Book review: You Are Not so Smart

As part of the January Book of the Month Club thread on Broken Forum, I read You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. This is a collection based on McRaney’s website of the same name. Here’s my review, which can also be read in the thread linked above.

I finished the book in about three weeks after setting it aside for most of a week. It’s one of those books that is very put down-able while still not being a bad book at all.

The concept of the book as described on

You believe you are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is, but journalist David McRaney is here to tell you that you’re as deluded as the rest of us. But that’s OK- delusions keep us sane. You Are Not So Smart is a celebration of self-delusion. It’s like a psychology class, with all the boring parts taken out, and with no homework.

Based on the popular blog of the same name, You Are Not So Smart collects more than 46 of the lies we tell ourselves everyday, including:

  • Dunbar’s Number – Humans evolved to live in bands of roughly 150 individuals, the brain cannot handle more than that number. If you have more than 150 Facebook friends, they are surely not all real friends.
  • Hindsight bias – When we learn something new, we reassure ourselves that we knew it all along.
  • Confirmation bias – Our brains resist new ideas, instead paying attention only to findings that reinforce our preconceived notions.
  • Brand loyalty – We reach for the same brand not because we trust its quality but because we want to reassure ourselves that we made a smart choice the last time we bought it.Packed with interesting sidebars and quick guides on cognition and common fallacies, You Are Not So Smart is a fascinating synthesis of cutting-edge psychology research to turn our minds inside out.

On the plus side, the book is an easy read, the conversational tone works well to draw the reader in and McRaney has done his homework on the subject. While a lot of what he writes about seems self-evident when it’s laid out for you, I still found it valuable in the general sense of knowing that your brain can be a tricksy thing and better understanding how it tries to trick you can be helpful when it does so in a way that can have negative or unintended consequences.

The last chapter, which chronicles the horrifying mock prison experiment, ends the book on a somber note compared to the overall tone and left me with the feeling that a deeper take on the subject might have worked better. The book betrays it roots as a series of blog posts and McRaney really does nothing to expand the book beyond a series of vignettes with nothing to tie it all together. I would have enjoyed it more if McRaney had adopted a specific angle on why he had collected these examples of how ‘we are not so smart’. There are hints of it here and there where he offers advice (from himself or others) on how to work against your brain’s need to shortcut or fill-in but the larger picture of what all this means and what we can all do about it is left mostly untouched.

In short, an enjoyable and easily digested book but I’d have preferred a more substantial take on the matter.

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