Books: Eyes Wide Open, by Noreena Hertz - review

In our complex world, many things stand in the way of making the right call. Reviewer Jon Moulton on a thoughtful look at how to improve decision making.

by Jon Moulton
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2013

This book is about the difficulties of taking correct decisions. It covers the traditional issues of decision making while overlaying the new tools and challenges that the internet and social media provide. It is well written and is in easy-to-follow language. It is also sensibly structured, comprising manageable pieces of information and advice.

It certainly does not lack ambition - the first section is modestly entitled This Decision Will Change Your Life, with a certainty that, in fairness, is not present in the text.

Fallibility of data, bias, logic and statistics are frequently discussed in the text and Noreena Hertz leaves the reader in no doubt that error is inevitable in decision making, and indeed that error, if thought about, may make for better future decision making.

I may be benefiting from much painful error in my own decisions but I quite regularly spotted in the text my all too frequently made mistakes: pace, fatigue, quantity of decision rather than quality, bias towards believing experts, and being all too easily swayed by the not really relevant or by social pressures.

Perhaps it may 'Change my Life' to be reminded of these, but I doubt it will - the fleeting pleasure of interpreting everything as showing how right you were is always going to subvert the fun-free, detached and relentlessly logical process we all know we should follow.

(I speak as a chess player, chartered accountant and long-married husband.)

Much of the book's material is a useful accumulation of data that some readers will be at least partly familiar with. There are numerous short descriptions of experimental and real-world efforts at behavioural analysis, mostly showing how the trivial can dominate substance, and these are entertainingly presented.

Never again, for example, will I try to peddle a financial product without ensuring we have a green background to the presentation slides. Our office is also to acquire a more prestigious odour (a common problem in these days of the gym before work). There is some genuinely good stuff here that is well worth thinking about.

The newer material is about the online world. Most of us are all too aware of the extreme difficulty that vast volumes of stuff thrown at us by email and social media present when it comes to prioritising response, retention and reaction.

At the same time, the immense opportunity available in using the unprecedented and mostly free information available a click away is both tempting and full of new dangers and biases. The book tackles these areas very well and quite comprehensively. Unusually, the discussion and analysis is balanced - it's not all progress and online has its obvious downsides.

There were times when I was reading the book that I wished the author had a better answer to the conundrums of getting hold of good data efficiently, analysing it effectively and presenting it in a way best designed to generate a proper decision.

This is not a criticism, just a reflection of the frustrating complexity of real life, which is well illustrated by the author's discussion of the tendency of PowerPoint presentations to overconcentrate information into headlines and to omit critical data.

The revelation that the US military finds the press so susceptible to its convincing format that its use is called 'hypnotising chickens' makes a singular impact.

Eyes Wide Open is comprehensive - it covers everything from the use and abuse of statistics and numerical techniques (including a depressing reminder that most of our political leaders can barely count) to the need to be qualitative in our decisions.

It also tackles the benefits of diversity - while apparently confusing this with gender - showing that diverse teams mostly do better.

The book isn't perfect or innocent of bias: 'At the time of its collapse Lehman had $1 in the bank for every $30 of its liabilities' is way off the mark, for example. It also has 48 pages of academic references that are not needed in a general management book.

Finally, two quotes from the book: 'More generally, we need to be more confident about admitting to others the necessarily contingent nature of our decisions, making explicit that if the facts change we will change our minds, and that that is OK.' And 'finally I want to thank my husband, Danny Cohen.

Your insights, intelligence, care and love made this process so much better than it would have otherwise been - without you this book would be a lesser one, and I a lesser person.' I do hope Danny is a confident person.

Jon Moulton is founder and managing partner of Better Capital


Eyes Wide Open How to make smart decisions in a confusing world

Noreena Hertz

William Collins, £14.99

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