Kirkus Star


Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes
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“Why do smart people act stupidly?”

In this welcome debut, British science writer Robson (New Scientist, BBC Future) examines the “flawed mental habits” of people with “greater intelligence, education, and professional expertise”—and how they can learn to “think more wisely.” Poor thinking emerges in unexpected places: Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of mastermind Sherlock Holmes, “fell for two teenagers’ scams.” Nobel laureates offer “dubious” ideas on public issues. NASA and FBI experts make disastrous mistakes. College graduates with high SAT scores often become “good technicians with no common sense,” according to a Cornell psychologist. “Not only do general intelligence and academic education fail to protect us from various cognitive errors; smart people may be even more vulnerable to certain kinds of foolish thinking,” writes Robson. They often fail to learn from their mistakes or seek advice and develop “bias blind spots.” Many fall into “the intelligence trap,” a term first used by psychologist Edward de Bono. Others have covered this ground, notably Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). Drawing on their work as well as interviews with other scientists, Robson offers an unusually readable, wide-ranging survey of today’s best thinking on thinking, including an intriguing overview of the emerging science of “evidence-based wisdom,” which is generating practical strategies to improve decision-making in high-stakes situations. The author offers solid tips based on experiments by neuroscientists at the University of Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom and elsewhere, showing ways to reduce belief in pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and fake news. He notes that one useful method to accelerate this process is mindfulness meditation, which “trains people to listen to their body’s sensations and then reflect on them in a nonjudgmental way.” The idea is to foster intellectual humility, open-mindedness, and emotion regulation, all of which help us “take control of the mind’s powerful thinking engine, circumventing the pitfalls that typically afflict intelligent and educated people.”

An engrossing standout in the thinking genre that will appeal to anyone who has ever been wrongheaded.

Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-65142-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2019