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Tools for Smart Thinking

Richard Nisbett

(London Times)

Back in 1977, the social psychologist Richard Nisbett was the co-author of a ground-breaking, empirically-based research article that would become one of the most cited academic papers of the decade. It contained the unexpected assertion that many of our choices and preferences are influenced by factors outside our conscious awareness. In the field of social psychology, this was pretty powerful stuff.

In the intervening years, the implications of Nisbett’s paper have been taken up and exploited by everyone from social psychologists to behavioural economists. Malcolm Gladwell made a fortune from books such as Blink (2005), in which he explored the power and pitfalls of unconscious mental processes in decision-making. In 2008, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein became David Cameron’s favourite authors when they suggested how policy makers could use such insights to “nudge” us into making more beneficial choices. And in 2011, the economist Daniel Kahneman published the huge bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, which summarised a lifetime of research into human thinking and decision-making.

Sadly for Nisbett, a professor of psychology at Michigan University and one of Gladwell’s inspirations, he has come rather late to the publishing party his research helped start. His contribution to this now crowded area is friendly and practical and aimed squarely at the lay reader. He sees his book as rather like a crash course in making better decisions and learning what scientifically proven theory to apply to which problem, enabling the reader to “perceive the world more accurately and behave more sensibly”. To this end, he offers insights from social and behavioural psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, he explains what constitutes bad, flawed and good science, when to trust statistics, how to think about economics and carry out a cost-benefit analysis, when to follow instinct and when this can lead you astray.

But Nisbett is a victim in this book of his own success. Throughout Mindware, he sets up questions designed to pique the reader’s interest, all of which invariably have counterintuitive answers — counterintuitive that is, unless you have read Gladwell and all the others who have fed off his ideas. If you want to get people to vote, for instance, Nisbett suggests you don’t proselytise the need to increase voter turnout, but just tell people that everyone on their street is voting. A few years ago, this would still have been considered a revelation. Now? Not so much.

These days, all but the most ostrich-like readers will have realised that our judgments are often based on unconscious associations, subliminal suggestion, peer pressure and “framing” (basically the order or context in which something is presented). Few of us, therefore, will be surprised to learn that we are more inclined to consider someone is “warm” if they are carrying a hot cup of coffee when we meet them, or that prisoners are more likely to be granted parole after lunch, or that leaving a smiley face by a collection box is more likely to make people behave honestly.

Nisbett certainly means well. He comes across as a vocal and passionate crusader against scientific ignorance (he is particularly good at debunking suspect correlations and dubious statistics) and has a zeal for transforming sloppy thinking. But, for all his noble intent, and for all the soundness of his book, he fatally underestimates just how familiar many of his themes will be to much of his audience.

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