Too much pop and not enough psychology.



How unscrupulous political leaders turn people into sheep and make them bleat on cue.

Stout has mined for pop-psychology gold in earlier works (The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us, 2005, etc.), and her prose has softened in proportion as her apparent resolve to become Dr. Phil has hardened. Her thesis here is simple: As creatures, we are naturally subject to fear, individually and collectively, but if we know who the Bad Guys are (here: the Bush administration) and what they are doing to us, we can defeat them by following her prescriptions—e.g., “Make fun of the [frightening] image. If you enjoy irony, yell, The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Stout’s approach at times seems lifted from a self-help magazine in a supermarket checkout line. Are you stressed? Find out with her 21-question “Walking-Around Anxiety Test” (“7. Right now, are your palms sweaty?”). Later, she identifies “Six Stages of a Limbic War” and lists “Ten Behavioral Characteristics of Fear Brokers.” She equates political leaders who frighten us with domestic abusers and offers a sugary case study of an abused woman who found the Courage to Be Free after spending some quality time with Martha Stout, Ph.D. The author is most effective when she explains the physiological and psychological mechanisms of individual and cultural fear. Her discussion of the limbic system is clear, as are her descriptions of our coping mechanisms. She shows how irrational fears led to events as diverse as the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the Red-baiting of the McCarthy era, the Patriot Act and the arrest of Cat Stevens. She cites some research that indicates our Blue State/Red State political preferences may be hard-wired, and she elicits a chuckle with her concept of a “cowbird politician”: a public official who has no core beliefs but employs the “nests” of others.

Too much pop and not enough psychology.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-374-22999-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2007

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

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

Did you like this book?