The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Review: How to leave automated decision-making behind

Review: How to leave automated decision-making behind

By Ray Bert

Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence, by Vikram Mansharamani. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2020; 304 pages, $30.

Two of the possible knee-jerk reactions to this book’s title are 1) “Yeah, the heck with all these so-called experts, I’m going with my gut!” and 2) “There are definitely a lot of people who (unlike me) need to learn to think for themselves!” In broad terms, author Vikram Mansharamani — a Harvard lecturer and holder of a Ph.D. and two master’s degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology — might answer those statements more or less as follows: 1) “Well, we still need the legitimate experts, and they aren’t actually the main problem,” and 2) “Yes, you too.”

green book cover showing a red car driving off a cliff
(Courtesy of Harvard Business Review Press)

The main premise of Think for Yourself is that we have landed in a place where “You may not realize it, but you’ve lost your mind,” as the author writes in the introduction, by which he means that most of us, at least part of the time, “blindly outsource our thinking to technologies, experts, and rules.” And that we do this — in areas as diverse as retail shopping, health care, and relationships — is a reaction to a world where the amount of available information on practically any topic is simply overwhelming, so much so that “automating” it can seem like the only way to cope.

Mansharamani wrote this book largely to show people that there is another way to cope and wrest back control of your thought process and decision-making. And the first, most important step is to understand just how often you are, in fact, “coping.” Whether that means, for example, that you unwittingly are allowing algorithms to filter your reading, over-relying on an incompatible financial adviser, or “overspecializing” on the job to manage your workload.

Think for Yourself asserts that the complexity of the modern world in virtually every area (more data, more options, more “things to know”) has necessarily driven greater specialization of disciplines, jobs, and knowledge in general. But the pendulum has swung too far. The person who can most nimbly adopt other perspectives, understand the gaps in their own knowledge, and discern where they should listen most carefully to the experts is in the best position to succeed — whether personally or professionally.

By recognizing when you’ve mentally put your decision-making process on autopilot, you can take back manual control to ensure that your decisions are truly yours — or at least are driven by the experts you’ve consciously decided to trust. Because, as Mansharamani argues, rejection of expert knowledge is not the point; what’s important is assimilating that information and synthesizing it for yourself and your own needs.

Peppered with real-world examples and brimming with practical strategies, Think for Yourself is a tour de force that will make you think anew about how you think about the world and which information sources — be they advisers, rules of thumb, or invisible algorithms — you lean on to make your own choices.

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