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USEFUL DELUSIONS

THE POWER & PARADOX OF THE SELF-DECEIVING BRAIN

A passionate, often counterintuitive, disturbingly convincing addition to the why-people-believe-stupid-things genre.

According to this ingenious and unsettling account, deception is essential to our well-being.

Vedantam and Mesler note that when we ask an acquaintance, “how are you?” we usually don’t want an honest answer—and don’t get one. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus or the second coming, it’s because “your life does not depend on your believing such things.” However, if matters took a turn for the worse, you might reconsider. “There are no atheists in foxholes” is a cliché but not entirely false. The authors emphasize that evolution did not design our brain to seek the truth but to survive. Seeking the truth is beside the point. Depressed people often see the world more realistically. Deception, including self-deception write the authors, “enables us to accomplish useful social, psychological, or biological goals. Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology, or villainy.” Much of the book recounts often squirm-inducing examples to prove the case. For example, in the late 1980s, a group called the “Church of Love” sent affectionate form letters from purportedly distressed young women to lonely men, many of whom engaged in extensive correspondence and sent money, not always when requested. At the leader’s trial, many victims, despite knowing the facts, fervently defended him. Digging deeper, the authors examine American patriotism and how our collective “national fictions give us a shared sense of identity and purpose, the cohesion to accomplish great things, the will and capability to defend ourselves against mortal threats.” The authors also examine the concept of the placebo, which in certain cases is “the most benevolent of lies,” and they defend their position that optimists with fatal diseases live longer than “realists,” quoting studies that show this and ignoring those that show the opposite.

A passionate, often counterintuitive, disturbingly convincing addition to the why-people-believe-stupid-things genre.

Pub Date: March 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-393-65220-8

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

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. 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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