Irrationality: the Enemy Within

Notes on Stuart Sutherland (1994) Irrationality: the Enemy Within. Penguin paperback (ISBN: 0140167269), reissued 2007 as "Irrationality" by Pinter and Martin (ISBN: 978-1-905177-07-3)


Up: Books for Non-Specialists


In terms of making a great breadth of research easy to understand with a variety of examples and applications, this is still the best non-technical introduction to the topic of cognitive biases. There are books covering newer research (such as Cordelia Fine's A Mind of Its Own) but none is as ambitious and accessible as this.


It looks at judgement and decision-making in many contexts, from military tactics to medicine and from job interviews to the paranormal. It relies heavily on scientific research -  there are many elegant descriptions of psychological experiments - yet the technical details are kept out of the main text to make it easy for a non-specialist reader, and much of the text deals with real-life instances of bias. 324 footnotes point to the book's scientific basis.


If it has a flaw, it's on the philosophical side rather than the psychological side. In order to judge that some behaviour is irrational, you need a clear standard of rationality and an understanding of why that is the best choice. Sutherland is good at succinctly explaining the normative standards, but some of his examples are not as clear-cut as he makes them out.




1. Introduction


2. The Wrong Impression


3. Obedience


4. Conformity


5. In-groups and Out-groups


6. Organisational Folly


7. Misplaced Consistency


8. Misuse of Rewards and Punishments

9. Drive and Emotion


10. Ignoring the Evidence


11. Distorting the Evidence


12. Making the Wrong Connections


13. Mistaken Connections in Medicine


14. Mistaking the Cause


15. Misinterpreting the Evidence


16. Inconsistent Decisions and Bad Bets


17. Overconfidence


18. Risks


19. False Inferences


20. The Failure of Intuition


21. Utility


22. The Paranormal

Biases that promote belief in the paranormal:


23. Causes, Cures and Costs

Five basic causes of irrationality

Education in statistical concepts, in economics or in psychology seems to counter some biases.