A stimulating treatise on how lofty ideals can grow from primitive, unreliable urges.

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A debut psychological study that asserts that our instinctual aversion to disgusting biological phenomena also shapes our ideas about legal and political issues—with dysfunctional consequences.

Lieberman (Psychology/Univ. of Miami) and Patrick (Law/Univ. of Central Florida) link together the universal human revulsion at things such as rotting food and diseased flesh with our sense of moral conviction, particularly regarding different types of sexual behavior. They trace this notion back to a genetically programmed disgust reflex that makes humans avoid things that harbor disease-causing microbes, such as bad-smelling, bad-tasting, maggoty food or animals with blotchy skin or open sores. They argue that people also adapt these emotions to judge prospective mating partners: One feels an aversion to sex with those who look unhealthy or too old or young to be fertile or with family members, because mating with close relatives confers a high risk of genetic abnormalities. The Darwinian survival mechanism of disgust, they contend, also lends itself to social bonding: When one paints marginalized individuals or groups as disgusting, it’s easier to convince others to help expel or exploit them. This plays out in politics, when officials apply metaphors that elicit disgust to racial minorities or gay people, and in criminal cases, when prosecutors label defendants with terms such as “scum” or “filth” or display gruesome crime scene photos. The authors make a cogent plea to eliminate such visceral feelings from law and policy in favor of more rational, tolerant principles: “If we are going to claim a moral high ground,” they write, “it will not be built atop disgust.” They illustrate this by examining the inconsistent rationales for banning various taboo sexual practices. Lieberman and Patrick draw on a wealth of research to make their case; for example, they note that putting test subjects in a room that has an unpleasant odor causes them to make harsher moral judgments. They also convey it all in lucid, readable prose. The result is an occasionally gross but always engrossing account of how the mind cobbles together seemingly self-evident attitudes out of repurposed, subconscious mental processes.

A stimulating treatise on how lofty ideals can grow from primitive, unreliable urges.

Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-19-049129-1

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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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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