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‘Farsighted’ Review: How to make up your mind

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When American intelligence experts learned in August 2010 that an Osama bin Laden confidant had entered a fortified compound in the remote Pakistani town of Abbottabad, they launched an extensive evaluation and planning process that culminated in the successful May 2011 raid by U.S. special forces.

For Steven Johnson, the heroes of this mission weren’t just the brave soldiers who executed it but also the planners who learned from previous mistakes—the failed hostage rescue of 1980, for instance—and ran an exemplary two-phase decision-making process. As Mr. Johnson explains in “Farsighted,” mission planners first systematically widened their thinking to define their options as broadly as possible, seeking a “full-spectrum appraisal of the state of things and a comprehensive list of potential choices.” Then they coned down the alternatives by playing out multiple scenarios, exploring all the ways the mission could go wrong. The process was so thorough that the only neglected item was a ruler to confirm bin Laden’s height. A tape measure was included, tongue in cheek, on the plaque that Gen. William McRaven received from President Obama commending the strategist for his planning skills.

Decades of behavioral economics research and shelves of popular literature have by now convinced us that the human mind is beset by cognitive biases, leading us to misunderstand the past, misconstrue the present and badly foresee the future. But according to Mr. Johnson, the author of several books on innovation and culture, we shouldn’t despair. Yes, it’s difficult to rein in our faulty intuition and domesticate uncertainty, but even so—as the bin Laden raid shows—there are tools that can improve our ability to make decisions.

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