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Saturday, July 26th, 2008
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Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking

by Thomas Kida

Two Books about Our Bungled Brains

A review by Doug Brown

Our brains like to think they are flawless, unbiased masters of precision, but the reality is sadly not so. We form conclusions and beliefs with little or no reason and then seek evidence which supports the conclusions we've already reached. Our brains perceive the world in ways that make ourselves look better than others. Most people think they are above average in intelligence (and we think we're all better drivers than everyone else, too) which logically cannot be true. Thomas Kida and Cordelia Fine take on the brain with different approaches. Don't Believe Everything You Think is more about flaws in our ability to reason and recall, whereas A Mind of Its Own leans more toward emotional biases. Thus, the two books complement each other nicely.

Don't Believe Everything You Think is aimed at helping people to be more skeptical. Kida points out that skeptical doesn't mean cynical; it simply means analyzing the evidence before making up one's mind. It sounds simple, but as Kida (and Fine) detail, it runs counter to how our brains want to function. Here are Kida's six basic mistakes our brains make (this isn't giving anything away -- they are on the cover of the book):

  • We prefer stories to statistics
  • We seek to confirm, not to question our ideas
  • We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events
  • We sometimes misperceive the world around us
  • We tend to oversimplify our thinking
  • We have faulty memories
Kida cites many studies to support these notions, and provides many examples of how our brains want to take the easy road. Despite the potential for this being a dry pedagogical book, Don't Believe Everything You Think is well-organized and written in an easy, lucid style.

A Mind of Its Own is a breezier book. By the end of it you know quite a bit about Fine's home life, her relationship with her husband, and how she feels about writing a book while raising two kids. It creates a nice familiar tone, like having coffee with a friend who knows a lot about brain function. If you are a "just the facts, ma'am" person, you might wish for a bit more data and a bit less anecdote, but Fine also cites many studies in addition to her own stories. Each chapter covers a different fault of the brain, and the chapter names say it all: "The Vain Brain," "The Emotional Brain," "The Immoral Brain," "The Deluded Brain," "The Secretive Brain," "The Bigoted Brain," etc. Fine may seem a pessimist, but, as she put it, the evidence indicates that in many ways our brain, "...has a mind of its own. An adroit manipulator of information, it leaves us staring at a mere facade of reality. Vanity shields us from unpalatable truths about ourselves. Craven methods of moral bookkeeping also attentively serve the principle of self-glorification, often at others' expense." Still believe in Intelligent Design?

Many of the same studies are referenced in both books, like of course the Milgram shock experiments and Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment. But the flow and aim of each book is different enough that there isn't a feeling of repetition. I recommend Don't Believe Everything You Think first, as it offers more tips on how to process information, and I'm an info sort of person. However, A Mind of Its Own is a perfect chaser, just in case you think that Kida's book covered all the ways our minds trip us up. Fine details lots of foibles to provide readers with the ability to recognize when our brains are getting ready to deceive us.


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