Author: David McRaney
APA Style Citation
McRaney, David (2013). You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself. New York: Penguin Group.
You Are Now Less Dumb, is the follow up book by author and blogger David McRaney to the best selling, You Are Not So Smart. While his first book focused mainly on social psychology topics, the second book contains a mixture of social psychology and cognitive biases. The research presented in the book is related to numerous other units in the introduction to psychology curriculum such as motivation and emotion, learning, and abnormal psychology. The book is designed in a similar fashion to the author’s earlier book in which each chapter introduces a distinct concept by contrasting a misconception with the truth as shown by empirical evidence. For example, Chapter 2 discusses the common belief fallacy that “the larger the consensus, the more likely something is correct” and the truth that “a belief is not more likely to be accurate just because many people share it.” The misconception / truth structure highlights for students the need to create and test hypotheses even when examining phenomenon that seem like common sense. We do not know a result until we actually test it.
You Are Now Less Dumb illustrates how a wide range of cognitive biases and other fallacies can lead us to incorrect conclusions. Each of the chapters is about ten pages in length and provides an in-depth analysis of the research related to the principle discussed as well as practical applications. The book includes chapters on topics that are covered in most introductory psychology courses (e.g. halo effect, misattribution of arousal, deindividuation, and the overjustification effect) as well as chapters on ideas that appear less frequently (e.g. common belief fallacy, post hoc fallacy, ego depletion, sunk cost fallacy, and the self-enhancement bias).
The chapter on the halo effect is especially interesting because it traces the origin of the term to the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike who psychology students most likely associate with instrumental learning and the law of effect. Thorndike was a key contributor to both educational and occupational psychology. He began his work creating tests for the Army to evaluate the intelligence and ability of soldiers. It was Thorndike’s interest in turning qualitative evaluations of individuals into quantitative data that led to the discovery of the halo effect. This idea of turning people into numbers in schools and businesses remains popular today because representing people’s abilities by using a numerical score makes it easier to produce charts and graphs that track their performance. By observing the results of quantified performance evaluations Thorndike observed that over time, individuals who were rated highly on one trait would also be rated highly on other, often unrelated traits. He published his research initially using data from U.S. Army officer reviews. He found that evaluators, even if they were instructed to rate each category independently, gave officers consistent ratings across categories. Individuals who were rated high in one category were rated highly in other categories and the reverse was true as well. Thorndike noted that in particular, pilots who had superior ratings in terms of their ability to maneuver a plane also received high marks for leadership. Thorndike found this to be unlikely considering how young most of the pilots were at the time of the ratings. Thorndike originally called this phenomenon a “halo of general merit”. The halo effect persists because the brain often looks for the fastest and simplest way to make categorizations. The book goes on to provide research evidence and numerous examples of the impact of the halo effect in particular with relation to one’s assumptions about attractiveness.
The chapter on deindividuation addresses the common misconception that individuals who engage in rioting and looting are bad individuals taking advantage of an easy opportunity to engage in violence. Psychological research shows that under the right circumstances, most individuals are capable of engaging in antisocial activities driven by a mob mentality. The chapter opens with several disturbing accounts of how this phenomenon has led suicidal individuals to jump to their deaths from bridges and building at the urging of a crowd who might in other situations have lived. The individuals making up the crowd in these situations are in a state of decreased personal awareness that causes them to lose their sense of self-restraint and anonymity in a group. The author describes a variety of studies that examine deindividuation under controlled settings often involving the use of costumes or masks.
In a 1969 study, psychologist Philip Zimbardo asked female participants to deliver electric shocks to strangers allegedly to study the effect of stress on creativity. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to wear oversized lab coats, large hoods, and numbered tags designed to create feelings of deindividuation. The control condition did not wear hoods or lab coats and wore badges that identified them by their name. The participants watched the individuals receiving the “shocks” through a one-way mirror. In reality no shocks were delivered and the individuals receiving “shocks” were actors hired as confederates. The participants were placed in groups of four and told to begin the experiment. Zimbardo did not tell them how often to give shocks or how long the shocks should last in an effort to eliminate the variables of conformity and obedience to authority (Zimbardo was aware of Milgram’s landmark work on the topic from 1963). This meant that the variables of anonymity and deindividuation in the experimental group could be more effectively isolated. The result confirmed in every trial, was that the women wearing hoods shocked the test takers twice as often. As the test continued, the shocks were more given more frequently and for longer time periods by hooded participants. In this experiment the hoods created deindividuation, which allowed negative behavior that, is usually prevented by social norms to occur without any reference to justice and fairness. Deindividuation is the force behind the comments posted in connection with YouTube videos or online articles that are often extremely offensive. The author of You are Now Less Dumb also discusses the potentially positive results of deindividuation. For example, the same deindividuation phenomenon that causes individuals to loot and riot when they have a loss of identity in a crowd can also lead individuals to pitch in to help with rescue efforts after a disaster.
David McRaney’s engaging and easy to read style makes You Are Now Less Dumb, an excellent source for classroom materials and supplemental student reading. The design of the book makes it easy to read the chapters in any order giving the reader an ability to jump around from topic to topic. Distinct and unique chapters also make it possible for the book to be used as a larger project where students working alone or in groups each read, research, and report out on a different chapter. Despite highlighting the various blind spots humans have that distort reality McRaney’s book is positive and informative. According to the author, “self delusion makes you human, but you can do something about it. Delusion, that is. You’re stuck with the human thing”.
Other Related Resources
You Are Not So Smart Blog
Author David McRaney’s blog which inspired the books You Are Not So Smart and You are Now Less Dumb that includes podcasts and videos on the topics discussed in the books.
Deindividuation Post - You Are Not So Smart Blog
This blog post mirrors the chapter on deindividuation in the book.
Geese That Grow on Trees - trailer for You Are Now Less Dumb
Short YouTube trailer that introduces the book by explaining the importance of the scientific method and questioning hypotheses that could be used as a discussion starter in the research unit.
The Halo Effect
This video, created by Philip Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project, effectively illustrates how the halo effect can be observed and measured.
This blog post from PsyBlog summarizes the halo effect.
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Common Belief Fallacy
Id, Ego, Superego
The Lucifer Effect
Misattribution of Arousal
Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me
Robbers Cave Experiment (Sherif)
Shaky Bridge Experiment (Aron and Dutton)