Book review: How to decide by Annie Duke

I decided to do something different for this post and review the book that I just finished. But to make it useful and insightful enough, I don’t want this to be just a plain old summary post. You can check Wikipedia for that. I consider review posts to be much more purposeful when they tell me, the reader, what the person reading the book actually liked. That’s social proof in the flesh.

That’s why I went for this structure:

  • What the book is about
  • Why I chose to read it
  • What I liked about it
  • What I didn’t like about it
  • What I take away from it
  • Who I’d recommend it to

Plus writing a review actually forces me to introspect when reading and consider how I can make it useful for someone else. Here’s the book in question:

How to Decide Book review

What How to Decide is about

The book is basically a beginner-friendly guide to making good decisions. Annie Duke used to be a poker player and, therefore, knows a thing or two about decision-making and what trips us up when it comes to making good decisions. The book covers the basics when it comes to that:

  • Biases we encounter when making decisions (Outcome bias, hindsight bias, not considering the full range of possible outcomes and others).
  • It gives a few rules of thumb that are supposed to simplify our decision-making.
  • It explains how using negative thinking, i.e. working backwards from the worst possible outcome, can be used to improve decision-making: precommitting yourself, using hedges and the likes.
  • How feedback from others influences our preconceptions and consequently our decisions and how we can improve the feedback we give and receive (neutral framing, explaining the output you seek, asking for relevant information, asking for anonymous feedback if it’s a group).

Why I chose to read How to Decide

I take great interest in the realm of decision-making/psychology/prediction/behavioral economics and the book really was just another one in a long list of books about this topic. It was fairly short and had a catchy title, plus the author has a gambling background, which means she has practiced what she preaches.

What I liked about How to Decide

First of all it was short. I went through it in a couple of hours of net reading time. The book doesn’t waste too much of your time with anecdotes or filler material (looking at you Nate Silver).

I liked the little exercises and checklists she provided. I actually did only the very first one where the author asks you to construct a matrix with:

  • What you considered to be a good decision with a good outcome
  • A good decision with a bad outcome
  • A bad decision with a good outcome
  • And a bad decision with a bad outcome

You also have to explain why you considered it good/bad and what could have gone wrong/right about it. It really forces you to put some thought into the decisions you made. I didn’t bother with most of the other exercises (each chapter has a few). Each chapter has a nice little recap at the end, which also made my task of writing this review easier.

I also liked some of the rules of thumb that she provided. The argument is that we spend too much time deciding basic things like what to eat, when we should really take quick decisions because these are low-impact events in terms of your happiness in the long run. She provides a few quick and easy rules how to do that.

What I didn’t like

Most of the content was pretty basic. If you have read your fair share of books in this realm like the works of Taleb and Daniel Kahnemann, this book doesn’t provide anything new. Yea, the little checklists and exercises and rules of thumb are nice but they don’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. I skimmed the better part of the midsection after I quickly understood that she’s dedicating a chapter to each possible bias. Not really the author’s fault but something to know if you want to read it.

What I learned from How to Decide

I noticed that often we cannot even sum up what we took away from a book in a single sentence. That’s how short attention spans have become these days. If you can’t take anything away from a non-fiction book, it was probably a waste of time. So if you can take away at least one thing from every book you read, you’re already doing well. Here’s my attempt at it for How to Decide:

I learned that spending time on making decisions that won’t impact your long-term happiness is a waste. The book gave me a nice little heuristic (“Will this make me happy/unhappy in a year or month from now?”) that I’ll be able to use. Intuitively, we know this already but it was a good refresher and something I’ll keep in mind.

Who I’d recommend How to Decide to

If you haven’t read Skin in the Game, Fooled by Randomness Thinking Fast and Slow and all the other significant books in this realm, this one is a decent choice that eases you into the topic. It’s easy to comprehend and broken up into bite-sized pieces with plenty of examples. If you have, you’ll likely be a bit bored and skip to the end pretty quickly. In that case, you’re not missing anything.

Recommended to anyone that’s new to the field of decision-making and behavioral psychology.

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