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 (David McRaney)

3.5 out of 5 stars

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.

Greater Detail:
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.

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