Recommended Reading

I ‘ve realized that there are a set of books I’ve been recommending to others pretty consistently since reading them, and a recent spate of doing so made me think to post them here.

The first book on my current “everyone should read this” list is The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. I’m unlikely to think about moral decision making and differences of perspective and prioritization the same way after reading it. Early in the book Haidt describes our system for “moral decision making” using the analogy of an elephant and a rider. The elephant – our intuitive decision making system, akin to what Kahneman calls our “fast” system – leans toward things it likes and away from things it doesn’t. The rider – our rational (or “slow”) system, he says, isn’t there to steer the elephant rather to explain the elephant’s actions. So when faced with a moral conundrum we make a decision, then construct post-facto rationalizations in support of that decision. The book goes on to explore how our decisions and rationalizations are shaped by the different weights we place on a set of core “pillars.” Thoughtful and thought provoking through out.

The next book up is shorter, older and a bit harder to find – Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Written in 1970, it remains both relevant and seemingly the definitive writing on the subject. Hirschman argues that when we find ourselves in a relationship with an organization (company, club, country) we come to disagree with, we have only two real tools at our disposal; voice (raising our voice to cause change) and exit (severing our ties with the organization). The book spends its scant pages exploring how we choose to apply those tools in different situations, the impact that loyalty has on our decision making, and how different “ratios” of voice and loyalty affect the organization in question.

Last for the moment is Normal Accidents: Living With High Risk Technologies, by Charles Perrow, first published in 1984 and updated in 2011. Perrow looks at systems in terms of their “interactive complexity” and “coupling.” Interactive complexity is about the number and degree of relationships between parts of a system, and coupling (tight or loose) is about how easy it is for failures in one part of the system to cause cascading failures in other parts. I found the core ideas to be an enlightening lens to look at all sorts of systems through.

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