Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions

by Zachary Shore

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608192540
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 07/15/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 729,206
File size: 361 KB

About the Author

Zachary Shore is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a senior fellow at Berkeley's Institute of European Studies. The author of What Hitler Knew and Breeding Bin Ladens, he lives in Berkeley, California.
Zachary Shore is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a senior fellow at Berkeley's Institute of European Studies. The author of What Hitler Knew and Breeding Bin Ladens, he lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt



By Zachary Stone
Copyright © 2008

Zachary Shore
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-242-7


The Fear of Being Seen as Weak

Police officers are not typically trained to deal with elephants, and Eric Blair was no exception. But one morning in the mid-1920s, while serving the British Empire in lower Burma, Blair received an unusual call. Townspeople were reporting that a work elephant had broken free from its chains and was rampaging through the streets. Ill-equipped and somewhat uncertain, he gathered his rifle and set out. He soon encountered the trampled corpse of an Indian coolie splayed upon the road near a demolished hut. Blair prudently sent for a larger gun while he continued in pursuit. Once the Burmese saw him approaching with a weapon, they assumed he intended to shoot the beast, and they wanted to witness the show. Blair had no wish to kill the animal, especially after he spotted it grazing peacefully in a field, clearly no longer a danger to anyone. But the crowd, which had swelled to more than two thousand people, cheered him on. From their expressions and behavior, Blair understood that if he did not shoot, he would look a fool.

Taking his best guess at the location of the elephant's brain, Blair steadied himself and fired. The crowd erupted, but the beast did not fall. It only changed. It looked suddenly old and withered. He fired another shot. The elephant staggered but remained standing. Again he fired, and at last it fell, toppling with a massive crash that shook the earth. But still it refused to die. Its breaths were pained and rasping. The noise tormented him. Blair fired his remaining shots into its heart. Blood poured from the animal, but the tortured breaths continued. Unable to bear the elephant's suffering, Blair sent for his original, smaller rifle and emptied its contents into the elephant's throat, desperate to finish him off. The tiny bullets had no effect. Finally, not wanting to witness this any longer, Blair turned and left. He learned later that it took another half hour before the elephant died.

Blair was sickened by the things he regularly felt compelled to do and witness as part of the colonial police. His essay about the elephant was surely meant as an allegory on imperialism. He wrote, "The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos-all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt." After returning to England, he resigned from the force and, against his family's wishes, determined to become a writer. Under the pen name George Orwell, he devoted his literary career to the themes of injustice and authoritarian rule. In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell felt impelled by the Burmese mob, but it was not the crowd that incited him. Orwell was actually caught in a common cognition trap: exposure anxiety-the fear of being exposed as weak.

Exposure anxiety is more than just a fear. It is a belief that the failure to act in a manner perceived as firm will result in the weakening of one's position. In Orwell's case, he feared that by not killing the elephant, the Burmese would not respect his authority. Some Burmese might, in fact, have viewed him as weak for not shooting, but there were other options. Orwell could have devised a plan to contain the elephant until its owner, who knew how to handle the animal and who was a few hours away, returned. If the elephant had begun to act up again, he might have shot the elephant in the leg, wounding him to ensure he could not flee. He could have enlisted the aid of the two thousand Burmese spectators, using them to keep a constant vigil on the creature until new chains could be retrieved. It is entirely conceivable that a clever plan would have won greater respect from the Burmese. The tragic part of exposure anxiety is that it usually drives its victims to commit excessive force in order to appear extra tough. Orwell himself regretted his decision to kill, and some of his British peers saw it as a terrible waste, since an elephant in Burma served as a useful piece of machinery. Orwell's decision not only needlessly destroyed a valuable piece of equipment, it also reinforced in his own mind, and possibly in the minds of many Burmese, that he could be manipulated into actions against his better judgment simply by the fear of seeming weak.

Orwell experienced a highly personal form of exposure anxiety. He worried about his own image in the minds of those he ruled. But sometimes the victims of exposure anxiety project the fear of being seen as weak onto their entire nation. They worry that if their own nation does not act with unquestioned resolve, then other countries will not respect them. If this occurs, they fear that allies will desert them and enemies will be emboldened to attack. Instead of seeking creative plans that demonstrate moderation as well as resolve, they seize upon a simple, though counterproductive, solution: overkill. You might think that while exposure anxiety could affect individuals, it wouldn't affect whole nations. In fact, it has been a plague upon countries for a remarkably long time. Let's take a look at two examples. In the first case, in ancient Greece, exposure anxiety was narrowly avoided. In the second, it devastated part of the modern Middle East.

The Counsel of Cleon

In the year 427 B.C.E., a ship sailed from Athens on a grave assignment. The crew was bound for the Greek island of Mytilene, a region that had revolted against Athenian rule and lost. Worse still, it seemed that the Mytilenians had colluded with Athens's greatest rival, Sparta. Now that the rebellion was crushed, a warship was instructed to finish the job. The soldiers' orders were unequivocal: Kill every Mytilenian man; enslave every woman and child. Let no Mytilenian go free. But just after the ship was dispatched, some Athenians had a change of heart. What if such a harsh response was unwise? Should a faster ship be sent to overtake the first and prevent the mass slaughter? Two men stepped forward to advise their countrymen on the proper course. Each held diametrically opposing views.

"It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well and look up to those who make no concessions." These were the words of Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, as he urged the Athenians to show no mercy to their defeated foes. "What we should have done long ago with the Mytilenians was to treat them in exactly the same way as all the rest; then they would never have grown so arrogant." Cleon objected even to the idea of debating the matter. "To feel pity, to be carried away by the pleasure of hearing a clever argument, to listen to the claims of decency are three things that are entirely against the interests of an imperial power."

To show mercy is to show weakness, Cleon believed, and being perceived by others as weak would only invite further revolts and attacks. The perception of weakness, he contended, was tantamount to the loss of power. "Place yourselves in imagination at the moment when you first suffered and remember how then you would have given anything to have them in your power. Now pay them back for it, and do not grow soft just at this present moment, forgetting meanwhile the danger that hung over your heads then." Cleon's counsel was simple: punish them as cruelly as you can, and make an example of them to your other allies. Let everyone see that revolt will be punished by death. "Once they realize this," he insisted, "you will not have so often to neglect the war with your enemies because you are fighting with your own allies."

Cleon believed that only a show of excessive strength would deter future revolts. Equally important, failure to respond with extreme force would, he was convinced, tempt future enemies to attack based on a perceived Athenian weakness. Like Orwell in Burma, Cleon suffered from the same cognition trap. Exposure anxiety typically leads its victims to overreact with excessive force, and the aftermath leaves them less secure than before the violence began.

If a vote had been called at the close of Cleon's speech, the Athenians might have been swayed. But then Diodotus, son of Eucrates, took the floor. Cleon had argued that there was no need to make speeches for any other point of view. He insisted that to consider opposing views was not just a waste of time, but bordering on disloyalty. Diodotus's first task therefore was to explain that wisdom cannot come through haste. "Haste and anger are, to my mind, the two greatest obstacles to wise counsel-haste, that usually goes with folly, anger, that is the mark of primitive and narrow minds. And anyone who maintains that words cannot be a guide to action must be either a fool or one with some personal interest at stake."

Then Diodotus tackled Cleon's assertions head-on. Instead of pleading for mercy on behalf of innocent Mytilenians, Diodotus engaged in a daring act of rhetorical judo by demonstrating that mercy was in fact in Athens's national interest. "One of Cleon's chief points is that to inflict the death penalty will be useful to us in the future as a means for deterring other cities from revolt," Diodotus observed. "But if Cleon's method is adopted, can you not see that every city will not only make much more careful preparations for revolt, but will also hold out against siege to the very end, since to surrender early or late means just the same thing?"

Diodotus was making a clever point. Murdering the Mytilenians would not serve as a deterrent unless all future rivals were identical to each other in the ferocity with which they fought. If those revolting city-states were in fact all the same, then Cleon must be right. Murdering all the Mytilenians would either deter the others or else Athens would have to kill them all in battle. But Diodotus believed that not all rebellious city-states were the same. Some were willing to fight to the death against Athens, but others might be persuaded, either by force or enticements, to resume their acceptance of Athenian rule. Some might even come in time to actively support it. Diodotus further believed that not even all the members within a rebellious city-state were the same. He pointed out that some of the Mytilemans had not rebelled, but had surrendered their arms to the Athenians. In some cases, he argued, a majority might even be persuaded to side again with Athens. Cleon's counsel saw no distinctions between city-states or the rebels within them. His policy of murdering all Mytilenians would create a perfect incentive for all future rebels to fight with unfailing ferocity to the bitter end. And why shouldn't they? Once they saw how all the Mytilenians had been killed, they would expect the same treatment. There would be no incentive to surrender. Just the contrary would be true: rebels would fight to the bitter end in the hope of avoiding certain death at Athenian hands. The Athenians began to realize what this meant. Future conflicts would almost certainly last longer and be more costly in both lives and treasure, for their enemies as well as themselves.

Nearly two and a half millennia later, on October 21, 2004, United States Army prosecutor Major Michael Holley rose to make his closing statement in the trial of Sergeant Ivan Frederick. The young sergeant had been court-martialed for his role in the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In words strikingly reminiscent of Diodotus's speech long before, Major Holley argued that excessive cruelty toward one's enemies is certain to harm the victor as much as the vanquished. "And I would remind you, sir, that the enemy fights on morale like we do, and this can form a rallying point for our enemies now and in the future. And I would also ask you to think about enemies who might surrender in the future. That's what we ideally want. We want them to be so intimidated by the combat power of the United States Army that they surrender. But if a prisoner-or an enemy, rather-believes that he will be humiliated and subjected to degrading treatment, why wouldn't he continue to fight until his last breath? And in fighting, might he not take the lives of soldiers, lives that might not otherwise be spent?"

Major Holley was arguing, just as Diodotus had done, that excessive force can easily backfire. It can make a person or a country less, rather than more, secure. Whether exposure anxiety drove the Abu Ghraib prison guards to commit abuse is difficult to say for sure. Having investigated the episode, the psychologist Phillip Zimbardo found that the guards themselves were asked to function under nerve-wracking conditions. They were fired on almost daily from neighboring buildings and faced attacks from detainees with smuggled weapons. All the while the guards lived in putrid, roach- and rat-infested cells with no sanitation, overflowing toilets, sporadic electricity, inadequate food supplies, and insufficient sleep. Under these circumstances, it would not be surprising if the guards had feared that the inmates would perceive them as weak. There were surely multiple factors driving their behavior, and exposure anxiety may have been only one of them. In the end, their excessive abuses not only sabotaged the guards' own careers; they also undermined American security.

In the war with Sparta, Cleon feared appearing weak. He, however, was not afraid for his own safety; he was afraid instead for the safety and position of his nation. Cleon had convinced himself that if Athens's enemies sensed any weakness, they would be encouraged to attack. This fear led him to overreact by advocating excessive force, the murder of every Mytilenian rebel. But Diodotus did not view all rebels as equivalent. He did not accept that the category of "rebel" contained members that were all the same. Where Cleon assumed that all rebels would respond the same to excessive force, something about Diodotus enabled him to see nuance within a category's members.

After Diodotus had finished speaking, the Athenians weighed the two opposing views. The vote was extremely close, but in the end Diodotus won. In the heat of battle the previous day, a ship had been sent to destroy Mytilene. Now a second, faster ship was dispatched to overtake the first before the orders to murder all Mytilenian men could be executed. On this occasion, exposure anxiety was checked by thoughtful debate, wise counsel, democratic means, and one other essential ingredient. The imagination to discern nuance within a category is what really made the difference.

Though millennia have passed since the Cleon's time, cognition traps like exposure anxiety are still baiting us. Will we ever catch on?

Massive Response

At nine A.M. on July 12, 2006, Israelis were arriving at work, beginning their day, when Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based movement that has been fighting Israel for decades, suddenly launched rockets into towns along the Israel-Lebanon border. The surprise attack caught Israeli forces completely off guard. But the rockets were a mere diversion. While troops rushed to the areas under fire, a separate Hezbollah ground force crossed the border into Israel near Zar'it, killing three Israeli soldiers, wounding two others, and seizing two more, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Attempting to rescue the hostages, Israeli troops pursued Hezbollah into Lebanon. The effort failed, and five more Israeli soldiers were killed.

Hezbollah continued its rocket attacks on Israeli towns, while Israel rained bombs upon Lebanon, killing an estimated 850 Lebanese, sending thousands fleeing into Syria and beyond, and destroying Lebanese infrastructure at tremendous cost.

On July 17, 2006, the new Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, spoke to his nation and the world, delivering one of the most important addresses of his career. He needed to unify the nation behind his policy of massive retaliation. He had to find words that would resonate with millions of Israelis, sentiments that all could understand and share. More than this, Olmert, a less decorated soldier than the prime ministers who preceded him, stood especially vulnerable to exposure anxiety. He must have believed that he could not afford to seem soft.


Excerpted from BLUNDER by Zachary Stone Copyright © 2008 by Zachary Shore. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction Keeping Current 1

Chapter 1 Exposure Anxiety: The Fear of Being Seen as Weak 13

Chapter 2 Causefusion: Confusing the Causes of Complex Events 30

Chapter 3 Flatview: Seeing the "World in One Dimension 71

Chapter 4 Cure-allism: Believing That One Size Really Fits All 101

Chapter 5 Infomania: The Obsessive Relationship to Information 127

Chapter 6 Mirror Imaging: Thinking the Other Side Thinks Like Us 161

Chapter 7 Static Cling: Refusal to Accept a Changing World 183

Chapter 8 Cognition-Trapped in Iraq 201

Chapter 9 Working Toward Wisdom 216

Acknowledgments 233

Notes 237

Index 253

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Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Olin More than 1 year ago
Blunder purports to explore fallacies in reasoning that lead to poor decisions - clearly an important topic not only for our individual lives but for societies and nations. In the last few years there have been a number of good books that explore insights into decision-making, e.g., Blink, Drive, How We Decide, The Wisdom of Crowds, etc. Unfortunately Blunder will not join this group. The book suffers from four major problems. First is that there are no new insights. Among the reasons for bad decisions are ignoring facts, focusing on irrelevant facts, extending reasonings from one situation to another without regard to relevance, and either withholding information or becoming obsessed with irrelevant information. Well.duh! If you do not already recognize such causes of bad decisions you have limited exposure or attentiveness to the real world. The second problem is bad editing. Did the author, or the editors, actually read the final version? A couple of examples. On page 196 author Shore relates a story about a Canadian wheat farmer who was growing canola - a plant grown for its seed oil. The text informs us that canola seed is also known as "grape" seed. What was actually originally known as is "rape" seed - the now more common canola was introduced to avoid the obvious negative connotations with "rape." Evidently what passes for final editing is spell-check, and since "grape" is a recognized word, everything was OK. Another example is the beginning of Chapter 7, where Shore relates the discovery by a Michael Leahy of a previously unknown, and large population of indigenous peoples in the interior of New Guinea. After telling us something of Leahy's stumbling on them, and his narrow view of their level of civilization, a new paragraph starts with the following sentence: "In his published account of the New Guinea explorations, The Land That Time Forgot, Michael Leahy sanitized the killings." Killings? What killings? Nothing previous related to any killings. I had to stop and reread the first part of the chapter to see what I missed - the answer was nothing. Obviously an earlier version of the text had such a sequence, but not the final version. A third problem is logic of anecdotes used to support Shore's points. Often the anecdote has little if any obvious connection to the topic being discussed. I must say that many of the large number of these short anecdotes were quite interesting, as long as you did not linger too long wondering what they had to do with the current topic. Fourth, and finally, I really do not want to read such books and come away with a firm opinion on where the author stands on the political and political-correctness spectrum. For example, I come away from the book believing Shore is a very liberal Democrat and is strongly against GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The latter would not be too bad if, for example, he connected arguments against GMOs to his theses - which he does not. In summary, the book is recommended for liberal democrats wanting reinforcement, foes of GMOs, and as a source of bathroom reading for the interesting anecdotes.
words101 More than 1 year ago
To me it was perfectly written. It guided us into different areas of life and history to explore even our own thoughts on a very simple level. It is a great read to share with others so we can all look at a situation through many avenues. Even though your review mentioned common sense, I agree with you but it is shocking how we complicate common sense. This is were I feel Mr. Shore points us to. A perfect read for the years ahead.
truthseekerCP More than 1 year ago
"Blunder" is the perfect complement to Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink", as it is about the power of your thinking when you ARE thinking (as opposed to when you are not thinking). "Blunder" is a must-read for leaders, and it's also a book for people who make every-day decisions, which is basically everyone. It is honest, it is moving, and it is rich with historical examples that feel very recent. This book creates a unique opportunity for all of us to see where our normal thinking tends to fail us without our noticing (until it's too late). The author does a wonderful job of using story-telling (and descriptive names for the types of decision-making blunders) to make the material easily accessible.
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Campana More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books. Once you read, you will look at people differently as well as look at situations from a whole new prospective. I could not put this book down; examples are clear and most important, you can relate to them. Overall a great read and a must have for any professional especially if they manage people (in all walks of life)