Gotham Books, 302 pgs. 2012
Let's face it: You aren't that smart.
It's a bold assertion -- maybe even an insult -- that isn't likely to endear you toward reading the rest of this article, or the book of similar name. Yet journalist David McRaney's You Are Not So Smart, is meant to challenge even the most basic assumptions about our personal beliefs and self-concepts to help shed light on the irrational stories we tell ourselves, our common self-delusions and, most importantly, why we act as if we know better.
The book, based off of a popular blog of the same name, helps orient us towards the blind spots and the hidden assumptions of our day-to-day lives, while using humor to explain our sometimes puzzling behaviors.
In 48 brief and insightful chapters, McRaney acknowledges the common ways in which we compromise our intelligence every day without ever making the reader feel stupid.
McRaney's chapter on procrastination uses an example of a Netflix queue to illuminate the aspirational qualities its users tend to display. A 1999 study found that most users' film queues listed films like Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler's List, or The Artist, which they felt were important films that they must see -- and will definitely watch one day. Yet, most users' behavior indicates they were more likely to view a relatively lowbrow film like Money Train or an episode of The Simpsons in that present moment instead choosing of a more powerful drama.
This is an example of present bias, which McRaney says is "being unable to grasp that what you want will change over time, and what you want now isn't the same thing you will want later."
In the chapter entitled "Third Person Effect," McRaney details how people think they are independent thinkers, uninfluenced by the media, advertisements and political rhetoric they are inundated with. This happens despite our cynicism when we think we are intelligent enough to see through the tactics that these persuaders use by believing we are "inoculated against" their controlling of the message.
This book plainly states that we all think that we have this filter.
"You don't want to believe that you can be persuaded, and one way of maintaining this belief is to assume the persuasion flying through the air must be landing on other targets," says McRaney. He continues, "The third person effect is a version of [a] self-serving bias. You excuse your failures and see yourself as more successful, more intelligent and more skilled than you are."
Another chapter explores confirmation bias. In 2008, the people who supported the Obama campaign were the same people buying books about the future president.
"People weren't buying books for the information, they were buying them for the confirmation," says McRaney.
"You want to be right about how you see the world, [and] seek out information that confirms your beliefs and avoid[s] contradictory evidence and opinions."
Going by this logic, it is hard to say what this confirmation bias says about people buying You Are Not So Smart. Does it confirm that buyers realize they have blind spots and they need the appropriate information to help out, or does it confirm that they truly believe they just aren't all that smart? The former might sound more comforting than the latter, but fans of McRaney's blog know that many of our conscious beliefs are suspect.
One nice benefit of the book's compact size and layout is that it makes it easy to pick up and start reading any chapter, which makes it perfect for short subway rides, waiting room sittings or any other downtime one might happen to have.
Yet there is more than a fair bit of research filched from other modern business and pop psychology books from which McRaney borrows. The Kitty Genovese story and mention of Dunbar's Number recall Gladwell's The Tipping Point; neuroscience author Jonah Lehrer's marshmallow experiment from How We Decide is included, and experiments first conducted by behavioral economist Dan Ariely are recycled. The perfunctory mentioning of Stanley Milgram's obedience to authority experiment also seems hackneyed with its ubiquity in popular culture science, and undermines the text's originality.
If McRaney's plan is to be a contemporary of these individuals by promoting them in his book, it falls short. For anyone who has read any of the books titles above before purchasing a copy of You Are Not So Smart it seems as if he is late to the game. Strangely enough, it even seems to be a reflection of the intellectual laziness that McRaney is so insistent of calling out in each chapter.
Even if his chapter on the ad hominem fallacy precludes one from calling him a mere "copy-cat," the quantity of the interesting content outweighs the mundane.
Surprisingly, the book contains more actual substance than a lot of popular business titles where the meat-to-fluff ratio is relatively low.
The pop psychology book genre has increasingly become successful in putting the same type of stories forth because these vignettes are almost always still interesting the second or third time you read them, however tiresome they may be to read again.
But therein lies the book's success: No matter how many times you read about something seemingly revelatory and new, like hindsight bias, the fact is you will most likely forget about it -- until of course, this information is brought to your present attention once more -- proving once again you can't be that smart if you thought you knew it all along.