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You Are Not So Smart is a blog I started to explore self delusion. Like lots of people, I used to forward sensational news stories without skepticism and think I was a smarty pants just because I did a little internet research. Little did I know about confirmation bias and self-enhancing fallacies, and once I did, I felt very, very stupid. I still feel that way, but now I can make you feel that way too.
Here is how the blog started: One week, I saw both the Derren Brown person swap and the Invisible Gorilla videos on YouTube, and they blew my mind. Also, at that time, I was marathoning Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! on DVD. I felt like there was a common thread in all of that, something about how flawed perception and reasoning goes unnoticed because we are all so unwittingly overconfident. It reminded me of the experiments that seemed to stir up the most conversation in class when I was taking lots of college psychology courses, and it all just clicked. That would make a cool blog.
I wasn’t the only person who must have noticed something brewing in the zeitgeist. A bookshelf of titles has emerged in the last few years, each with a different take on the subject of irrational thinking and delusion. I learned, probably later I should have, that the real source for most books, blogs, articles, and so on that talk about irrational thinking and delusion (including my own) is the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Their 1974 study, Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, launched the modern pop psychology/irrational thinking movement. Kahneman won a nobel prize in 2002, and I think his work greatly influenced authors like Nassim Taleb and Malcolm Gladwell and many others who went on to write huge pop psychology bestsellers. When Kahneman finally published Thinking Fast and Slow in 2011 the whole thing came full circle, at least it seemed that way to me.
When it started, I had no idea how much material was out there to explore. Now I see this blog as just a little pebble in a landslide coming down the mountain of pop culture, and when it settles that landslide will have changed the way we see ourselves. The rising popularity of scientific skepticism with its many blogs and podcasts and conferences, the new network of websites and writers and Twitter accounts and journalists who collect and correct misinformation before it can go viral, the popularity of new scientist communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Phil Plait and the rediscovery of old ones like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman – it’s all coming down the mountain. The big boulders though are the books now coming out written by actual scientists which rightfully push aside the work of laymen and enthusiasts, me included.
This is why the more I’ve learned the more I’ve tried to keep this blog focused on a specific angle and keep a certain voice. The central theme of You Are Not So Smart is that you are unaware of how unaware you are. There is an old-and-still-growing body of research with findings that suggest you have little idea why you act or think the way you do. Despite this, you continue to create narratives to explain your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and these narratives – no matter how inaccurate – become the story of your life.
You seem to be able to see other people deluding themselves all the time – your friends, your family, celebrities, politicians. The mental pratfalls of others seem so obvious, but you have a hard time seeing those shortcomings in yourself. You Are Not So Smart is a fun exploration of the ways you and everyone else tends to develop undeserved confidence in human perception, motivation, and behavior.
Writing You Are Not So Smart and recovering from each head-spinning epiphany has made me a lot more humble. The chip on my shoulder is gone for good, I think. I hope by reading it you’ll rediscover a humility and reconnect with the stumbling, fumbling community of man trying to make sense of things the best we can.
I am not the only person writing about these topics, or the first, or even close to the smartest. I want my stuff to be fun and entertaining, but you can deep dive into many of these topics at Wikipedia’s biases page, Wikipedia’s fallacies page, and Wikipedia’s heuristics page.
- BEFORE YOU WRITE ANGRY EMAILS:
I, David McRaney, am not a psychologist or an economist. I am a journalist and fan writing about what those super-smart and hard-working people are discovering on these topics. Sometimes, I get it wrong. I’m doing my best to translate it all and make it fun, but If I’m wrong and you know it, please let me know. These things can be edited and corrected. I welcome assistance in clarifying the concepts. In addition, if you are new to these concepts, please don’t stop here thinking you’ve learned all there is to know. This blog (and the book) should promote discourse and provoke thought, but remember I’ve condensed each topic into a interesting overview. Most of this stuff represents the life works of lots of people, so there is a wealth of information left out of each post.
Also, remember, my synthesis of the topics that I research is just my own interpretation of facts. I try to include all the sources I pull from so readers can come to their own conclusions, but if you feel an attribution or citation is missing, please let me know so I can improve the post.
- WHO WRITES ALL THIS?
I am a journalist who loves psychology, technology and the internet.
Before going to college, I tried waiting tables, working construction, selling leather coats, building and installing electrical control panels, and owning pet stores.
As a journalist, I cut my teeth covering Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast and in the Pine Belt for several newspapers. Since then I’ve been a beat reporter, an editor, a photographer and everything in between.
I work in new media for a broadcast television company where I also produced a television show focusing on the music of the Deep South.
I started this blog because I missed writing and love the topic. I never expected it would become so popular or result in a book. I thank all the people who come here daily and share my stuff. This is so much fun.