cover image The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age

The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age

Bina Venkataraman. Riverhead, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1947-2

In a thought-provoking and eminently readable debut, Venkataraman, an MIT professor who served as senior advisor for the Obama administration on climate change innovation, considers why people—individually and collectively—often undermine their own best interests, opting for short-term rewards over longer-term, perhaps more sustainable benefits. Venkataraman takes a multifaceted approach—surveying research from biology, psychology, and economics, among other fields, and gleaning lessons from diverse groups such as poker players and Montessori students—to determine ways to encourage people to choose more wisely and more consistently consider long-term consequences. Strategies have ranged from a Michigan credit union’s offering depositors chances to win prizes when adding to their savings accounts, to doctors receiving emails praising their record of giving prescriptions only when warranted. In both cases, positive reinforcements proved far more effective than attempts to, respectively, encourage savings for unknown emergencies or micromanage doctors’ medical decisions. In the business world, strategists have suggested giving investors incentives to take a more patient approach to the market. (One banker likens the idea to Odysseus tying himself to the mast in order to resist the sirens’ song.) Venkataraman’s thoughtful and clear-eyed assessment of how to teach oneself to make more carefully considered decisions should prove a valuable tool for anyone wishing to think less in the short term and more toward the future. [em](Aug.) [/em]