THE MYTH OF CHOICE

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY IN A WORLD OF LIMITS

Face it: Your decision about whether to read this book rests on factors too numerous to catalog and too unconscious to understand.

Or so might argue Boston Law School professor Greenfield (The Failure of Corporate Law, 2007), who wants us to recalibrate our notions of personal choice. Though we live in hyper-partisan times, one would be hard-pressed to find a politician who doesn’t avow the importance of “personal responsibility.” But, writes the author, what if personal choice is a misconception? What if our decisions aren’t made as freely as we think? He says culture, biology, economics and authority limit our choices far more than we acknowledge. Greenfield’s occupation shapes his authorial choices, as he often looks through a legal prism. However, he tries to reach general readers by employing an accessible style and by drawing on personal experience. These forays into the first person serve to disarm the notion of an all-knowing academic. At times, though—such as when describing his mother’s career choices—the personal obscures the universal. More importantly, though Greenfield acknowledges that brain function affects choice, he focuses more on the seen (such as societal factors that convince us to eat fast food) than the unseen (such as how fast food alters brain chemistry and therefore influences all decisions—not just whether we eat another bag of fries). The author deftly debunks prevailing dogma about the infallibility of free markets, especially important during a time when, as he reports, one in seven Americans are poor. “Too often,” he writes, “the rhetoric of personal responsibility is a way for those who ought to admit to shared responsibility to point the finger at someone else.” How we decide is no small matter, as our choices, public and private, nearly always affect lives beyond our own. Greenfield aims to make us more mindful of this fact—a worthwhile goal, if unevenly executed.

 

Pub Date: Oct. 11, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-300-16950-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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 48 LAWS OF POWER

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...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

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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