“You Are Not So Smart” Summarized (Part 1)

I took an Intro to Psychology class last fall at Sierra, and as all things go, I got a bit obsessed with the different fallacies we subconsciously encounter every day. So I took to Goodreads and scoured the psychology tag for books that might interest me. I eventually ran into David McRaney’s “You Are Not So Smart“, which has a website.

Below, I have inserted quotes from the book and whatever fun graphic I could find that further illustrates the chapter’s point.

If you find yourself wanting “MOAR!!!”, head on over here to buy the books from the links provided. I assure you, this book is a fantastic way to kill time. Each chapter is around 2 to 4 pages long with relatable examples and no mind-boggling psychology jargon.

Disclaimer: I did not receive a free copy of this book. David McRaney did not ask me to write this blog post. I am not getting paid for this. Just so we’re clear.

1. Priming

Let’s look at casinos, which are temples to priming. At every turn there are dings and musical notes, the clatter of coins rattling in metal buckets, symbols of wealth and opulence. Better still, casinos are sensitive to the power of the situation. Once you are inside, there are no indications of the time of day, no advertisements for anything not available inside the box of mutually beneficial primes, no reason to leave, whether to sleep, eat, or anything else—no external priming allowed.


2. Confabulation

You are always explaining to yourself the motivations for your actions and the causes to the effects in your life, and you make them up without realizing it when you don’t know the answers. Over time, these explanations become your idea of who you are and your place in the world. They are your self.

3. Confirmation Bias

People who already supported Obama were the same people buying books that painted him in a positive light. People who already disliked Obama were the ones buying books painting him in a negative light. Just as with pundits, people weren’t buying books for the information, they were buying them for the confirmation.


4. Hindsight Bias

Here’s the thing: You tend to edit your memories so you don’t seem like such a dimwit when things happen you couldn’t have predicted. When you learn things you wish you had known all along, you go ahead and assume you did know them.


5. The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

Lucky streaks at the casino, hot hands in basketball, a tornado sparing a church—these are all examples of humans finding meaning after the fact, after the odds are tallied and the numbers have moved on. You are ignoring the times you lost, the times the ball missed the basket, and all the homes the tornado blindly devoured.

6. Procrastination

This is why your Netflix queue is full of great films you keep passing over for Family Guy. With Netflix, the choice of what to watch right now and what to watch later is like candy bars versus carrot sticks. When you are making plans, your better angels point to the nourishing choices, but in the moment you go for what tastes good.

7. Normalcy Bias

In any perilous event, like a sinking ship or a towering inferno, a shooting rampage or a tornado, there is a chance you will become so overwhelmed by the perilous overflow of ambiguous information that you will do nothing at all. You will float away and leave a senseless statue in your place. You may even lie down. If no one comes to your aid, you will die.

8. Introspection

Is there a certain song you love, or a photograph? Perhaps there is a movie you keep returning to over the years, or a book. Go ahead and imagine one of those favorite things. Now, in one sentence, try to explain why you like it. Chances are, you will find it difficult to put into words, but if pressed you will probably be able to come up with something.

The problem is, according to research, your explanation is probably going to be total bullshit.

9. The Availability Heuristic

If someone you know gets sick from taking a flu shot, you will be less likely to get one even if it is statistically safe. In fact, if you see a story on the news about someone dying from the flu shot, that one isolated case could be enough to keep you away from the vaccine forever.

Availability Heuristic

10. The Bystander Effect

Have you ever seen someone broken down on the side of the road and thought, “I could help them, but I’m sure someone will be along.” Everyone thinks that. And no one stops.

Bystander Effect

11. The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is what makes America’s Got Talent and American Idol possible. At the local karaoke bar you might be the best singer in the room. Up against the entire country? Not so much.


12. Apophenia

You might find it amazing you share the same birthday as a dozen of your favorite celebrities, even though at any given time you share your birthday with about 16 million people.


13. Brand Loyalty

Apple advertising, for instance, doesn’t mention how good their computers are. Instead, they give you examples of the sort of people who purchase those computers. The idea is to encourage you to say, Yeah, I’m not some stuffy, conservative nerd. I have taste and talent and took art classes in college.

14. The Argument From Authority

If a celebrity basketball player tells you to buy a particular brand of batteries, ask yourself if the basketball player seems like an expert on electrochemical energy storage units before you take the player’s word.

15. The Argument From Ignorance

Lack of proof neither confirms nor denies a proposition. Is there life on other planets? We can’t say yes or no just because it hasn’t been discovered yet. No matter how you feel about the question, you would be incorrect to assume the lack of evidence proves your assumption.


16. The Straw Man Fallacy

When you start or someone else starts to imagine a future hellscape thanks to the ideas of the opposition becoming reality, there is a straw man in the room.

Straw Man Fallacy

17. Ad Hominem Fallacy

A political attack ad might say something like “Don’t vote for Susan Smith because she practiced voodoo in college.” Just because someone is a practicing voodoo priestess doesn’t mean she can’t balance a budget.

Ad Hominem

18. The Just World Fallacy

 …this is the tendency to react to horrible misfortune, like homelessness or drug addiction, by believing the people stuck in these situations must have done something to deserve it. The key word there is “deserve.” This is not an observation that bad choices may lead to bad outcomes. The just-world fallacy helps you to build a false sense of security. You want to feel in control, so you assume as long as you avoid bad behavior, you won’t be harmed. You feel safer when you believe those who engage in bad behavior end up on the street, or pregnant, or addicted, or raped.

19. The Public Goods Game

It isn’t you don’t want to help; you just don’t want to help a cheater or do more work than a slacker—even if your not helping leads to ruining the game for you and everyone else.


20. The Ultimatum Game

The promise of revenge is one way human beings ensure fairness, and you are precisely tuned to expect it. Your perceived status is part of the unconscious equation you work out when accepting, refusing, and making offers with other people. You are not so smart, so you are willing to get nothing if it ensures fair treatment in the future and a more secure place on the social ladder.

21. Subjective Validation

Seen straight on, horoscopes describe the sort of things we all experience, but pluck one from the bunch, turn it ever so slightly, and you will see it matching all the details of your life. If you believe you live under a sign, and the movement of the planets can divine your future, a general statement becomes specific.

Subjective Validation

22. Cult Indoctrination

If you have ever called yourself a fan of anyone—a musician, a director, a writer, a politician, a technological genius, a scientist—you are experiencing the first stage of cult indoctrination. If you were to meet the person you most admire and be offered the chance to hang out with him or her on a regular basis—would you? You would.


23. Groupthink

It turns out, for any plan to work, every team needs at least one asshole who doesn’t give a shit if he or she gets fired or exiled or excommunicated. For a group to make good decisions, they must allow dissent and convince everyone they are free to speak their mind without risk of punishment.

True groupthink depends on three conditions—a group of people who like one another, isolation, and a deadline for a crucial decision.


24. Supernormal Releasers

For human ladies, a tux on a man who owns a private jet and three homes in Italy creates a powerful set of supernormal releasers. Most women wouldn’t hook up with a man who looks like the Crypt Keeper, but if he owns a publishing empire or a fortune equivalent to the gross domestic product of a European nation, some will.

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