You are not so smart

I made a new years resolution this year to read more books. It’s pretty likely you did too, if you’re the resolution type. I’m aiming to average a book every two weeks. According to Goodreads I’m actually a little ahead of schedule, having completed seven books in the last nine weeks or so.

One of the better books I read recently is You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. It’s about why you’re very likely wrong—or at least inconsistent—in a lot of what you think and do.

For example, if I offered to give you £50 now or £60 in a week then, besides being suspicious of my motives, you’d be pretty likely to take the £50 now. But If I offered to give you £50 in four weeks or £60 in five weeks, you’d most likely hold out the extra week for the £60. The two scenarios are logically equivalent, but our brains are configured to strongly prefer things that benefit us right now, even over things that will benefit us more in the future.

Or how about this? If you’re holding a hot cup of coffee when you first meet a person, you’re more likely to form a first impression of them as a “warm” person than if you are holding an ice coffee. Thousands of irrelevant contextual factors play into our impressions of other people, and we literally think in metaphors.

This trailer explains pretty accurately why I waited until late at night to write this blog post despite having had the entire late afternoon and evening to do it:

Chapter by chapter the book bounces through a whole host of ways in which our brains play tricks on us, confuse us, and ultimately fail us. Sometimes there are good reasons. For example our over-eagerness for seeing patterns would have been helpful for spotting predators on the savannah; and failing to see a pattern that is there—say the face of a tiger in the bushes—is potentially a lot worse than mistakenly seeing something that doesn’t really exist.

On the other hand, often our minds’ failings are just due to not being all that well put together.

Frustratingly, among everything else, there’s even a pretty good case made that I won’t succeed in my resolution to read more books.

You Are Not So Smart is based on the website of the same name which McRaney started in October 2009. He describes the website’s purpose thus:

The central theme here is that you are unaware of how unaware you are. There is branch of psychology and an old and growing body of research with findings that suggest you have little idea why you act or think the way you do. Despite this, you create narratives to explain your own feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and these narratives become the story of your life.

The book is well worth a read. Just be aware that if you put it on any kind of “to read” list with the intention of getting to it later then there’s a pretty good chance you’ll never get around to it. Because you are not so smart.