A diverting but scattershot examination of undeniably intriguing aspects of human behavior.

SUBLIMINAL

HOW YOUR UNCONSCIOUS MIND RULES YOUR BEHAVIOR

Physicist Mlodinow (Physics/Caltech; The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, 2008, etc.) takes a wide-ranging look at some of the mysteries of the unconscious mind.

As with his previous books, the author aims to make complex scientific concepts accessible to non-scientists. Here he samples a wide variety of studies and anecdotes from the 19th century to the present day, exploring the behaviors humans engage in without being aware of what they are doing. Because so many actions that affect our senses, memories, social interactions and self-image occur unconsciously, “the real reasons behind our judgments, feelings, and behavior can surprise us.” A 2005 study, for example, found that people tend to unconsciously eat larger amounts of popcorn, regardless of its quality, if they receive a larger container of it. In another study, test subjects reacted differently to computerized voices depending on whether they sounded male or female, with subjects showing profound but unconscious gender biases. In a loose, easygoing style, Mlodinow combines numerous accounts of scientific studies with pop-culture references and even personal anecdotes. While many of his topics are fascinating individually, the author tries to cover too much ground in just over 200 pages. Among dozens of other subjects, he writes about the early history of psychology, experiments with a blind stroke victim, a horse named Clever Hans, the inaccuracies of the testimony of Watergate figure John Dean and his own mother’s relationship with her pet Russian tortoise. Ultimately, the book never full coheres, and the reader comes away with little concrete insight into the unconscious—save that it is a subject full of mystery.

A diverting but scattershot examination of undeniably intriguing aspects of human behavior.

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-37821-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

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Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should...

MASTERY

Greene (The 33 Strategies of War, 2007, etc.) believes that genius can be learned if we pay attention and reject social conformity.

The author suggests that our emergence as a species with stereoscopic, frontal vision and sophisticated hand-eye coordination gave us an advantage over earlier humans and primates because it allowed us to contemplate a situation and ponder alternatives for action. This, along with the advantages conferred by mirror neurons, which allow us to intuit what others may be thinking, contributed to our ability to learn, pass on inventions to future generations and improve our problem-solving ability. Throughout most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and our brains are engineered accordingly. The author has a jaundiced view of our modern technological society, which, he writes, encourages quick, rash judgments. We fail to spend the time needed to develop thorough mastery of a subject. Greene writes that every human is “born unique,” with specific potential that we can develop if we listen to our inner voice. He offers many interesting but tendentious examples to illustrate his theory, including Einstein, Darwin, Mozart and Temple Grandin. In the case of Darwin, Greene ignores the formative intellectual influences that shaped his thought, including the discovery of geological evolution with which he was familiar before his famous voyage. The author uses Grandin's struggle to overcome autistic social handicaps as a model for the necessity for everyone to create a deceptive social mask.

Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should beware of the author's quirky, sometimes misleading brush-stroke characterizations.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02496-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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Hiccups aside, a mostly valuable compendium of irrational thinking, with a handful of blanket corrective maneuvers.

THE ART OF THINKING CLEARLY

A waggish, cautionary compilation of pitfalls associated with systematic cognitive errors, from novelist Dobelli.

To be human is to err, routinely and with bias. We exercise deviation from logic, writes the author, as much as, and possibly more than, we display optimal reasoning. In an effort to bring awareness to this sorry state of affairs, he has gathered here—in three-page, anecdotally saturated squibs—nearly 100 examples of muddied thinking. Many will ring familiar to readers (Dobelli’s illustrations are not startlingly original, but observant)—e.g., herd instinct and groupthink, hindsight, overconfidence, the lack of an intuitive grasp of probability or statistical reality. Others, if not new, are smartly encapsulated: social loafing, the hourly rate trap, decision fatigue, carrying on with a lost cause (the sunk-cost fallacy). Most of his points stick home: the deformation of professional thinking, of which Mark Twain said, “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails”; multitasking is the illusion of attention with potentially dire results if you are eating a sloppy sandwich while driving on a busy street. In his quest for clarity, Dobelli mostly brings shrewdness, skepticism and wariness to bear, but he can also be opaque—e.g., shaping the details of history “into a consistent story...we speak about ‘understanding,’ but these things cannot be understood in the traditional sense. We simply build the meaning into them afterward.” Well, yes. And if we are to be wary of stories, what are we to make of his many telling anecdotes when he counsels, “Anecdotes are a particularly tricky sort of cherry picking....To rebuff an anecdote is difficult because it is a mini-story, and we know how vulnerable our brains are to those”?

Hiccups aside, a mostly valuable compendium of irrational thinking, with a handful of blanket corrective maneuvers.

Pub Date: May 14, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-221968-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

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