- Social intelligence
Articles about books
That’s what happens in the central event of There But For The — a man, Miles, gets up in the middle of an excruciating dinner party, goes upstairs, and barricades himself into the spare bedroom. He stays there for many weeks, eventually becoming a local celebrity.
Redirect lays out a set of techniques for achieving real, lasting change in our behaviour and improving our lives. Actually, this book doesn’t really tell you what to do — it isn’t a self-help book — instead, it describes why these techniques work so well (and also points out that many other ideas don’t).
Story-editing is a way to change behaviour indirectly, by changing the narratives we all have about the kinds of people we are, and the way we interpret the thing that happen to us. This is important because flawed concepts of ourselves and others leads us to all kinds of damaging cognitive errors (see also, for example, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Blind Spots). All of us fall prey to these errors. Yes, that includes you. (Also, me.) Wilson also talks about story-prompting, subtle ways to influence behaviour for the better (or otherwise, as the advertising industry has discovered). This is covered thoroughly by another book, Nudge, which I have read but somehow forgot to write about.
“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” This plot micro-summary was enough to make me pick up this book. That and Kate Atkinson’s reputation. I had planned to read her first novel when it was released; then her second and third, but somehow I never managed to read any of them. I probably will now.
So I wondered, suppose you did get the chance to live your life again and again. How would you know that you were getting repeat chances? And how would you know when you finally got it right? And then what would happen? Atkinson manages to convincingly address these questions, but without letting the technical issues dominate an affecting story of an engaging and (necessarily) resilient protagonist living through two world wars. The story is about her inner life, her family life, and society during these unimaginably difficult times.
This book is all about the field of Behavioural Ethics — how what we do is affected by the way we think about what we do. And vice versa. (Perhaps I could have explained that better.) Probably the most important concept is the idea of Ethical Fade, which happens when a problem with a strong ethical dimension is recast as a different kind of problem. For example, company executives trying to decide how much to charge for some drug might think of it as purely a business decision; the ethical element fades away, leading to a decision that may benefit the company’s profits but is actually at odds with what the executives would normally wish to do.
This is related to the hoops that our minds jump through in trying to reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance. This idea is developed more in an earlier book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).
This book of thoughtful mini-essays on life’s big topics is a pleasure to read. But maybe I only think that because I agree with a lot of what Grayling has to say. But maybe I only agree with him because he’s right. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.
Most of the essays are only a page or two, so this is a good book to delve into at random. (In fact that’s what Grayling recommends. I always ignore recommendations like that though — I’m a “begin-at-the-beginning” kind of guy.) They are grouped into three categories: Virtues and Attributes (such as Fear, Death, and Blame); Foes and Fallacies (Racism, Christianity, Capitalism); and Amenities and Goods (Education, Reading, Age). The essays originally appeared as newspaper columns, so there is some repetition and a few rough edges — the book could do with a bit of editing.
Kahneman suggests thinking of the mind as composed of two notional systems: the fast-thinking, intuitive System 1; and the slow, deliberate, accurate but lazy System 2. The interplay between these two results in the amazing, yet often incomprehensible, behaviour of our minds.
This classic book lays out, as you might expect, a technique for producing ideas. It’s very short and simple. In a nutshell, you must maintain a good supply of general knowledge, steep yourself in specialist knowledge about your problem, and then forget about it and go and do something else. The ideas will come as if by magic.
This book is almost 50 years old, but its technique is still good today. I’ve read these ideas in various other current books and on the web, so it seems that many people are discovering it even today. It does seem to make sense, and for me at least it works.
The Guardian called The Fall “the most perfect of his meditations on human isolation and bewilderment before an enigmatic universe.” Yet for all that, I really enjoyed it. It even made me laugh in some places. Well, smile at least. Grimly.
The characters in Fight Club have a cruel self-destructiveness that I would hate to encounter in real life, but seems strangely appealing on the page. It’s the only way they can exert control over their lives, and it grows into Fight Club and spirals out of control in quite a satisfying way.
I wasn’t excited by this book when it first appeared, even when the movie version duly arrived. But I loved the Dust Brothers’ single “This is Your Life”, which consisted of a collection of rants by the character Tyler Durden with electronic accompaniment. I loved the result, which sounds like some twisted motivational speech or a dystopian self-help tape. (“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake!” etc.) I made a mental note to read the book. And now, barely 12 years later, I finally have. It’s not for the squeamish though — the descriptions of the fights are graphic enough to discourage me from watching the film version. I think I’ll listen to the Dust Brothers again.