A well-researched, wide-ranging, and discouraging addition to the why-people-do-stupid-things genre.



An intriguing contemporary update of Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions.

Neurologist and journalist Bernstein effectively explains the biological, evolutionary, and psychological bases of human irrationality. “When presented with facts and data that contradict our deeply held beliefs, we generally do not reconsider and alter those beliefs appropriately,” he writes. “More often than not we avoid contrary facts and data, and when we cannot avoid them, our erroneous assessments will occasionally even harden, and, yet more amazingly, make us more likely to proselytize them.” Asked about the safety of vaccines during the 2016 presidential campaign, neurosurgeon Ben Carson summarized the overwhelming evidence in favor. Donald Trump disagreed, describing a “beautiful child” who became autistic after a vaccination. Sadly, “most observers scored the interchange in Trump’s favor.” Readers will wince at the often bloody hysteria that accompanied the Reformation, roll their eyes at our inability to resist get-rich-quick schemes, and chuckle at the widespread American movement that awaited the world’s end in 1843—all of which makes for disturbing yet fascinating reading. The rise of evangelicalism is arguably the most important transformation in recent American political life, and many readers may be shocked that 35% of Americans believe “Jesus will return to earth in their lifetimes.” Citing the work of religious historian Robert Wright, Bernstein notes, “Revelation’s opacity and ambiguity only amplified its influence, since they open the way to a wide range of allegorical interpretations about when and how the world ends.” Furthermore, this belief is “so embedded in our political system that at least one U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, subscribed to it, as do a large swatch of politicians at all levels,” including Mike Pence. The author offers solid sections on digital age hucksters before a concluding chapter on Muslim apocalypticists, who have much in common with the Christian variety. Bernstein’s account of financial shenanigans is a jolly ride, but he finds no humor in religious extremism, and readers may share his despair at learning what seemingly educated people believe.

A well-researched, wide-ranging, and discouraging addition to the why-people-do-stupid-things genre.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8021-5709-6

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2020

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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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