A worthy, only occasionally clunky treatise on matters of urgent concern.

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STRANGE CONTAGION

INSIDE THE SURPRISING SCIENCE OF INFECTIOUS BEHAVIORS AND VIRAL EMOTIONS AND WHAT THEY TELL US ABOUT OURSELVES

Yawning can be contagious. Suicide, too, as this intriguing book shows.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Take bulimia, for instance. As journalist and psychologist Kravetz (co-author: Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, 2014) writes, once bulimia was separated from anorexia and described in the psychological literature, the incidence of the disease grew and even spread to places where it had been unknown. Said the author who first wrote it up, “once it was described, and I take full responsibility for that…there was a common language for it.” Now, it seems, psychologists are seeking a common language for epidemic suicide, the larger subject of Kravetz’s look at how harmful memes spread and to which he was introduced when, soon after moving to Silicon Valley, he was on hand to record instances of children killing or harming themselves in patterns that suggest social contagion in all its varieties of “thought, behavior, or emotion.” The author moves about in space and time to address this phenomenon, sometimes with a little definitional fuzziness (“if something as universal as economics can cue a social contagion like greed…”), eventually settling on the notion of primes, or cues “that unconsciously convince people to accept new thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.” Such cues surround us, thanks to the pervasiveness of advertising and political argument, and while some of them may suggest to the unwary that killing oneself is a cool thing to do, they also suggest that we buy things, vote for people, and suchlike things in subconscious ways—ways that succeed, notes the author, when it seems as if they are ideas of our own, formed without outside influence. Kravetz’s account is too first-personal at too many turns (“Beyond my journalist’s penchant for analysis, I personally need to understand if there’s a solution…”), but he has covered the bases well, raising provocative questions on whether social contagion can be contained in the way that we ward off leprosy and smallpox.

A worthy, only occasionally clunky treatise on matters of urgent concern.

Pub Date: June 27, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-244893-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper Wave/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

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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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