I once worked with a man who was very bright, but also very arrogant and aggressive, never skipping an occasion to berate anyone he deemed to be less intelligent than him (almost everyone!) or having the gall to hold an opinion other than his own. Satisfyingly, he stopped shouting at people who fought back, which I did, often, but it was a thoroughly disagreeable experience.
The author of Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life reminds me of that man, and this book matches his previous book, Antifragile, in the hatred department. (Do read The Black Swan, which has all the smarts without the hatred.) In it, he rages against politicians, academics, bureaucrats, pundits, designers, intellectuals of all sorts, and hints broadly that no one is worthy of reading his book since we are too stupid to understand it. How he reminds me of my co-worker…
If you can get past the hatred, he makes some good points, namely that people who do not have skin in the game can and do make decisions the consequences of which won’t hurt them — so beware! Very true. How many times have you sat in an uncomfortable seat and wondered if the designer had sat in it for more than a minute? Or wondered what crazed bureaucrat created the horrible paperwork you are struggling with? He also excoriates (I think that’s his default setting, excoriation) people who give money publicly to charity as a way to gain notoriety, a position we can agree with, minus the vituperation perhaps. And he points out that a vocal small minority can hold everyone hostage to its views. But is it worth 200+ pages of rage?
Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter combines psychological explanations of why we make basic and predictable mistakes about managing money with practical suggestions on how we can use that knowledge to make better choices. It’s not our imagination: we spend more when we use credit cards than with cash, we get fixated on discounts rather than prices, and we fail to save for the future. The authors give us a lively account of why (so lively it sometimes feels forced) and, the best part of the book, solutions to foil our brains using the very techniques that normally deceive us. An enjoyable way to explore our foibles.
It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear sagely notices the world is a pretty good place, and generally getting better. In the first part of the book the author organizes the discussion around standard catastrophe scenarios (“Why don’t we starve?”, “Will nature collapse?”, “Will the economy collapse?”), each smoothly feeding into the other as in a mystery novel. Using publicly available statistics, the author calmly demolishes each argument, weaving in the real reasons for the concerns: we like to worry, and politicians and others have a built-in interest to keep us worried. The second part I found less successful, because the author just rehashes the reasons that were already introduced in the first part of the book — and also, uncomfortably, argues time and again against regulations of any type, destroying his own argument. Perhaps the economy is not collapsing not solely because it just thrives on its own, but also because some amount of regulation make it work a bit better. Minimum wage anyone?
The title may be the best attribute of Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, as the rest can be relatively humdrum, consisting of a series of loosely connected chapters about language, physical effects of swearing (it does diminish the sensation of pain, apparently), and an entirely non-surprising assessment that swearing is all about culture. There are some fun parts, certainly, and the writing is upbeat, but the whole thing does not quite jell.
America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real is written in an entertaining style by a newly-transplanted Brit who takes a wry look at the antics of northern Californians in quest of happiness. Of course, thinking that mainstream Americans spend their time on children’s playground painfully translating their toddlers’ tantrums into words– or that everyone checks Facebook as compulsively as she does — leads to rather ridiculous adventures, from EST-inpired seminars to a gratingly patronizing visit to Mormon Utah .
There are some funny, if overdone comparisons, as when she notes that lunchtime at Facebook, when harassed moms drag children to see dad for a little while, feels like prison visits. But it’s not entirely clear that she actually realizes that prison visits are a lot less fun. On the whole, the book is better seen as a satire than a rational inquiry.
Breaking Sad: What to Say After Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up is a compilation of personal stories from people who experienced various losses and who share their stories and their recollections of best and worst comments and help they received afterwards. Some of the “bad” comments are astonishingly insensitive; it would be most charitable to think that people are intimidated by death and blurt out these things without thinking.
What was more interesting to me were the recommendations for what to do and say. There were so many different approaches, reflecting the preferences of the receivers, so that piece of advice #1 is probably just that: adapt to the mourner. And don’t think you have to fill the silence with any words at all. Maybe that’s the hardest part.
Written by an academic, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others explores sometimes counter-intuitive studies that show that our peculiar, not-so-rational minds can be influenced by the right stories or by the emotions of others (rather than rational statistics), while we knowingly ignore information that does not conform to our preconceived ideas, We also prefer being in control (even when letting someone else make decisions for us would be preferable), and we want to get information early but if it’s likely to be bad, we withdraw instead.
I would have wished to see a bit more connective tissue between the various chapters, and connecting the results to practical actions, but it’s an enjoyable read.