A well-reasoned argument for a more nuanced view of character, and a solid addition to the ever-growing behavioral-economics...



Psychologists DeSteno (Psychology/Northeastern Univ.) and Valdesolo (Psychology/Amherst Coll.) offer a new twist to the dispute between absolute and relative moral values.

The authors use the metaphor of the ant and the grasshopper—taken from an Aesop fable—to describe two contradictory aspects of human behavior which are triggered by different neurological systems in the brain. “The ant is always looking to the future,” they write. “The grasshopper, on the other hand, sees no point in worrying about the future until it gets here, so it spends its time singing, playing, and enjoying itself.” The ant represents our ability to exercise self-control, to reason and plan ahead; the grasshopper represents the urge for immediate gratification and our dependence on intuitive, gut reactions. Counterintuitively, the authors suggest that the peccadilloes of public figures such as Eliot Spitzer and Larry Craig might exemplify cognitive flexibility rather than hypocrisy and contempt for the moral values they publicly espoused—a mental shift to suit other imperatives. The more primitive grasshopper system that governs our instinctive behavior harkens back to our evolutionary past, when survival depended upon a quick reaction to danger. DeSteno and Valdesolo review cutting-edge research using fMRI, neuroimaging that shows how different brain systems can be activated when we face moral dilemmas. In one experiment, subjects were asked how they would respond to a hypothetical situation in which an out-of-control trolley was about to run over five people. Would they stop the trolley by pushing a large man onto the tracks? Others were given the option of flipping a switch to shift the trolley to another track, where only one person would be hurt. The fMRI image showed that different areas of the brain were activated: In the first case, a gut reaction against killing had to be overcome; in the second, the brain treated it as a logical decision.

A well-reasoned argument for a more nuanced view of character, and a solid addition to the ever-growing behavioral-economics shelf.

Pub Date: May 3, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-71775-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Crown Archetype

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2011

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...


A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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