David McRaney heard the siren song of pop psychology, and he plays along in discord. His book 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 emphasizes the ways in which people trick themselves into feeling superior, including readers who believe they’re exempt from his generalizations because they’re reading. And yet he makes this refrain liberating, not depressing.
In You Are Not So Smart (as in the blog of the same name that preceded it) McRaney focuses on the topic of “self-delusion” by linking scientific studies to real-world behaviors, explaining tendencies toward procrastination, self-consciousness, and doubt. This is the standard approach, but the book’s twist involves shading them in with resignation: Rather than creating a peppy objective from each example, McRaney resolves them by insisting these natural tendencies can’t be avoided. He takes particular delight in exploding the noblest directives: People doing something in a group tend to put in slightly less effort than they would alone; not even the most outgoing people can keep up with more than a certain number of friends (a phenomenon known as “Dunbar’s number”), and the repetition of tasks causes people over time not to become better, but to seek out incorrect and sometimes dangerous shortcuts. (Hear that, Malcolm Gladwell?)
In response to this overwhelming evidence of human venality, You Are Not So Smart offers little comfort to the disappointed soul, but that’s a good thing. The book contains no brainteasers or actionable lists; instead, it urges readers to accept the deterioration of memory and hazards of snap judgment. So what if the Stanford Prison Experiment shows anyone could become brutal, given enough power? Nothing to be done! At the end of one particularly dire chapter, referring to the subjects of the studies discussed, McRaney allows that humans are smarter than dogs and rats—and that’s as optimistic as he ever gets.
The longer he sticks to his credo, though, the more his list—broken out in no particular order—takes on a reassuring cadence. Deflating to a certain audience that wants to believe in exceptions, You Are Not So Smart is a tonic to the noxious sweetness of overachievement, an acknowledgment of ordinariness that glories in the quirks of being human without forcing them into a triumphant pyramid. That which cannot be overcome is a part as vital to the human experience as that impulse to try even harder to overcome nature. And if that fails, the flip side to a population crediting itself with falsely inflated powers of observation is that no one might notice if you, too, are not so smart.