American journalist and psychology expert David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart
(2011) looks at more than fifty cognitive heuristics and logical fallacies that give people a false confidence in the process of decision-making, most of them simple and easy to spot. McRaney presses back against the common view that humans are essentially rational and logical, demonstrating, using a wealth of research and personal experience, that we are quite fallible. The book draws from an eponymous blog run by McRaney, which illuminates different ways human decision-making can go wrong, both subtly and catastrophically.
McRaney begins by stating that all humans are wired with patterns and beliefs that cause them to make logical shortcuts in decision-making. These patterns and beliefs, though they often obscure the truth and thwart our rational faculties, actually served (and in some cases, continue to serve) evolutionary purposes, stemming from our need to make a large number of quick, mostly-right decisions to survive. This drive is instilled in every person, whether a scientist, mathematician, or artist. This fact, McRaney argues, should give us a sense of comfort rather than threaten us, since it humbles even the greatest thinkers and leaders, and perpetually opens up room for self-improvement as we take on tasks that are more complex in everyday life.
McRaney proceeds to distill a number of everyday logical fallacies into short narratives that capture their ubiquity and the outcomes they cause. He begins with one of our most pervasive fallacies, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our proclivity to actively, even if unconsciously, prefer and look for information that matches our state of knowledge about the world. Confirmation bias is useful in that it allows the brain to root out clearly erroneous information most of the time using our wealth of past experience; however, it often prevents the human brain from challenging its adamant notion that the world must behave a certain way. McRaney connects the confirmation bias to its effects in cutting-edge algorithmic design. Today, the Internet shows us content that is optimized based on our personal past search histories. In this way, it is essentially a confirmation bias machine that gradually cloisters us in a self-justifying, but distorted and flawed, world of information. This phenomenon has far-reaching effects when people begin internalizing falsehood on a massive scale (most visible in the recent scourge of “fake news”).
McRaney moves through other mental heuristics, often connecting them to the Internet, our mobile devices, and our everyday socialization. He critiques the logic of social media, which rewards the collection of friends, followers, and likes. Studies show that the human brain is only wired for, at most, around 150 friends. The average social media user struggles to maintain relationships with many more than 150 people. Certain psychological results emerge from this losing battle, including anxiety, detachment, and feelings of alienation – much of them because our social attention is simply spread too thin.
McRaney’s thesis pivots on a critique of a handful of core notions. One is the erroneous belief that we have control over our actions and thought patterns. In reality, humans, just as other biological creatures, construct reality from a constant barrage of information that flows and is sorted through their system logical biases. Our biases are therefore inextricable from our reality. The task of life is thus to embrace and understand them, rather than to “overcome” them.
McRaney’s most optimistic argument, elucidated at the end of the book, is that we can become more rational beings simply by slowing down how we think, thereby allowing information to be processed more optimally. If we exist constantly in a primitive, anxious, flight-or-flight response, we are more likely to land in a distorted perceptual world. As an example, he points to the fact that we often form general arguments without first examining the necessary body of supporting facts – not because we don’t believe they exist, but because we don’t feel we have the time or resources to make them explicit rather than implicit.You Are Not So Smart
is a realistic psychological survey of our error-prone, but still elegant, mental faculties, and an endorsement of rational pragmatism. Combining his journalism experience with a multitude of rigorous studies, he poses a number of different ways in which we can frame the decisions we make throughout our lives, in the hopes of ultimately improving them.