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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Hiccups aside, a mostly valuable compendium of irrational thinking, with a handful of blanket corrective maneuvers.


A waggish, cautionary compilation of pitfalls associated with systematic cognitive errors, from novelist Dobelli.

To be human is to err, routinely and with bias. We exercise deviation from logic, writes the author, as much as, and possibly more than, we display optimal reasoning. In an effort to bring awareness to this sorry state of affairs, he has gathered here—in three-page, anecdotally saturated squibs—nearly 100 examples of muddied thinking. Many will ring familiar to readers (Dobelli’s illustrations are not startlingly original, but observant)—e.g., herd instinct and groupthink, hindsight, overconfidence, the lack of an intuitive grasp of probability or statistical reality. Others, if not new, are smartly encapsulated: social loafing, the hourly rate trap, decision fatigue, carrying on with a lost cause (the sunk-cost fallacy). Most of his points stick home: the deformation of professional thinking, of which Mark Twain said, “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails”; multitasking is the illusion of attention with potentially dire results if you are eating a sloppy sandwich while driving on a busy street. In his quest for clarity, Dobelli mostly brings shrewdness, skepticism and wariness to bear, but he can also be opaque—e.g., shaping the details of history “into a consistent story...we speak about ‘understanding,’ but these things cannot be understood in the traditional sense. We simply build the meaning into them afterward.” Well, yes. And if we are to be wary of stories, what are we to make of his many telling anecdotes when he counsels, “Anecdotes are a particularly tricky sort of cherry picking....To rebuff an anecdote is difficult because it is a mini-story, and we know how vulnerable our brains are to those”?

Hiccups aside, a mostly valuable compendium of irrational thinking, with a handful of blanket corrective maneuvers.

Pub Date: May 14, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-221968-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

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A riveting look inside the human brain and its quirks.


Acclaimed British neurologist Sacks (Neurology and Psychiatry/Columbia Univ.; The Mind’s Eye, 2010, etc.) delves into the many different sorts of hallucinations that can be generated by the human mind.

The author assembles a wide range of case studies in hallucinations—seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving things that aren’t there—and the varying brain quirks and disorders that cause them in patients who are otherwise mentally healthy. In each case, he presents a fascinating condition and then expounds on the neurological causes at work, drawing from his own work as a neurologist, as well as other case studies, letters from patients and even historical records and literature. For example, he tells the story of an elderly blind woman who “saw” strange people and animals in her room, caused by Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a condition in with the parts of the brain responsible for vision draw on memories instead of visual perceptions. In another chapter, Sacks recalls his own experimentation with drugs, describing his auditory hallucinations. He believed he heard his neighbors drop by for breakfast, and he cooked for them, “put their ham and eggs on a tray, walked into the living room—and found it completely empty.” He also tells of hallucinations in people who have undergone prolonged sensory deprivation and in those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, migraines, epilepsy and narcolepsy, among other conditions. Although this collection of disorders feels somewhat formulaic, it’s a formula that has served Sacks well in several previous books (especially his 1985 bestseller The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), and it’s still effective—largely because Sacks never turns exploitative, instead sketching out each illness with compassion and thoughtful prose.

A riveting look inside the human brain and its quirks.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-95724-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

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