Freelance journalist David McRaney’s first book is part psychology survey, part self-help guide, and part humor column. McRaney contends that we are all driven by a need to feel awesome and perfect. That’s an evolutionary advantage, because it means that those of us who aren’t very awesome (almost all of us) won’t commit suicide, and the human race can continue. But it also means that we civilians know next to nothing about the real reasons we like and do the things we like and do. Instead, we make up rationales and convince ourselves that our fables are truth.
Each of McRaney’s 48 chapters deals with a different way in which we deceive ourselves—”Self-Fulfilling Prophecies,” “The Bystander Effect,” “Confimartion Bias.” McRaney collects and synthesizes the results from a myriad of psychology studies, and interprets the ramifications with a healthy dose of sarcasm and humor. Here’s the one-paragraph summary:
You are a story you tell yourself. You engage in introspection, and with great confidence you see the history of your life with all the characters and settings—and you at the center as protagonist in the tale of who you are. This is all a great, beautiful confabulation without which you could not function.
The ways this confabulation plays out are often strikingly dramatic.
In one chapter, McRaney digs into the world of wine. As you might expect, “priming” plays a big role in wine connoisseurship—i.e., you taste what you’re expecting to taste. If you pay $100, you’re primed to think it tastes better than an $8 bottle, even if there’s objectively little difference. That makes sense.
But the extent to which that priming determines the experience of drinking wine is shocking. McRaney details a study in which 54 undergraduate wine students (“wine” is evidently a real major) were completely fooled by false priming. The experimenter “had them taste one glass of red wine and one glass of white wine. He had them describe each wine in as much detail as their expertise would allow. What he didn’t tell them was both were the same wine. He just dyed the white one red.” The result? Not a single wine student could tell that the red wine was actually white.
When a different experimenter scanned experts’ brains as they drank, a wine that they were told was expensive lit up entirely different parts of the brain from a wine they were told was cheap, when in fact both were equally cheap. Priming has such a big effect on us that it can actually alter our brain activity. (You can read that entire chapter here.)
As surprising as that is, my favorite parts of Smart involved those biases and effects that I could recognize in the real world. Remember when Michele Bachmann torpedoed her presidential campaign when she claimed that she’d met a woman whose daughter “suffered from mental retardation” after taking the HPV vaccine? That was an attempt to exploit the availability heuristic. In McRaney’s words, “You are far more likely to believe something is commonplace if you can find just one example of it, and you are far less likely to believe in something you’ve never seen or heard of before.
Or perhaps you read the story about the Lululemon murder, in which two Apple Store employees listened to a woman at the store next door being stabbed to death for twenty minutes as she screamed and called for help. They did nothing. That’s the bystander effect: “The more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person will help.” In that gruesome case, they only needed two people to form a feedback loop: each looked to the other to see if they should be worried, each saw the other wasn’t worried, and each projected calmness to the other.
On a more personal level, I recognized my own behavior in at least half of these self-deceptions. For example, the illusion of transparency, in which you feel like people can read your thoughts. When speaking in front of a crowd, McRaney writes, you allow your nervousness to compound itself because you think you appear just as anxious as you feel. I’ve been there, many times.
In that chapter and many others, McRaney offers tidbits of advice on how to combat, or even exploit your fallacious instincts. For this one, he says:
When you stand in front of an audience or get interviewed on camera, there might be a thunderstorm of anxiety in your brain, but it can’t get out; you look far more composed than you believe. Smile. When your mother-in-law cooks a meal better fit for a dog bowl, she cant hear your brain stem begging you to spit it out.
In sum, Smart is a winning combination of fascinating surveys, humor, advice, and sharp writing. It might not be heady enough for a PhD, but if you’re a psychology novice, it’s a great read.