Those who are enlightened about delusion are buddhas. Those who are deluded about enlightenment are ordinary beings.

Dōgen, Zen philosopher

Introduction

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself.

That's the very long-winded full-title of the humour-filled book by journalist and self-professed psychology geek, David McRaney. Published in 2011, the 320-page-long popular psychology book enlightens the reader about the modern scientific study of delusions.

The book introduces, with wit and humour, to a popular audience how cognitive mechanisms that result from millions of years of evolution help humans become extraordinarily powerful beings. But also, how these mechanisms can invariably make us extremely silly, helpless, bumbling-to-the-point-of-being-self-destructive monkeys.

In the author's own words on his website, You Are Not So Smart is "a celebration of self delusion." Or at the very least, it is an education in self delusion. And this is of interest to Buddhists because of the emphasis placed on delusion or ignorance (one of the so-called Three Poisons) as a significant contributor to human suffering, something Buddhists strive to eliminate. This book, thus, is a wonderful supplement to Buddhist practice.

Overview

The Misconception: You are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is.
The Truth: You are as deluded as the rest of us, but that's OK, it keeps you sane.

Opening to the introduction of You Are Not So Smart

That opening pretty much sums up the overarching argument McRaney makes in the book. It's the thesis. The objective of the book is to show how human beings are imperfect, irrational and delusional creatures and yet, for the most part, it's totally fine. Each chapter of the book introduces a psychological phenomenon, a cognitive bias, or a logical fallacy, such as confabulation or confirmation bias, which are essential to our being normal, functioning humans.

The author introduces these phenomena by describing how they work and provides an evolutionary account of how we came to develop these psychological traits. Citing up-to-date scientific research, McRaney familiarizes the reader with the reasons and benefits behind evolving such traits. However, since the meat of the book is devoted to the side-effects (i.e. delusions that result from the supposedly beneficial psychological traits we've evolved), the main focus is on how those very same traits make our lives so miserable silly interesting.

Example & Analysis

For example, in the 5th chapter, the topic explored is The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.

Imagine the side of a barn. A man with a bucket of paint and a brush walks up to the barn and draws a target. He walks away from the barn and at a distance, cocks his gun and fires. A few dozen shots later, he checks his performance and finds that all his shots have hit the bull's eye. This would be an example of a conventional sharpshootersomebody who can really hit the target successfully at a distance. This is not an example of the very unfortunately named Texas Sharpshooter.

A Texas Sharpshooter refers to a marksman who fires randomly at the side of a barn first, and then draws the bull's eye afterwards around the area where the most number of bullet holes ended up clustering. This creates the illusion that the shooter was largely successful at hitting the target and ignores all the outlying bullet holes.

As a logical fallacy, the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy refers to the situation where somebody notices a pattern in the data when in fact there isn't a pattern at all. It refers to someone who draws a circle around a random selection of events and thinks that it means something when, really, it doesn't.

On the website, Logically Fallacious, the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy is described as "ignoring the difference while focusing on similarities, thus coming to an inaccurate conclusion." Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies describes it as the situation where one has "cherry-picked a data cluster to suit your argument, or found a pattern to fit a presumption." In You Are Not So Smart, McRaney jokes that "if hindsight bias and confirmation bias had a baby, it would be the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy."

For an example of the sort of random coincidences that might trigger the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, McRaney points to the numerous similarities between the assassinations of American presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. The parallels are spooky. It makes one think that there must to be connections or patterns somehow. The author also mentions how the fate of the Titanic appears to have been foretold by a novel written years before the real life events. This is even spookier considering that the fictional ship in the novel is called the Titan. And then there's the many apparent prophecies by the 16th century apothecary, Nostradamus, about Adolf Hitler 400 years before the Second World War. One has to detect patterns here, right?

In fact, there's nothing there. The parallels and the apparent prophecies are nothing but coincidences. McRaney explains that "against the noisy background of probability things are bound to line up from time to time for no reason at all. It's just how the math works out." And besides, the majority of the prophecies by Nostradamus really makes no sense at all. When one takes a step back from it all, it seems really silly to presume that some sort of meaningful pattern exists.

Ignoring differences and focusing on similarities, the human brain is prone to hindsight and confirmation biases. Together, they make completely meaningless, random events appear meaningful. These are entirely mental constructs, meanings perceived by one's mind when in reality, there is nothing but randomness and chance.

And guess what? We all do this all of the time. We do it all the time because we have evolved to do thus. This is how McRaney puts it in the book:

Your drive to do this is primal. You need order. Order makes it easier to be a person, to navigate this sloppy world. For ancient man, pattern recognition led to food and protected people from harm. You're able to read these words because your ancestors recognized patterns and changed their behaviour to better acquire food and avoiding becoming it. Evolution has made us into beings looking for clusters where chance events had built up like sand into dunes.

And so, the very beneficial psychological trait that evolved to enable pattern recognition in humans also messes with our minds. What is supposed to have been patterns one recognized is often nothing but random piles of sand.

Conclusion

The above is the basic format employed by David McRaney to explore delusions in human life. And he does this in all 48 chapters of the book. This book report has only touched upon the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, and even then only barely. It is one of many, many topics explored in You Are Not So Smart. Every single chapter is entertainingly relatable for any self-reflective reader and every chapter is more than capable of putting smiles on faces and even occasionally make the reader blush. The book possesses high entertainment value on top of being highly educational!

This book report opens with a quote by the 13th century Japanese Zen priest and philosopher, Dōgen, who emphasized the importance of being mindful of delusions in a Buddhist life. Having delusions about wisdom can be detrimental to one's spiritual growth while having wisdom about delusions can, perhaps, be beneficial.

Here in this scientific and information age, spiritual practice can be aided by scientific research. Works such as You Are Not So Smart, in which the author approaches the potentially sensitive and embarrassing topic of our very human failings with kindness, gentleness and humour, may prove to be invaluable companions in anyone's spiritual journey toward personal growth.

While this book report has been written primarily from a secular Buddhist's perspective, this review, as well as the book reviewed, can both be of great interest to any secular or naturalistic spiritual practitioner. The ideal embraced here is the betterment of oneself, bit by bit, aided by lessons from scientific research and discoveriesto use scientific and naturalistic tools available to us to become just a little bit wiser about delusions, as well as, in life.

Links

Published by The Planctonian