The bestselling science writer explores the elements of complex decision-making.
Whom should I marry? Should I move? Should the United States occupy Iraq? Making tough, long-term, deliberative choices, writes Johnson (Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, 2016, etc.), is not taught in school, but it should be. In this bright, nuanced, story-filled book, he draws on the work of behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists to explain how to decide about things that really matter. “We need time to deliberate, to weigh the options, to listen to different points of view before we render a judgment,” he writes. His recurrent, fascinating example is the nine months of “debate and deliberation” that led to the successful U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan in 2011. Was bin Laden really in the compound? How to get in? (They examined 37 possible ways.) Should we capture or kill? Other examples include urban planning decisions: New York City buried its polluted Collect Pond in 1812 (rather than turn it into a public park), and within 30 years, the area became the notorious Five Points slum. In the early 2000s, the same city decided to revitalize (rather than demolish) abandoned West Side rail tracks, creating High Line Park. Johnson examines factors that make farsighted thinking challenging. Unlike simpler, pro-versus-con choices, complex decisions resemble the sort of quandaries that require environmental impact studies: “They involve multiple interacting variables; they demand thinking that covers a full spectrum of different experiences and scales; they force us to predict the future with varying levels of certainty.” Often, they involve conflicting objectives or initially unclear options. The author details techniques for surmounting such obstacles—e.g., how to map variables, predict where potential paths may lead, and make a final decision. He stresses the importance of simulations and scenario-planning and makes an interesting if overlong case for how reading novels can improve decision-making.
Close readers will undoubtedly learn to look carefully before leaping.