genes as predispositions, and rather offers the perspective that genes are akin to "settings." So it would be easy to conclude that the author is saying that we have the ability to make anyone a genius just by tweaking a few settings. He isn't. Or, if you read it as I did upon my first reading, you might hear the author saying that "anyone can be a genius, but talent is complicated process, we don't know what is happening at each step, and so we don't know how to help people get there, but we know it's possible." That's perhaps a little closer to the truth, but it didn't seem very helpful to me.

The reason I updated this review and why I'm now expressing more appreciation for David Shenk's accomplishment here is that while the "settings" model of genes doesn't quite convey the message, I did find upon close reading and careful reflection that the author captured a lot with his examples and case studies of individuals. The thing that is missing is some way of tying together how people manage to select and shape environments for themselves to accomplish great things, in spite of all the cultural, social, and physical constraints that tend to make environmental factors very hard to change for most of us. Shenk assiduously avoids attributing "predispositions" to genes, but then speculates that epigenetic factors may predispose us to things like musical ability. If non-genes can do this, why not genes? He just seems a little *too* intent on crushing hereditary talent in some places.

Geniuses don't just see things differently (although that is sometimes also going on), they don't just have unique abilities (although sometimes they do) geniuses are most distinct in that they manage to carve their own niche, exploiting their own uniqueness in a process where they are driven to mastery and are amazingly persistent, even where the goal seems way out of reach. This runs contrary to our popular wisdom that it makes sense to work toward small easily attained goals in most things. What we think of as really deep talent actually requires really deep faith in the long term process and the motivation to keep going. Shenk captures the significance of motivation, but I had to look very closely to see the patterns for it. It requires willingness to do things that others may find bizarre and to learn freely from what is available. The author illustrates this but seems to have a hard time really tying it all together, at least he did on my first reading. I've come to think of it in terms of niche construction, which to me really captures what exceptional people do that brings out and shapes their unique gene x environment combination in a targeted way. My reversal in the rating reflects my feeling that capturing this idea is more important than giving it a catchy name, which is really what the author is missing.

We don't know exactly how to take advantage of the dynamic nature of heredity and development, although the study of achievement and expertise reviewed by Shenk gives us many tantalizing clues to go on. And if knowing that the potential is there inspires the faith to keep going, then more and more of us will eventually learn to become better and better at using our minds, constructing our own niches from our own individuality, and the promise of "The Genius in All of Us" will eventually begin to be realized. There is a lot in this book that will repay careful reading and re-reading, as I discovered by doing exactly that.

Related Reading:

See also this classic manifesto of genetic interactionism: The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(Lewontin R (1998/2000) Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment. Cambridge, MA, Harvard)

This superb earlier popular introduction to the emerging model Shenk offers: The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture(Ridley, The Agile Gene)

This similar treatment of trait development in interactionist terms, but focused on personality: The Temperamental Thread: How Genes, Culture, Time and Luck make Us Who We Are(kagan, temperamental thread)

This alternative and original interactionist account of how personality develops: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (Judith rich harris no two alike)

This interesting challenge to some widely help assumptions about influence: Stranger in the Nest: Do Parents Really Shape Their Child's Personality, Intelligence, or Character?(Stranger in the Nest, D. Cohen)

This little known treasure by an old friend that offers its own unique challenges about human uniqueness and what it means: rebellion: physics to personal will (Brody, Rebellion)

This on the classic view from the perspective of behavior genetics: Genetics and Experience: The Interplay between Nature and Nurture (Individual Differences and Development)(Plomin, Genetics and Experience)

This on the fascinating broader biological implications of interactionism from a gene perspective, how the genes of organisms construct niches even beyond the organism itself: The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures(Turner, The Extended Organism)

And finally this wonderful broad account of biology and the role of heredity that appreciates the complexities of gene function in a demanding but uniquely engaging way: The Logic of Life(The logic of life, francois jacob)