Flip the Decision-Making Coin: Eyes Wide Open by Noreena Hertz

Although Noreena Hertz calls Eyes Wide Open a “decision-making tool kit,” the book at times has the feel of a Home Depot or full-service repair shop. Where the Heath brothers summarized their decision-making book, Decisive, in a neat 4-letter mnemonic (WRAP), Hertz has produced a detailed, 10-step program to the decision-making literature.

[Editor’s note: Read part 1 of Mark’s review of Eyes Wide Open.]

This exhaustive, manual-like approach has its benefits: If there has been a study published on some aspect of decision making, this book references it. So if you’re not familiar with the literature, this may be the only book you will ever need to read. What it may lack in original analysis or thinking it more than makes up in information and grounded, useful advice.

Eyes-Wide-Open-CoverBut the approach also has its downside: If there has been a study published on some aspect of decision making, this book references it. In other words, if you’re not a discerning reader, analysis paralysis is fairly guaranteed.

What struck me most about Hertz’s research is the quandary that we, as individuals who need to make life-changing decisions with limited information or experience, seem to be in. In a chapter that addresses the need to challenge expert opinions, Hertz references MRI scans that reveal how our analytical brain shuts down when experts start to talk. In other words, we seem to be hardwired to defer to expert opinion.

But given the track record of experts, according to Hertz, that’s precisely when we should be at the top of our analytical game:

  • 1 in 6 doctors misdiagnose their patients
  • 1 in 12 patients die because of misdiagnosis
  • Tax advisors are more likely than you to make mistakes
  • 70% of mutual fund managers underperform the market
  • 66% of companies think consultants wasted their time or were harmful

And in a 1984 study that echoes Philip Tetlock’s 20-year, 28,000-prediction study, British publication The Economist asked 4 London dustmen (garbage men), 4 former finance ministers, 4 board members of multinational corporations, and 4 Oxford University students to lay out their 10-year predictions on a wide array of national barometers, such as inflation, unemployment, political events, and so on. At the end of 10 years, it turned out that the dustmen out-performed the experts by a wide margin.

Apparently it’s not just that the experts don’t get it right, they also lie and cheat:

  • 33% of scientists change the design methodology or results of studies due to pressure from funding sources
  • 81% of biomed trainees would select, omit, or fabricate data to win a grant
  • 40% of peer-reviewed studies have misrepresented actual findings due to funding pressure
  • FDA “experts” include industry reps who often vote in line with their corporate interests

So what’s a poor executive or manager to do, especially when we are the ones who are looked upon as the “experts” with the answers? With so much uncertainty surrounding us, and decisions topping our daily agendas, how do we stay in business?

In his 2012 book The Finish, Mark Bowden recounts Barack Obama’s decision to raid the Pakistani compound that housed Osama bin Laden. After months of intelligence gathering, and after listening to his team of advisers and intelligence experts offer their assessments that ranged from 10 to 90 percent certainty that bin Laden was in the compound, Obama concluded by saying (according to Bowden), “Look guys, this is a flip of the coin. I can’t base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that.”

In other words, heads we get him, tails my presidency is toast.

Hertz has offered over 300 pages of text and notes and nearly 100 “quick tips” to help us improve our decision-making processes. If you can wade through all that, you will undoubtedly find several useful tools to add to your decision-making box.

But when the ultimate decision is on the line, don’t be surprised if you turn to George Washington as your final arbiter.

Let's work together.