David McRaney’s blog You Are Not So Smart, which chronicled his interest in cognitive and social psychology, became a best selling book by the same name. As he continued in his obsession he produced an excellent podcast with production quality comparable to Freakonomics and This American Life. In 2013 he released another book with covering more topics not included in YANSS titled You are now Less Dumb. He seeks to inform and entertain and most of all celebrate human nature as it tends encourage us to think that we know more than we really do, or rather that we are less dumb than we really are. I’ve recently completed both books and have used many of the topics and cited source at the back of the books to create podcast discussions on similar themes. David’s writing is accessible and littered with humor, though sometimes it gets just a little too silly a feels overly contrived, and reminds us that laughing at ourselves as he helps us recall moments when we have all done irrational or straight-up silly things. Both books are centered on psychological phenomena and thinking in general but there are differences so I’ll summarize some of my thoughts on each book here.


YANSS covers 48 topics in 274 pages. This really is a blog converted to a book with all chapters easily consumed within 5-10 minutes. You can go head long and read from cover to cover (and if you do you will likely notice overlap between some of the concepts), you can make this part of your secular/science worship every Sunday (which still gives you a few weeks of vacation time), you can keep it on the back of the toilet to keep you entertained while you get work done, or you can end your day with some humor, wit, and new insights as you fall asleep. It is really up to the reader how to approach this book and rather than a narrative driving you to read further, in YANSS it will be your curiosity in the fascinating, silly, or inexplicable things we do as humans.

Each topic was unique yet like I said above there is going to be some overlap of common ground. The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy for instance is a special case or simply a metaphor of the larger idea of Confirmation Bias. Similarly the Spotlight Effect and the Illusion of Transparency both show how we think others are paying more attention to us that they really are; the key difference again seems to be specificity, in that the Spotlight Effect is general and the Illusion of Transparency is specific to our inner emotions and thoughts.

Two topics that really hit home for me were Catharsis and Learned Helplessness.

Catharsis, the idea of purging anger or frustration from oneself via venting of some sort, was so surprising to me because it just seems so darn intuitive. Perhaps it is because this particular topic was focused on a particular emotional experience rather than a type of flawed thinking that it stuck out to me. Either way it really showed me how important it is to find ways to cool down or distance myself from angry feelings, because expressing them in an emotive way is me feeding them rather than expelling them.

I first heard Learned Helplessness through the podcast, then I read it in the book later. As I was learning about this phenomena of self-defeating behavior I started to cry in the car. Because I realized that I beat myself up inside a lot. I have pretty negative self-talk going on inside my head that most people around me will never know. It was a sobering wake up call to keep me from continuing down that path. I need to lift myself up and focus on the good. It is hard to do sometimes but this topic wasn’t just a ‘neato’ thing read about, it very well could have been a life saver to me and many others.

YOU are NOW less DUMB

YANLD has 17 chapters and a introduction to Self Delusion in general, in total covering 274 pages, sans end matter. The chapters are therefore longer than those in YANSS and in terms of design reads more like a typical non-fiction book rather than a collection of blog posts. It takes more time to sit down and get through a chapter in YANLD than in YANSS. Also the chapters do not necessarily build on each other so you can read it in the order the chapters are presented or go after whatever topic interests you. Though I do recommend reading the first chapter on Narrative bias first because he does such a good job bringing in multiple concepts there, which is a good example of how these chapters are designed in comparison to YANSS.

My favorite chapters in the book are Pluralistic Ignorance and the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight. The first shows us how we let strange things happen even when we know we shouldn’t because we think everyone else is seeing or understanding something that we do not, think of the Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In contrast to that idea the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight fools us into thinking that we understand ourselves better than anyone else and not only that but we understand others better than they understand themselves. We think that other only see the exposed part of our ‘self’ as a metaphorical floating iceberg yet we insist that we see the entirety of our friend’s and enemy’s behavior, thought, and motivations. It is both frustrating and funny that one cognitive distortion dissolves our confidence in seeing what is right before our very eye and pushes us to instead trust the collective while the other warps our observational powers and expands our sense of perception to the point of telepathy.

The mind and human behavior is a strangely disturbing thing to behold. If you don’t believe me just read a few chapters from David McRaney’s books and you’ll probably notice that some of your own thinking is not so well thought out. If not I guarantee that at the very least you’ll find out what is wrong with everyone else.

[1] YANSS Chapter lengths: longest, 13 pp; shortest, 3 pp; most frequent, 5 pp; average, 5 pp.

[2] YANLD Chapter lengths: longest, 30 pp; shortest, 10 pp; most frequent, 10 pp; average, 14 pp.


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