I'm a clinical psychologist interested in neuroscience, so much of this material was already familiar to me. Most of the ideas can be found scattered through other books like The Winner's Curse, The Happiness Hypothesis, Predictably Irrational, and others. I've read and admired all of those. I would gladly throw them all away if I could keep You are Not So Smart.
The author understands the science and the facts, and conveys them quite clearly. I didn't find a single error. He writes wonderfully. Crisp, clear, funny, casual, but not too casual. When I read it, I feel I'm chatting with a brilliant buddy. As I understand it, the author is not a professor or scientist. He's certainly smart enough to be one.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, research psychologists generally believed that humans are more or less rational, most of the time. They believed that irrational thinking was caused primarily by disruptive emotions like anger or fear. We now know this is just plain wrong. During the last twenty years or so, research evidence against this view accumulated. Daniel Kahneman became the first psychologist to earn a Nobel Prize for describing the new understanding.
Meanwhile, evolutionary psychology provided a new template for understanding the human mind. It evolved. We often see faces in clouds, but never see clouds in faces. We sometimes mistake a coiled garden hose or rope for a snake, but rarely mistake a snake for a garden hose. These tendencies, and many others like it, reflect our evolutionary history. The reproductive cost of jumping away from a coiled garden hose is very small. The reproductive cost of failing to recognize a dangerous snake is very high.
You do not think rationally, nor does anyone else. This is useful information, particularly if you have some understanding of how and why you -- and others -- think irrationally, and under what circumstances. It may seem too good to be true, but this book actually explains it to you, and does so entertainingly.
Even today, most economists believe that humans make rational economic choices. This is clearly false. Daniel Kahneman (and his collaborator, Amos Tversky) won their Nobel Prize, not in psychology -- there's no Nobel Prize category for that, but in economics. You ever wonder how we got stuck in this awful Great Recession, despite the brilliant insights of modern economists? It's because they are all wrong. This book will help you understand that better, while making you smile, laugh and nod your head with "Aha!" insights along the way.
Many psychotherapists believe, even today, that Sigmund Freud and his intellectual descendants correctly described "the unconscious." They believe that our childhood experiences, particularly psychosexual experiences, form the emotional and behavioral templates for the rest of our lives. We now know that most mental life is indeed unconscious. However, the templates of our mental lives were formed more by our common evolutionary history than our particular childhood experiences. That's why cognitive biases are human universals. If idiosyncratic childhood experience was the more important source of thinking templates, the cognitive biases described in You are Not So Smart would not be so robust and numerous.
You want to know yourself? Spending your life contemplating your potty training might help a little... or might not help at all. This book will help a whole lot more.
If you want to know yourself, start by studying your blind spots. Oops. Too bad. You can't find them with introspection because they are... blind spots! Good news, your blind spots are the same as other people's blind spots. They are human universals. So you can learn about them by studying all the recent scientific discoveries about human thinking, particularly all its irrational and unconscious features. The universal, irrational and unconscious landscape of human thinking is the topic of this book.
I previously described two well-known and rather obvious features -- faces in clouds versus clouds in faces and snakes versus garden hoses. This is very useful information.
Clouds vs faces: All humans have an "agency detection bias. We presume that things happen for reasons and that most things happen because an intelligent agent made them happen. Hence, ummm... Oh, I remember... Religion??!! Knowing this, next time a natural disaster occurs in a sinful city, you might be a little less inclined to attribute the event to an angry god. You might also recall that all cities are sinful.
Snakes vs. garden hoses: All humans have a hyper-sensitive immediate-danger-detector. The vast majority of alarms are false alarms. Not many citizens of industrialized nations die of snake bite, but many die or suffer from excessive worry and pointless fears. Understanding how false danger alarms work, you might be more able to live long and prosper.
Please excuse the irony. As I recall, the author does not actually discuss agency detection or danger detection bias. These are merely convenient examples of universally human cognitive biases that occurred to me was I was writing this review. They are easy to explain and intuitively obvious. You are Not So Smart discusses forty-eight others. He's chosen many of the really important and interesting phenomena. The list grows as research accumulates, and he probably didn't have room for all of them. Good news, he publishes periodic updates on his blog.
This book has a high speed to weight ratio. Every chapter describes a universal human cognitive bias, easily recognizable in your own experience. Chapters are just a few pages each. They do not need to be read in sequence. Though not simplistic, a smart eight grader could understand most of them; no scientific or psychological background is necessary. Yet these phenomena are not generally known, even by "smart" people. Thanks to this book, word will soon be getting around.