Adam Smith Blog

The Logic of Failure

Marginalia

The most original book I read this week – after a recommendation from the always-worth-listening-to Cass Sunstein – was The Logic of Failure (UK) (US) by Dietrich Dorner. Dorner sets experimental subjects difficult simulation games (they all sound a little bit like Sim City to me) and observes as they try to master the games alone or in groups. Most of their actions have unintended consequences that are predictable in principle, but often confounding to the players. For example, if you eradicate the tsetse fly then the cattle will prosper, but as the cattle population booms, grass and water will be depleted. Drill more wells and you can get more water – until the entire water table is depleted. Then a famine looms; all foreseeable if only you can keep the whole system in mind and follow the chain of consequences.

Dorner studies the successful players, and the less successful, and looks for patterns – do they ask enough questions? Too many decisions? Too few? Do they blame others, become frustrated? Do they begin to obsess about trivia? While the methodology itself is clearly somewhat limited, it’s enormously thought-provoking.

(By the way, having been reminded of the book’s existence by Cass Sunstein, I should mention that his book with Reid Hastie, Wiser (UK) (US) is the best book I know about group decision-making and how to overcoming polarisation and groupthink.)

I’ve also been reading about military history. I re-read Norman Stone’s WWII: A Short History (UK) (US) which is astonishingly good. Bracingly brief and opinionated, but a remarkable way to gain perspective on what can easily become a bewildering mash of highly partial pieces of folk history.

Also – for a perspective on the brilliant but dreadfully flawed tank strategist J.F.C. Fuller – I read Mark Urban’s Generals (UK) (US) which I enjoyed, and suspect I’ll be back to in due course. There was plenty of useful and telling detail in one chapter than in an entire biography of Fuller I spent the morning reading in the Bodleian – Mark Urban is able to see the wood and the trees. Well done.

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