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MY MOTHER, rest her soul, used to say that I was “book smart, but head dumb.” I am not surprised to learn, based on a new book on the matter, that Mom was right. The Influential Mind, by Tali Sharot, is reviewed in the September 20, 2017, issue of Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Junk Cognition,” by Science reviewer N.J. Enfield, has a summary available at I’ve gleaned tidbits from the complete article here.

Our thinking is of two sorts: Intuition is quick, inbred, but containing biases. By contrast, calculated thought is slow, deliberate, and more trustworthy. Reviewer Enfield notes that author Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist, “explores the tension in this relationship, … in which modern logic is compromised by a much older, biased, heuristic system. This compromise makes us susceptible to poor decision-making.”

The book’s full title adds, “What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others.” That is, it isn’t just about being influenced, but also about being the influencer. Enfield writes, “… it is two guides at once, offering tips on how to influence other people by exploiting their junk instincts and advice on overcoming one’s own junk instincts through vigilance and corrections.”

Sharot identifies seven mental aspects, each involved in both delivery and receipt of thought:

Prior beliefs. Biases, whether intuitive or conditioned, play roles in how new ideas are evaluated.

Emotional states. Confident people are more amenable to rational consideration than are distraught people.

Incentives to modify beliefs or actions. The Golden Rule comes to mind. Alas, so does “What’s in it for me?” as an inherent human response, even to the relatively altruistic.

Sense of agency. “Yes! I’m ready to take this on.” Or, “What’s the point? My thoughts or actions have no real effect on what’s going on.”

Interests and concerns. The buzzword “meh” comes to mind.

Degree of stress. Sharot thinks of both extremes and calls this “transient state of mind.” Sleeping on it is often a wise course.

Awareness of other people. What knowledge or actions do other people offer? And do we have the empathy to care?

Tali Sharot, Israeli-born, Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London, author of The Science of Optimism and The Optimism Bias. Image from her 2012 TED presentation on the inherent optimism of humans.

Enfield offers a counterpoint of it all: “Seldom aware of our own cognitive biases, we are played like pianos, nowhere more mercilessly and effectively than by marketing and PR professionals.”

On the other hand, he continues, “Any contribution that gives ordinary people more agency is a welcome and important one, and Sharot’s treatment is particularly valuable for its balance between accessibility to the reader and solid grounding in scientific research.”

Despite Mom’s expressed view on the matter, she would have had me read this book. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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