Books: You Are Not So Smart

In the chapter on Dunbar's Number, McRaney posits (based on scientific evidence, natch) that people can only maintain true relationships with about 150 people at any given time in their lives—which explains perfectly why I have only 149 Facebook friends.

David McRaney
Gotham Books, 2011
320 pages

You Are Not So Smart is really a collection of essays about the way we trick ourselves psychologically into believing things that are not true. Everyone does it. No one is exempt. We are all delusional, and the more you argue you aren't, the more you probably are.

It's a defense mechanism. It's evolutionary throwback. It's your brain creating shortcuts so you don't have to expend unnecessary time and energy on less important things. Whatever the reason(s), here McRaney is serving up the truth and citing the experiments to prove it.

A lot of this book was already known and familiar to me because I took a fair amount of psychology in college, and because I continue to be interested enough to read regular articles on scientific findings. (And to read books like You Are Not So Smart, which is evidently based on a blog, though the site appears to go un-updated for long periods of time.) I already knew about how you falsify your own memories, and about the bystander effect, and confirmation bias. I'm even able to point out times when I've been subject to any of these. (After all, once a person has it in their heads that a certain television writer and producer hates women, s/he's going to find many signs and symptoms of his misogyny in his work, is s/he not? I'm winking at you, Steven Moffat.)

Still, knowing what I know doesn't reduce the pleasure in reading about it. Maybe that's another kind of confirmation bias; reading what I already know allows me to feel as smart as, or maybe even smarter than, the author. I don't know. It becomes a rabbit hole of introspection if you think about it too long or too hard.

The truth is, McRaney's book is engaging and well written. It explains each bias and fallacy in a clear way, with good examples. One might be tempted to navel gaze after the fact, however. So be careful when consuming all this information.

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