The psychologist Richard E. Nisbett’s compelling new book, “Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking,’’ could almost be mistaken for a manual on how to create a new species, one similar but clearly superior to our own. This creature would eat more vegetables, pay taxes, donate its organs, avoid the snares of pseudo-scientific medical studies, invest more wisely, and even overcome grief more quickly. In short, it would make fewer mistakes.
His advice involves nothing as controversial as genetic engineering or merging our minds with machines; the improvements he envisions would result from a judicious cultivation of powers and potentials we already possess. Scientific reasoning is one such capacity, but much of his book is a demonstration of just how frequently and easily our rational faculties fail us. In fact, much of his advice actually involves exploiting our irrational human tendencies to promote optimal behavior.
People who don’t normally buy many fruits or vegetables, for instance, buy substantially more produce when told the average number of produce items that other shoppers at the store purchase. Desire to conform to a perceived norm can also motivate undergraduates to drink less alcohol and citizens to stop cheating on their taxes.
Social influence is just one of many behavioral levers that Nisbett considers. Taxpayers are more likely to support education funding when schools are the voting location. When people vote in churches, they’re more likely to outlaw late-term abortions. Judges are more likely to grant parole immediately after lunch than just before.
We generally fail to realize how easily situational factors influence our perceptions. If you asked a hungry judge why he denied an inmate’s parole, he would point to any number of rational reasons, even if after a nice lunch he would grant parole to a prisoner with an identical record. This post hoc search for legitimating reasons for a given opinion sometimes leads to what Nisbett and other psychologists call the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to overestimate the importance of dispositional factors and underestimate the influence of situational ones.
Many of the ideas in Nisbett’s book will be familiar to readers of other popular books on behavioral economics, like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s “Nudge’’ or Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.’’ And many of the ideas in all of these books are much older than the field of behavioral economics. A close reader of Plato’s Socratic dialogues would hear echoes when Nisbett notes that it’s a good idea to remember “that the views of other people that differ from our own may have more validity than our intuitions tell us they do.”
Nisbett sometimes recognizes that many of the ostensible discoveries of behavioral economics are in fact rediscoveries of older ideas. After discussing the importance of sample size to establishing statistically valid results, he quotes Abraham Lincoln, who once said: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Lincoln may not have used terms like data or sample size, but he understood perfectly that his own judgment could be mistaken because of insufficient evidence.
Socrates and Lincoln, of course, were not conducting randomized, double-blind experiments, the gold standard of contemporary psychological research. The fact that they and other thinkers nonetheless arrived at conclusions that modern research confirms is a reminder that wisdom comes from many sources other than the scientific method.
But Socrates and Nisbett would agree that blindly trusting others’ claims to wisdom is a good way to miss the truth entirely. With clear explanations of relevant principles from statistics, formal logic, economics, and psychology, Nisbett does indeed assemble a powerful toolkit for examining the validity of claims made by marketers, politicians, and scientists. Just as important, he encourages us to turn these tools inward and test the legitimacy of our own easily swayed opinions and beliefs.
Tools for Smart Thinking
By Richard E. Nisbett. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., illustrated, $27
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.