McRaney’s last book (also his first), You Are Not So Smart, was an accessible everyman’s guide to a wide-ranging assortment of neurological quirks and biases, from humans’ tendency to skew results to fit expectations to our inclination to think our own beliefs are logical and sound while those we disagree with are lazily researched and obviously wrong. Its 48 short chapters, and McRaney’s entertaining voice made Smart a perfect Christmas present or coffee table book. Just about anybody could pick it up and amuse themselves for a few minutes, with more satisfying results than the average novelty book.
You Are Now Less Dumb carves out a different identity for itself. Instead of dozens of short chapters, it’s comprised of 17 much longer ones, each of which delves more deeply into a specific bias and the way it interacts with the web of other biases that form the human thinking process. Along the way, McRaney speculates about how these biases might have once been evolutionarily beneficial, how they can be detrimental in modern society, and, most interestingly to me, how you can hijack these biases to make yourself happier, smarter, and generally better.
This book doesn’t have as wide an audience as McRaney’s first, but if you were intrigued by Smart and found yourself wanting more, you should read Dumb.
McRaney hangs most of his ideas on a deceptively simple hook. Our human brains love three things: stories, patterns, and our self. Our brains don’t care so much about stuff like the truth. We humans love explanations, and prefer to believe bad, wrong explanations over the messier, more likely causal agent: random chance.
If that story follows a pattern that we can see or have seen, so much the better. And if the patterned story happens to make us look good in the process, well, we’re going to have a hard time not believing it. These three basic desires wrap around each other in every step of our thinking process.
Take what McRaney calls the Benjamin Franklin effect for example. Franklin, as a young Philadelphia politician, wanted to turn an enemy to his side without sucking up to him. So, he asked to borrow a rare book. The enemy lent him the book, and the next time they met, the enemy treated him as a friend.
McRaney explains this effect with something called self-perception theory, which is basically the idea that we form our idea of ourself by observing our own actions, and we act based on that idea of ourself. In other words, we are constantly telling ourself a story about who we are, and when we act contradictory to that story, we change the story, because our brain wants us to never be wrong, and never be unpredictable, and never be random.
So, when Franklin’s enemy lent him the book, his brain confused the causality of the action, and mixed up which part caused which. It knew that he only did favors for friends, but here he was doing a favor for Franklin. Ergo, Franklin must be a friend.
This is the same way that “smile therapy” works, as we discussed on our latest podcast. Once we know about this habit of constructing a narrative about ourself, we can hack it. We can force ourselves to smile, and by doing so (despite how grim it sounds) we can actually make ourselves happier, because our brains see us smiling and assume we must be happy. We can actually change our neurochemistry through seemingly secondary response characteristics.
If you’re still reading this, you’d probably love this book.