Book Review: You Are Not So Smart

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 is a blog turned book that aims to explore many of the common biases and errors in decision-making that have made the field of behavioral economics so active in the last few decades. Author David McRaney confesses to not being a psychologist (hey, it happens) but he does a pretty darn good impersonation of throughout the book’s 48 chapters, each of which is dedicated to one reason why you may not be so smart about day-to-day decision-making as you think.

In general, McRaney does a good job of making each one of these 48 topics accessible. He doesn’t talk over a general audience’s head, yet he usually manages to work in descriptions of the research and scientific evidence that each chapter’s topic is predicated on. And it helps that by and large each topic is something that most readers can relate to –remembering childhood events, procrastinating, deciding what brands to buy, affirming your political beliefs, responding to authority figures, arguing with idiots on the Internet, and the like. The book’s schtick is that through its revelation of common errors and biases related to these topics it constantly posits that you aren’t as smart or rational as you might think, because you are no exception to the effects described. Each chapter tries to hook you with declarations of a common misconception and a related truth. It’s the kind of “See, science and psychology matter to YOU and your everyday life” stuff that I love reading about. You should find something interesting in every chapter.

The other thing that makes the book approachable is that McRaney isn’t afraid to use informal language and specific cultural references. The book is replete with references to Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and other touchstones. It also contains occasional phrases like “this is bullshit” and “what the hell?” and other casual language that makes it feel like you’re listening to someone go on about this stuff over a beer or a shared commute. It’s a friendly and refreshing tone for which I’d like to thank not only the author for offering, but also his editor for allowing.

The book’s roots as a blog also show through in that most of the chapters are very short –some are in fact as brief as a healthy blog post, it may not surprise you to find out. On the one hand, this can be nice because you can nibble your way through the book, working through one or two of the chapters at a time if you’re not up to taking huge bites. It also makes the book easier to use as a reference later if you want to return to one of the errors or biases.

On the other hand, though, I think the book often misses the opportunity to tell stories that give some more context and meat to the phenomena it describes. Other books in this same vein that I’ve read have walked the reader through narratives about either how the researchers developed their ideas and experiments, or told stories about real-life applications of the biases and mental hiccups they describe. In his book How We Decide, for example, Jonah Lehrer frames a discussion about dopamine predictions by describing how a Lieutenant Commander in the British Navy reacted to odd readings from his radar display and barely saved many lives in the process. There’s none of this gripping storytelling in You Are Not So Smart, nor does McRaney do anything along the lines of tying several related topics into one larger concept, like maybe how our instincts to preserve our self image worm their way into an astonishing array of daily decisions. This book is clearly a collection of blog entries based on a bullet list of topics. And while that has its appeal, if McRaney does a follow-up work I’d probably enjoy it more if he really took his time to research some interesting background material and weave a bigger picture out of all the individual strands.