I like to think. At least I like to think that I like to think. This idea I have about myself is exactly what drove me to pick up David McRaney’s new book, You Are Now Less Dumb. I like this book for a number of reasons (see paragraph 1, sentence 1), but the reason why I’m writing about the book right now is that I want to be a better decision maker. I always want to be less dumb. As you will find when you take on any of the seventeen chapters in McRaney’s book, understanding your biases can give you an edge on those biases. If you’ll indulge in the analogy of the workplace to the jungle, think of your biases as enemies. And remember that knowing your enemy is an excellent way to fight him or her (or it). We’ll never defeat our biases entirely, but simply knowing they exist is going to help us preempt their negative effects.
You Are Now Less Dumb functions like an in-depth checklist of common biases and mental tricks we play on ourselves in order to preserve our own sanity. You might be thinking, “I want to preserve my sanity,” which is entirely reasonable. But there are downsides to this, as McRaney makes quite clear. Consider a term for these “mental tricks”: delusion. We don’t consider deluded people as trustworthy or wholly sane, and we certainly don’t relish the thought that we ourselves are delusional. The first chapter leads with a reference to Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, which serves as an example of three severe cases of delusion. McRaney cites what are often complex rationalizations that three men used to convince themselves that each of them was the second coming of Christ. Tempered with an example like this, the idea of being soothed by our own delusions loses its appeal.
Because of the format of this book, it’s easy to skip around and read chapters out of order. I’ll pick a couple here. The first chapter discusses “narrative bias”, the compulsion toward a narrative, a string of causes for all of the effects that we live and witness daily. Like Rokeach’s three Christs, we all have our own narratives, and these narratives make us say and do things that most often corroborate our existing narrative. Considering our own narrative and the narratives of the people we live and work with can help us to understand motivators behind certain decisions and behaviors. For a leader, this consideration is especially helpful because a leader is responsible not only for her own behaviors and decisions, but those of her team. There is no eliminating a person’s narrative bias, but simply seeking awareness and understanding can go a long way toward a productive working relationship.
Chapter Five explores the “halo effect”, the individual’s tendency to judge people based upon appearance and general impression, rather than what we might call “objective” qualities. This pervasive bias is explained by the affect heuristic, which is an efficient way for us to make an assessment. McRaney cites a handful of different examples that call on our affect heuristic: fanged, spindly, crawling things trigger negative feelings, as do thick red, yellow, and green liquids. Our great ancestors needed the halo effect for survival. Today, we can benefit simply by knowing that we’re going to be judged based on what we might call “superficial” details. You might brush your teeth before your job interview for many reasons, but a big one is going to be that you anticipate the halo effect. Sure, you’re well-qualified and very friendly, but if you raise any flags with your interviewer, you might never have a chance to wield your ample skill and charming personality in that office at which you’re interviewing.
You Are Now Less Dumb has potential to be an excellent resource for you. Take this book a little at a time or scarf it down in one afternoon, but don’t store it too far out of sight. McRaney’s writing is clear, and he sometimes briefly crosses into humorous terrain, though he never does so without purpose. This sounds too simple and idealistic to even state, but: understanding yourself and others is an essential part of success in positive relationships. This book’s subtitle—How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself—comes across as somewhat humorous, but there are serious benefits to exploring your own delusions. You will be less dumb, you will work better, and you will live better.
Read more David McRaney on his website, You Are Not So Smart.