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The Logic of Failure, a decades-overdue book review

Updated on January 17, 2015
Cover art for an early version of the computer game, SimCity.
Cover art for an early version of the computer game, SimCity. | Source


I'm interested in the psychology of flawed reasoning. Two broad categories of unsound reasoning--logical fallacies and Groupthink--are familiar to most educated people.

However there's a third type of mental minefield. Black Box Problems are unavoidable, and they are quite challenging. Bureaucratic approaches to solving BBPs have several inherent pitfalls.

For example, men are not born with the software that's needed for understanding where women are coming from, in an emotional sense. In that respect, it's helpful for a young male to have an older sister, who can clue him in. Self-help books can also be helpful. But even with the best of intentions, most men--including myself--have many episodes of "Open mouth, insert foot." We muddle our way through relationships, and through the other gray areas of life.

It's best if we can learn from our mistakes as soon as possible. Here's a famous Einstein quote:

The definition of insanity is doing he same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Unfortunately, the skills needed to solve Black Box Problems are not taught in school. Dietrich Dörner's book, The Logic of Failure, gives an in-depth treatment of Black Box Problems.

Two caveats. Dörner's simulations involved occupational settings. He did not intend to write about fulfilling relationships. That was my extension of his ideas.

Second, "Black Box Problem" is my expression, not Dörner's. Black Box Problems are situations in which you must make a decision, but don't have as much information as you would like. Some of the essential information is locked away inside a 'black box'. You can't open the box, but you can poke it in various ways, and take note if it rattles, squeaks, creaks, or whatever.

Trial and error are necessary parts of this problem-solving process, as is the ability to learn from experience. Good judgment, levelheadedness, practical intelligence, and horse sense are all expressions that describe the ability to solve Black Box Problems. People skills can also be important. Dörner's experiments are a window into the human psyche as it grapples with perplexing situations in the real world.

Aristotle was the first philosopher to taxonomize a variety of logical fallacies.
Aristotle was the first philosopher to taxonomize a variety of logical fallacies. | Source

Logical fallacies

These are the propaganda techniques that dishonest people use to manipulate us into believing things that are not true; and into acting against our own best interests, and against our own core values. Here are four of the classics.

1. Argumentum ad hominem is an attack on a person or on a class of people, in order to discredit their ideas. Of course, the inconvenient reality is that cute and cuddly people are capable of having bad ideas, and that uncool nerdy people can have good ideas. Yes, some sources are better than others for the facts. However the source of an idea is not an adequate gauge of the quality of the analysis of the facts, once these facts are agreed upon.

Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) alarmists frequently use this rhetorical device. Informed skeptics are labeled as Deniers, suggesting that they are on a par with Holocaust Deniers. I think that this particular ad hominem is worthy of a Godwin Award.

2. Argumentum ad populum is about the bandwagon effect. It's an appeal to the comfort of conforming to a real majority, or to an Astroturfed majority. Sometimes the majority gets it right, and sometimes they don't. Truth is not democratic.

3. Argumentum ad veracundiam is an appeal to authority. It's a variation on the themes of "Trust me, I'm an expert" and "Dada knows best." Many otherwise educated people still think in this way; they merely switch to a different dada in their university years.

The big picture on appeals to authority: Sometimes experts get it right, and sometimes they don't. For example, if a person is an expert on the folklore of astrology, that fact does not make astrology valid--even if that expert happens to believe in astrology. Moreover some authority figures are honest, and others have hidden agendas.

Notwithstanding my high school English Lit teacher, trotting out the opinions of mavens does not qualify as critical thinking. What if two of the mavens have opposite opinions? Watching them duke it out can be entertaining, but they can't both be 100% correct.

4. A Straw Man Argument is a rhetorical technique in which one puts words into the mouth of his opponent, and then argues disingenuously against that deliberate misrepresentation.

If you're skilled at recognizing logical fallacies, you're less likely to be buy into fairy tales. However Groupthink is more insidious.


Groupthink is a subtle form of flawed reasoning, in which group members are unable to distinguish between the veracity of a proposition and a manufactured consensus. At first blush, Groupthink looks like argumentum ad populum. But there is a distinction.

Because individual members of the group are afraid to speak their minds--and often aren't even consciously aware of that fear--each contributes to the mediocre and sometimes disastrous conclusions and policy decisions that the group makes. There's a larger component of self-deception in Groupthink than in classical logical fallacies. In a Groupthink milieu, group intelligence is seldom greater than that of the least intelligent member of that group.

The concept of Groupthink has been with us since 1952, when William H. Whyte, Jr. first articulated it. Most educated people are at least dimly aware of the concept. Yet the same educated people, as individuals, are capable of making monumentally stupid decisions when they find themselves in positions of power. Why is that?


Bad decisions for which one can only blame himself

Dietrich Dörner’s book, The Logic of Failure, addresses this larger issue. Dörner's psychological experiments utilized computer simulations of Black Box Problems (BBPs) that could easily arise in the workplace.

In one of the simulations, a would-be city manager tackles a scarce resource allocation problem that his counterpart in the real world is likely to encounter. Sim City is a computer game that's similar to the one that Dörner used in this particular BBP.

A second Black Box Problem involves a malfunctioning commercial refrigerator. There are other simulations as well.

The volunteer in each experiment is given an overview of his particular Black Box Problem. Then he matches wits with a computer simulation of the BBP.

On the first pass, the volunteer makes an input, and takes note of the corresponding output. He then attempts to grasp the underlying reality.

Then in the light of his tentative mental picture, the volunteer makes a second educated guess, and sees if the second output partially corroborates his intuition, or if it takes him in a new direction. Given a reasonable amount of time, the volunteer may or may not learn from experience what he needs to know.

Here are three of the many nonproductive approaches to solving Black Box problems. The first is magical thinking. The volunteer jumps to the conclusion that certain numerical inputs to the computer simulation have magical properties.

Scenario 2: Sometimes a volunteer will zero in on a sub-problem, and ignore the larger picture.

These first two types of bureaucratic errors occur because most people are uncomfortable with uncertainties. In the micromanagement case, a person emphasizes the aspects with which he is most familiar, in order to remain within his comfort zone--even though his neglected areas of responsibility are going to hell in a handbasket.

Scenario 3: The volunteer may assume that the system modeled by the computer is linear. However the system could spiral out of control while he is dithering. A meltdown in one of the first-generation nuclear reactors is a good example of non-linearity.

One can find many examples of these flawed thought processes in government bureaucracies. Interestingly, business people outscored university students in Dörner’s simulations.

The layout of Dörner's book

The first part of The Logic of Failure goes into great detail about various approaches to solving and failing to solve Black Box Problems. Dörner's experiments used computer simulations of BBPs that could easily arise in the real world. A few of the volunteers did get it right. However most did not. Dörner thoroughly analyzed the failed approaches, and sorted them into categories.

The middle part of Dörmer's book is more of a prescription than a description. He tells us how to approach Black Box Problems. With each of Dörner's points, I found myself nodding in agreement. However, at the end of the middle chapters, I realized that there was no way that I could remember all of that stuff when I really needed it.

The last part of the book is more concrete. Dörner concludes that people could improve their Black Box Problem-solving skills by practicing on the kinds of computer simulations that he presented to his volunteers. The skills acquired in struggling with one type of Black Box Problem should be transferable to another type of BBP. SimCity, anyone?

Yours truly on a short hike to Round Top Lake, in California's Northern Sierras.
Yours truly on a short hike to Round Top Lake, in California's Northern Sierras. | Source

On a personal note

I have a health problem that falls between the cracks. I've spent thousands of dollars on conventional medical approaches. In the long run, each medication was worse than the original problem. I finally realized that the underlying health issue was a Black Box Problem, and that I was mostly on my own.

Since that epiphany, I've tried to understand the problem, applying my scientific background to articles and books that I've read.

I also listen very closely to what my body is telling me. I've had a few limited successes. My hay fever is more manageable, without medications. My rheumatoid arthritis is in remission. I'm a bit leaner than I was in the late 1980s. And my sleep is a little better.

On the other hand, my neurological functioning has not improved. My health project is a work in progress. And Dörner's book was a partial validation for my approach.

Come to think of it, there's an article in Scientific American, "The Expert Mind," which complements Dörner's work. Here's a LINK to a preview of this piece. However the rest of the article is pay-walled.

Copyright by Larry Fields 2012


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    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      5 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Glenn. Thanks for your vote of confidence.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      5 years ago from Long Island, NY

      You said that most educated people are dimly aware of the concept of groupthink. And you asked why they make stupid decisions when they find themselves in positions of power.

      I have an idea about that... Many people go along with the norms of society. They accept what they are taught.

      I realize that a lot of what I learned in my high school days was groupthink philosophy. For example, we were taught how wonderful Columbus was for discovering America. And we even celebrate his birthday today. But when I got older and decided to study things on my own, rather than what society wanted to teach me, I learned how terrible Columbus was for killing millions of East Indies and native Americans.

      That's just one example to show your point about why educated people are not aware of groupthink. They just believe they are educated correctly and they make decisions based on that.

      I like your idea of the Black Box Problem. Your idea really is an explanation for the same question you had about why educated people make stupid decisions. You gave the answer later in your hub when you said they don't have as much information as they would like.

      This was a great hub and it gave me a lot to think about. Voted up.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Will,

      Thanks for stopping by. By the way, I'm glad that you were able to overcome your aversion to political codswallop long enough to write the hub about the right to keep and bear.

    • WillStarr profile image


      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi, Larry,

      Your assessment of our Nell is quite correct.

      I used to spent quite a bit of time in the political forums, but I grew tired of all the logical fallacies, so I now stay away.

      I hope your problem will be solved.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Nell, thanks for your comment. I have one small quibble.

      "I may not be clever but..."

      Judging by the quality of the writing in your hubs, I'd say that you're one very smart lady.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      In a Groupthink , group intelligence is seldom greater than that of the least intelligent member of that group. This is oh so true. I have, I was going to say studied this before, but that's a bit out there! lol! we covered this in psychology night school. The tutor told a lie and made the first person say it, in this case it was there are fifteen people here don't count them though. The first person said fifteen, the next and the next did the same, but not me oh nooo! lol! I stood up and said 16, I may not be clever but my philosophy in life is, never trust anyone! lol!

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi ksinll. Thanks for stopping by.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I think administrators and leaders in every industry needs to read this book and apply it in the workplace. Well-written and good analysis.


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