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Read Steven Pinker and others instead
on September 28, 2010
The topic of this book is the various ways in which others purposefully and maybe sometimes not so purposefully use psychological tactics to alter our behavior.
In that way, this book deals with important, critical issues yet unfortunately it does so in much too facile a way. In this way, the reader -- upon completing it -- can wrongly assume themselves informed on a series of topics that genuinely command much greater attention.
In no particular order of importance, this book examines the various ways in which others can affect our behavior with reference to the following issues:
1) What does an examination of our body language tell them. From the 1970s forward this topic alone has commanded book length treatments. One such treatment can be found in Darrick Bickerton's excellent Language and Species which shows the connection between spoken and unspoken languages (and thereby somewhat erases the divide between at least human and primate "language").
2) What does our language usage and word choice say about the way in which we process information. Again, for a (much) better treatment of this issue I would recommend the great Lakoff and Johnson book Language and Metaphor as well as Lakoff's later follow up entries, Philosophy in the Flesh and Where Mathematics Comes From.
3) What are our genetic imperatives. While the authors of this book remain rooted in the 70s by quoting for example the famous Maslow table (among other dated sources including B.F. Skinner), more recent reading would better focus on the neuorscientific approaches found for example in Harvard's Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works.
4) For an examination of sex based differences in behavior, one would again much better look to other authors as opposed to this book in learning more. Here I would recommend the excellent Red Queen by the geneticist Matt Ridley.
5) For better treatments of the game theory issues alluded to (but not explored in any serious way) I would suggest William Poundstone's The Prisoner's Dilema as well as Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation.
6) For a much, much better treatment of polygraphs, read Terror in the Blood, a book length treatment of the history, limitations and abuses of the polygraph.
7) For treatments relating to group suggestability I obviously would suggest that you go the primary sources including Stanley Milgram's very accessible Obediance to Authority as well as Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect (which detailed the history and findings related to his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment).
Aside from the foregoing concerns I also found several things about this book disjunctive:
1) They used terms they created such as "mind slayers" and "mind castles" as a means of attempting to encapsulate issues that rightfully deserve more thoroughgoing and deliberative treatments. I understand that popular books sometimes need to engage in this activity but frankly terms chosen by the authors additionally impressed me as being juvenile and stupid sounding as well.
2) They vacillated back and forth as to whether they admired or feared the activity of "mind slaying" (a term which -- as it suggests -- invovles using mind control techniques to alter others' behavior). This may have been a product of differences in opinion between the two authors but perhaps a better way of resolving their ambivelance over this issue may have been to periodically break for "one on one" sections where the two authors could openly assert their differences (and maybe even their reasons for them).
3) They periodically engaged in odd speculation like where they quoted an anonymous source to suggest that JFK settled the Cuban missile crisis by disclosing to Soviets the specifics about the alien landing at Roswell New Mexico. I litterally laughed out loud when I read this notice which interrupted the flow of the supposedly serious points the authors were then trying to make.
I will no doubt receive many negative votes on this review. Such invariably is the case where people feel empowered by slender volume (this book just barely tops 170 pages) to say they know something.
The problem is that after reading this book no one can really say they know anything.
For serious students of this topic please read the books I've listed in this review. For those interested in a less serious one volume treatment of these issues, I would suggest Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate which is all about mind control but is actually a book where the topic is handled properly.