on July 28, 2014
Do you think you are smart? I have asked this question to hundreds of people over the years and with only one exception all have said yes.
I am lucky that I get to talk with high achieving people who work hard, study well, and create a set of strategies that has brought them success in one form or another. Some of these people are very successful in the world of business and some are students just starting out on life’s journey but all of them have credentials that indicate they know how to think in ways that help them earn leadership positions with high salaries or to attend schools that few get admitted to.
According to most people, I am willing to guess, these people would easily get placed into the smart set. As for me, I’d like to say that I am smart enough to follow Socrates and say the only thing I know is that I don’t know, but I don’t. At least not often enough. I write quite a few words here and other places too that indicate I think I know something about issues related to education, colleges and universities, writing, students, business, books, and research.
While I am not about to perform a mea culpa and say I have willfully mislead anyone or been totally wrong on most issues, I am going to confess that I am not as smart as I think I am. The reason behind this admission? I have just finished a book that proves, to me at least, I am self-deluded.
The book in question (and full of answers about why we think, often incorrectly, as we do: You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself, by David McRaney.
McRaney is smart. He is also witty, well read, and a clear concise writer. The book itself comes largely out of his very popular website, You Are not So Smart. http://youarenotsosmart.com/
What McRaney does is to present in short chapters the many ways we deceive ourselves about how we perceive, interpret, and construct our world. In his introduction, he outlines the 3 ways we fool ourselves into thinking we are rational animals (Aristotle’s phrase).
THE MISCONCEPTION: You are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is.
THE TRUTH: You are as deluded as the rest of us, but that’s OK, it keeps you sane.
The three main subjects in this book are cognitive biases, heuristics, and logical fallacies. These are components of your mind, like organs in your body, which under the best conditions serve you well. Life, unfortunately, isn’t always lived under the best conditions. Their predictability and dependability have kept confident men, magicians, advertisers, psychics, and peddlers of all manner of pseudoscientific remedies in business for centuries. It wasn’t until psychology applied rigorous scientific method to human behavior that these self-deceptions became categorized and quantified.
Cognitive biases are predicable patterns of thought and behavior that lead you to draw incorrect conclusions. You and everyone else come into the world preloaded with these pesky and completely wrong ways of seeing things, and you rarely notice them. Many of them serve to keep you confident in your own perceptions or to inhibit you from seeing yourself as a buffoon. The maintenance of a positive self-image seems to be so important to the human mind you have evolved mental mechanisms designed to make you feel awesome about yourself. Cognitive biases lead to poor choices, bad judgments, and wacky insights that are often totally incorrect. For example, you tend to look for information that confirms your beliefs and ignore information that challenges them. This is called confirmation bias. The contents of your bookshelf and the bookmarks in your Web browser are a direct result of it.
Heuristics are mental shortcuts you use to solve common problems. They speed up processing in the brain, but sometimes make you think so fast you miss what is important. Instead of taking the long way around and deeply contemplating the best course of action or the most logical train of thought, you use heuristics to arrive at a conclusion in record time. Some heuristics are learned, and others come free with every copy of the human brain. When they work, they help your mind stay frugal. When they don’t, you see the world as a much simpler place than it really is. For example, if you notice a rise in reports about shark attacks on the news, you start to believe sharks are out of control, when the only thing you know for sure is the news is delivering more stories about sharks than usual.
Logical fallacies are like math problems involving language, in which you skip a step or get turned around without realizing it. They are arguments in your mind where you reach a conclusion without all the facts because you don’t care to hear them or have no idea how limited your information is. You become a bumbling detective. Logical fallacies can also be the result of wishful thinking. Sometimes you apply good logic to false premises; at other times you apply bad logic to the truth. For instance, if you hear Albert Einstein refused to eat scrambled eggs, you might assume scrambled eggs are probably bad for you. This is called the argument from authority. You assume if someone is super-smart, then all of that person’s decisions must be good ones, but maybe Einstein just had peculiar taste.
Cognitive biases come in many forms and McRaney sets out some of the most prevalent. In essence, all of us often overlook the way that humans have evolved over millions of years and that we still have mental structures that act as if we are still trying to survive among a small tribe of hunter-gatherers. Another way of saying this is to point out that all of us are part of what another author calls Moral Tribes. http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Tribes-Emotion-Reason-Between/dp/1594202605
Joshua Greene points out that our brains get wired before we are born and that our tribal affiliations (anything from Democrat or Republican to Fifa or American football) determine, even before we consciously think something through, what something means.
The great thing about McRaney’s book is that he can take the abstractions I have just set out and make them come to life quickly and effectively:
THE MISCONCEPTION: You know when you are being influenced and how it is affecting your behavior.
THE TRUTH: You are unaware of the constant nudging you receive from ideas formed in your unconscious mind.
Your true self is a much larger and more complex construct than you are aware of at any given moment. If your behavior is the result of priming, the result of suggestions as to how to behave handed up from the adaptive unconscious, you often invent narratives to explain your feelings and decisions and musings because you aren’t aware of the advice you’ve been given by the mind behind the curtain in your head…
Studies of priming suggest when you engage in deep introspection over the causes of your own behavior you miss many, perhaps most, of the influences accumulating on your persona like barnacles along the sides of a ship. Priming doesn’t work if you see it coming, but your attention can’t be focused in all directions at once. Much of what you think, feel, do, and believe is, and will continue to be, nudged one way or the other by unconscious primes from words, colors, objects, personalities, and other miscellany infused with meaning either from your personal life or the culture you identify with.
Of course, you can choose to become an agent yourself. You can prime potential employers with what you wear to a job interview. You can prime the emotions of your guests with how you set the mood when hosting a party. Once you know priming is a fact of life, you start to understand the power and resilience of rituals and rites of passage, norms and ideologies. Systems designed to prime persist because they work. Starting tomorrow, maybe with just a smile and a thank-you, you can affect the way others feel— hopefully for the best.
What McRaney does is give us the Name (and naming brings things into being), then a definition and then cites examples and research things to support his thesis.
As he says in his introduction, this is actually fun. (For me. I would be committing one of his errors if I assumed that everybody reading this would agree this is fun.)
I think he succeeds in teaching us in two ways. It’s fun to learn the ways I fool myself and the way others do too. It leads me to what might be called a healthy Humean skepticism about epistemological issues. (One thing that some will like about McRaney is that he avoids, for the most part, the philosophical jargon that often turns readers off from learning about how the mind works. I am not saying he dumbs down things, as it is his intention to make us smarter by letting us know how dumb we sometimes are. Paradoxically, we gain knowledge by seeing our limitations in thinking. With this knowledge we may even become wise enough to know we do not know.
If McRaney has a tutelary spirit I would propose it is Daniel Kahneman. McRaney cites many studies that Kahneman has conducted over decades as proof for the way we are much dumber than we think.
Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow is another great book on the topic of thinking, but it is a bit more formal and filled with much more analysis of data and explanations of studies. Here is a snippet from this book:
So this is my aim for watercooler conversations: improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgments and choices often cause.
The tone, even as Kahneman attempts to provide ways of understanding the mind that echoes McRaney, is still more formal. McRaney’s simile of the barnacles lets us see the way priming structures our thinking in poetic terms that stick with us.
On the other hand, another book, Brain Bugs, which also takes up many similar topics, depends largely on a trope connecting the human brain with computers. T
From the title to ongoing comparisons and contrasts, author Dean Buonomano pries us, as it were, to see the brain as a form of computer. McRaney avoids this and gives his chapters alight touch. He has a sense of humor and the leitmotif of how we are not that smart does not sound like a castigation as much as a light tap on the shoulder to get us to pay attention to his words and the world we live in.
Unfortunately, I think that the educated elite would categorize Kahneman’s and Buonomano’s work as highbrow and McRaney’s as middlebrow. I think the way we put books and writers into these kinds of categories is not very useful. I have written about how one of the greatest living philosophers, Daniel Dennett, uses an accessible style and approach in latest book Intuition Pumps. Dennett addresses many of the issues McRaney does, but he applies them more specifically to philosophy. Still, his belief is that no matter how abstruse the topic, any expert should be able to explain what it is he or she knows to a room full of bright undergraduates and I agree.
I don’t think restricting knowledge to the two hundred or so people who typically read academic journals or books should count as they best way to promote knowledge and wisdom. I applaud McRaney for making much of what sits on shelves unread accessible to anyone with curiosity and a mind ready to be questioned, opened and perhaps changed as a result.
Even so, McRaney knows that the journey to obtaining wisdom is not easy:
THE MISCONCEPTION: You evaluate yourself based on past successes and defeats.
THE TRUTH: You excuse your failures and see yourself as more successful, more intelligent, and more skilled than you are.
This sort of thinking also spreads to the way you compare yourself to others. The last thirty years’ worth of research shows just about all of us think we are more competent than our coworkers, more ethical than our friends, friendlier than the general public, more intelligent than our peers, more attractive than the average person, less prejudiced than people in our region, younger-looking than people the same age, better drivers than most people we know, better children than our siblings, and that we will live longer than the average lifespan. (As you just read that list, maybe you said to yourself, “No, I don’t think I’m better than everyone.” So you think you’re more honest with yourself than the average person? You are not so smart.) McRaney, David (2011-10-27). You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself (Kindle Locations 2046-2051). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
I am certainly guilty of thinking I am above average in many respects and this chapter helped me put things in a little better perspective. One of the things that I like about the book is that although I may have to reassess my perceptions about my perceptions McRaney doesn’t make this sound as if it will lead to the slough of despond. There are one book that, after reading it, I felt depressed enough about my ability to understand myself and the world that it took some time to recover (some might say the word recovery is a Band-Aid for covering up the wound in my made up self).
The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, by Robert Trivers, is a devastatingly frank account of how we mislead ourselves in order to whistle our way to and from work and life without ever really knowing how much of what we whistle is a happy fiction of pennies from heaven. I am not saying this is not a great book; it is, but the tone is more along the lines of a Neitzschean hermeneutics of unmasking without the beautiful poetic fireworks that Friedrich could unleash.
There is also another boo that does much to address the lies we tell ourselves, Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves. This book is much breezier than Triver’s apocalyptic riff, but it too tends to focus more on the case studies that prove our misapprehensions than the brief and useful overviews that McRaney gives to many more topics. (I should also add that Mr. Trivers in an email to me, said that Ariely took much of what is in the book from him. Whether this is completely accurate or not, it goes in keeping with the volatile nature Trivers. Trivers courts being the bad boy and the outsider. Recently he was castigated for telling his students he was not qualified to teach a class he had been assigned to teach at his university. It seems ironic that Trivers—awarded one of the top prizes in the world in his field-- was willing to say he did not know something well and that this got him in hot water. Apparently, admitting ignorance is not something a professor should do even if it is the subject of his book and McRaney’s too.) http://www.nj.com/education/2014/02/rutgers_suspends_top_anthropology_professor_for_allegedly_refusing_to_teach_report_says.html
This last bit of academic gossip brings me to what the one possible critique I have about McRaney’s book. His last chapter addresses:
The Fundamental Attribution Error
THE MISCONCEPTION: Other people’s behavior is the reflection of their personality.
THE TRUTH: Other people’s behavior is more the result of the situation than their disposition.
When you see a behavior, like a child screaming in a supermarket while the seemingly oblivious parents continue to shop, you take a mental shortcut and conclude something about the story of their lives. Even though you know you don’t have enough information to understand, your conclusion still feels satisfying. Your attribution, the cause you believe to have preceded the effect, could be right on the money. Often, though, you are not so smart.
While McRaney is certainly correct to point out that we often make judgments with far too little data, I would contend that this is always the case. No amount of data will cover all the contingencies that go into even a simple scene or decision. In the above scenario we may not now that the parents just were told they were bankrupt or that someone in the family died etc., it still represents a scene in which it is virtually impossible not to form a negative judgment. As a thought experiment I would replace the oblivious parents with screaming parents. In other words what if the parents returned screams to the child? Would this be enough information for an observer to make a negative judgment that would be ethically useful? Or, to push it one step further, what if one of the parents struck the child? Would this be enough to demand some form of intervention? What if the parents could site religious beliefs or family traditions or something that, in their eyes would justify yelling or even hitting?
McRaney does not press for what I would call a pragmatic evaluation of what must always be a limited and biased set of data and assumptions. He shows us how we often misjudge the world and ourselves but he does not then often say at what point we must press ahead and make decisions, painfully limited as they might be, anyway.
Others have approached the same issues differently
It is extremely important to think carefully about why it is you believe what you do because what you believe often affects how you behave toward others. Your behavior is bound to affect others, and their behavior is going to affect you. To be a really good pain in the ass requires that you use the tools in this book to think about your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs and why you act—or don't act— on them. This process will help you understand why others might hold opposing views. When you have the right tools, you will know for yourself why your beliefs are what they are and can demonstrate to others any shortcomings in their beliefs. But be careful what you wish for, and be aware that many people do not like having their views and beliefs questioned Dicarlo, Christopher How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Asking the Right Questions
McRaney’s world inside the cover of his book is relatively tame. He does not advocate for becoming a pain in the ass or for climbing the heights to become a Neitzschean ubermensch. And perhaps this is how it should be. He wants readers to apply the knowledge he imparts to become wise about themselves. And this in and of itself is a huge help.
I would encourage anyone who has bright students, in secondary school or college, to give this book as something to read before the school year starts. Instilling the set of tools for critical thinking may well help the students to approach learning is ways they might not have before. It might also help to instill a bit of humility too. Instead of coming away thinking they know more than others about thinking they may well come away thinking they know enough to know they know less about the certainties we carry around in our heads as talismans to ward away the complexities and contradictions that are part of our mental make up. Maybe, in other words, they are ready to join up with Socrates.
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."
on June 10, 2015
Cut to the Chase:
This book is probably fine for readers who have very little background in human psychology, but if you’ve ever read anything else on the topic, it’s likely to be repeated here. The chapters, though numerous, are extremely short and give a very superficial treatment to common cognitive errors and logical fallacies. If this is your first encounter with the subject material, you will likely find this to be an entertaining and interesting overview. If, on the other hand, you already know anything at all about these topics, you will find this book to be a frustrating repetition of snippets you have seen or heard elsewhere. There’s nothing new here, but McRaney has an engaging style and a great knack for humor, so this has the potential to be a great read for the right audience… that just wasn’t me.
This book covers the common errors in thinking in a series of short chapters. Topics include biases (confirmation bias, hindsight bias), logical fallacies (argument from authority, straw man fallacy), quirks of human psychology (Dunbar’s number, responses to the ultimatum game), behavior patterns (social loafing, learned helplessness) and more. Each is covered with a few pages, so if you know what these things are, you’re not likely to learn much about them (if you know one example of, say, the anchoring effect, odds are it’s the one included here). If you don’t, this is a great overview with lots of entertaining anecdotes and almost no scientific jargon. This book is all about breadth over depth, and it does breadth pretty well. An example is the Texas sharpshooter fallacy: a man shoots at a barn for 10 minutes, then walks over to the barn and paints a target over the area with the most holes, making it look like he’s a good shot. This illustrates the human tendency to see patterns in random events; “randomly distributed” is not the same as, and is in fact not compatible with, “evenly distributed.”
Almost every chapter ends with something like, “If you think x, y, z, then you are not so smart.” Yes, I get it, it’s the title of the book, but by chapter 48 this gets quite wearisome. If I wanted to be insulted every couple of pages, I’d read something political. This is a minor gripe, though.
Personally, I got a bit bored reading this and had to force myself through to the end, thus the less-than-stellar rating. I worry, though, that I’m being unfair; I’ve read LOTS of books on these topics, and I think this one was hurt by being read last. I don’t think it’s actually worse than others I’ve read, and I suspect it wouldn’t feel repetitive to a reader who is new to the topic. The writing style is engaging and accessible, the wit is dry, and the examples and anecdotes are engaging and entertaining.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
This is a bit like a CliffsNotes version of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which is the depth-over-breadth version. If you’ve already read that, then skip this one, whether you liked Ariely’s book or not. If you read this and want to learn more, though, then you might give Predictably Irrational and its followup, The Upside of Irrationality, a try.