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Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding

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A leading social researcher explains why humans so consistently misunderstand the outside world How often are women harassed? What percentage of the population are immigrants? How bad is unemployment? These questions are important, but most of us get the answers wrong. Research shows that people often wildly misunderstand the state of the world, regardless of age, sex, or A leading social researcher explains why humans so consistently misunderstand the outside world How often are women harassed? What percentage of the population are immigrants? How bad is unemployment? These questions are important, but most of us get the answers wrong. Research shows that people often wildly misunderstand the state of the world, regardless of age, sex, or education. And though the internet brings us unprecedented access to information, there's little evidence we're any better informed because of it. We may blame cognitive bias or fake news, but neither tells the complete story. In Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything, Bobby Duffy draws on his research into public perception across more than forty countries, offering a sweeping account of the stubborn problem of human delusion: how society breeds it, why it will never go away, and what our misperceptions say about what we really believe. We won't always know the facts, but they still matter. Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything is mandatory reading for anyone interested making humankind a little bit smarter.


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A leading social researcher explains why humans so consistently misunderstand the outside world How often are women harassed? What percentage of the population are immigrants? How bad is unemployment? These questions are important, but most of us get the answers wrong. Research shows that people often wildly misunderstand the state of the world, regardless of age, sex, or A leading social researcher explains why humans so consistently misunderstand the outside world How often are women harassed? What percentage of the population are immigrants? How bad is unemployment? These questions are important, but most of us get the answers wrong. Research shows that people often wildly misunderstand the state of the world, regardless of age, sex, or education. And though the internet brings us unprecedented access to information, there's little evidence we're any better informed because of it. We may blame cognitive bias or fake news, but neither tells the complete story. In Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything, Bobby Duffy draws on his research into public perception across more than forty countries, offering a sweeping account of the stubborn problem of human delusion: how society breeds it, why it will never go away, and what our misperceptions say about what we really believe. We won't always know the facts, but they still matter. Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything is mandatory reading for anyone interested making humankind a little bit smarter.

30 review for Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding

  1. 4 out of 5

    Shelly

    This is an immensely interesting book steeped in research and anecdotal information. Cognitive bias and heuristics shape our perceptions much more than we are aware. Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding is a thought-provoking book perfect for readers interested in what shapes societal misconceptions and popular beliefs.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Boissonneault

    “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.” – Francis Bacon, 1620 Confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek out “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.” – Francis Bacon, 1620 Confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek out information that confirms what one already believes—and to ignore or reject the rest—was recognized at least 400 years ago by Francis Bacon. Today, Rolf Dobelli calls it “the mother of all misconceptions and the father of all fallacies.” It lies at the center of all of our misconceptions and delusions. Why is confirmation bias so prevalent? To prevent cognitive dissonance, or the state of uncertainty and doubt regarding one’s beliefs. This unpleasant feeling is easy to avoid simply by surrounding yourself only with those that think like you and by consuming only the information that supports what you already believe. So we use confirmation bias to prevent cognitive dissonance; we avoid cognitive dissonance because we don’t want to change our beliefs; and we don’t want to change our beliefs because they are tied to our identity. Ideally, we would all orient our identities around the pursuit of truth, rather than in conformance to a chosen tribe, but that’s not the way things usually work. What’s my proof for this grand assertion? The entirety of Bobby Duffy’s latest book. I hope it doesn’t go underappreciated the wealth of information this book contains. Drawing on over 100,000 surveys across up to 40 countries, Duffy compares average perceptions against reality on a host of important social, economic, and political issues and metrics. With this information, we can get a sense of how informed the public is concerning important topics, in essence testing the hypothesis that confirmation bias (and associated biases and fallacies) essentially creates mass delusion. So what do the 100,000+ surveys tell us? The conclusion is clear: most of us don’t know the first thing about health, finance, wealth, immigration, taxation, poverty, violence, risk, and just about anything else of social or political importance, as Duffy so masterfully explains. Duffy takes the reader through an analysis of the surveys, a comparison of perceptions to reality, a tour of the several biases and fallacies that lead to the discrepancies, and a comparison of the performance of different countries, making for a highly fascinating and timely read. Duffy even reveals in the penultimate chapter which country performed the worst. I won’t spoil the numbers, because part of the fun of reading the book is trying to make your own guesses regarding some metric and comparing that guess to both the reality and the average survey response. Suffice to say that most people are way off on just about every measure of importance. Which says two things. First, the voting public is massively misinformed. It’s hard to know what to do about an issue when you have no clue as to the current state of affairs. In France, for example, the average person thinks that the top 1 percent should receive more of the share of wealth (as a percentage) than they currently get in reality, despite also thinking that the 1 percent already have too much. This is because the French massively overestimate the share of wealth for the top 1 percent in the first place. Second, the source of many misconceptions is a lack of basic statistical and scientific literacy in the population, which I consider to be a failure of the public school system. When a significant percentage of people estimate that their retirement account need only be around 50,000 to receive an annual salary of 25,000 during their retirement years, there is a big problem. It’s easy to blame others for this. Common targets are the media, politicians, or technology, but as Duffy suggests, we for the most part get the journalism and politicians we deserve or demand. Scientifically illiterate people vote for scientifically illiterate politicians and consume statistically meaningless and sensationalistic news stories that revolve entirely around anecdotes. Sure, journalists and politicians are partly to blame (by never covering statistics or trends), but our delusions are the result of a complex mix of factors that begins with our own emotional innumeracy and biases, chief among them confirmation bias. In the final chapter, Duffy outlines several potential solutions to the problem, all oriented around better, deeper, and more intellectually honest engagement with the issues. I share Duffy’s optimism that facts still matter and that people can and do change their minds. While we will never eradicate bias completely, we can make progress, in part by demanding more sophisticated coverage of issues by journalists and politicians that includes scale and trends in the data. The bottom line seems to be this: if we want to improve the state of the world, the problem is ignorance, and the solution is better education (public and self-directed) that centers on critical thinking, statistical literacy, and awareness of common biases. This book is an excellent step in that direction.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Doreen McDonald

    Meh. Picked up this book because of a recommendation in a magazine (don’t remember which one). Maybe because I listened to it, maybe because I’ve already read Thinking Fast and Slow a couple times, and have read everything Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys have written...I wasn’t blown away by this. The stories and stats were interesting and a couple things were “new” to me—the international comparisons were a nice addition. I felt like it addressed the “how” we are wrong about nearly Meh. Picked up this book because of a recommendation in a magazine (don’t remember which one). Maybe because I listened to it, maybe because I’ve already read Thinking Fast and Slow a couple times, and have read everything Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys have written...I wasn’t blown away by this. The stories and stats were interesting and a couple things were “new” to me—the international comparisons were a nice addition. I felt like it addressed the “how” we are wrong about nearly everything more than the “why.” The end with some recommendations for how to be less wrong was good. Also, I found the perspective a little schizophrenic—mostly, it seemed like it was written from a UK-centric view, but then there was a lot of US focus. The narrator had an American accent, but the currency was usually (always) pounds...There was a disconnect that I found distracting.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    Wow. Quite a bit of reasons why people are really bad with numbers.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tracey Jepsen

    Interesting insight, but very biased. I would have given this a higher rating if the information had been presented in a neutral manner.

  6. 4 out of 5

    June

    I learned a lot from this book, not only data/anecdata, but also just the reminder that it's good to question what you accept is true. I found myself picking up the book periodically, not reading straight through. If you are going to be seated next to your know-it-all uncle at Thanksgiving this year, read this book before you go. He'll be shocked to learn that the Great Wall of China is not actually visible from space. :) Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a digital ARC!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Heather Bennett

    Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything is a interesting read. It can be a bit dry in some spots, but it has some unique ideas.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Alex Shrugged

    Note: The author seems to be a subject of the United Kingdom, This book attempts to address the mindset of the UK, Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. It is wide-ranging, but he does a reasonable job. Over all I really liked this book. The exceptions were forgivable if ironic in the extreme. This is a basic course in critical thinking with an emphasis on statistics. Our primitive monkey-brains tend to draw conclusions quickly if not always accurately. Thus, I might mistake a bush for Note: The author seems to be a subject of the United Kingdom, This book attempts to address the mindset of the UK, Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. It is wide-ranging, but he does a reasonable job. Over all I really liked this book. The exceptions were forgivable if ironic in the extreme. This is a basic course in critical thinking with an emphasis on statistics. Our primitive monkey-brains tend to draw conclusions quickly if not always accurately. Thus, I might mistake a bush for a lion and run for my life. If I am wrong, I'm alive. If I'm right, I'm alive. Thus overreacting allows me to live long enough to pass on my genes to similarly overreacting children and so forth. This is fine if we are talking about lions. It is less fine when we are talking about saving starving children in a faraway country. It is easier for the human brain to personalize a single starving child. It is difficult to personalize a million. Thus the author shows that donations made to a single starving child are much higher than for the over all idea of starving children. The author mainly questioned people on what they thought the statistics should be on a given subject and then presented them with the actual statistics. This was not done for laughs. He wanted to know if they would change their minds when shown they were wrong... I mean really wrong... like so frickin' wrong it was not even funny. The answer was... no. They would not change their minds, generally speaking. The book lays out the problem fairly of how we evaluate problems and our errors when doing so... mostly. I think he reads too much into some of the statistics, but the potential errors are not that serious. He did do something odd and potentially very wrong whenever he talked about Donald Trump. Note that at those times the author's wording was always exact, precise, true and utterly misleading. He must have been doing that on purpose. No one could do that by accident more than once. My sense is that if he wrote anything supportive of Trump or even vaguely neutral about Trump that he would never sell another book for the rest of his life. That being so, he spoke the truth while implying something terrible about President Trump. It was not too terrible. I've seen worse... a lot worse. So... if you are a Trump supporter, no worries. The occasional references to Trump, Fox News, or the Daily Mail are brief and true if misleading. The rest of the book is so good that I would recommend it to all my friends. It is a study in critical thinking. I just found it hilarious that I had to apply critical thinking to a book advocating critical thinking. I'd read this book again.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    This is Steven Pinker style positivism bollocks for anyone who wants to see the world with rose colored glasses. I can't beleive shit like this is written today. It affirms what white folks will read from their perfectly manicured lawns in their suburban homes. I cannot get over reducing everything in this century to "Things are generally much better than they were?" The questioning person in me asks for whom. Duffy harps on about how immigration figures are actually way less than people believe This is Steven Pinker style positivism bollocks for anyone who wants to see the world with rose colored glasses. I can't beleive shit like this is written today. It affirms what white folks will read from their perfectly manicured lawns in their suburban homes. I cannot get over reducing everything in this century to "Things are generally much better than they were?" The questioning person in me asks for whom. Duffy harps on about how immigration figures are actually way less than people believe or what the media makes the public think. On the other hand there's way less fake news than be think. Europeans and Americans beleive there are more migrants and treat immigrants like shit and stereotype this small population constantly. Maybe things aren't "generally better for immigrants", some immigrants also came as refugees because of the actions of militarism. How can things be better. Chapter after chapter Duffy goes back and forth with contradictions. There is no mention of the environment. Apparently the looming truth about climate change or the impact of man on the planet (I'll add our one and only planet) totally slipped the guys mind. No things aren't good for sea creatures and anything that lives in the sea or for the millions of Australian animals that are burning. This is boomer nonsense. Avoid!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Courtney

    I recieved a complementary advance copy of this book from netgalley.com for review. This book addresses misconceptions that the public holds about a wide range of different phenomena. I enjoyed its cross-cultural focus, which is often either neglected or treated in a marginal way in similar scientific writing. The discussion of underlying scientific concepts is solid and consistent with the academic study of these principles, while still remaining accessible and readable. I appreciate the I recieved a complementary advance copy of this book from netgalley.com for review. This book addresses misconceptions that the public holds about a wide range of different phenomena. I enjoyed its cross-cultural focus, which is often either neglected or treated in a marginal way in similar scientific writing. The discussion of underlying scientific concepts is solid and consistent with the academic study of these principles, while still remaining accessible and readable. I appreciate the inclusion of data throughout, to illustrate the author's points, but also as an example of data-driven decision making, at a meta level. Informative and interesting for a novice, and enjoyable for an expert in the field, as well, as it covers domains that are unfamiliar to most of us.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mikko Arevuo

    A good introduction to biases and delusions in everyday social and political life. The author draws on an impressive variety of empirical research to present his findings. I work in the field of managerial and organizational cognition so I’m not the best person to give an objective review of the book as there was very little new in it for me. Nevertheless, for a generalist reader new to the field, the book should be very interesting.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Brian Miller

    I went in thinking this would be some new version of Freakonomics but it was not. This is not necessarily a bad thing as this was a decent read that often times got bogged down in numbers and away from the stories I wanted to hear about such as immigration, teen pregnancy and obesity. It reads likes a well written research paper to me. Thank you Netgalley, Duffy, Perseus Books and Basic Books for the ARC for my honest review.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nepunnee

    For such a complicated subject I found the book, for the most part, easy to absorb. It's examples from current politics are very relevant and just in time for the 2020 US Presidential Elections while most of us are still recovering from the last one. Made me feel more hopeful, less crazy, validated in some aspects and enlightened in others. Great quick read.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mike Heenan

  15. 4 out of 5

    Barb Johnson

  16. 5 out of 5

    Valeria

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rashmi Mishra

  18. 4 out of 5

    Paul F.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anna Gandini

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dan Becker

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rose

  22. 4 out of 5

    June Alfonso

  23. 5 out of 5

    David Williams Williams

  24. 4 out of 5

    M Guynin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sofie Le

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kaltrim Perzefaj

  27. 4 out of 5

    Will Willingham

  28. 4 out of 5

    Øyvind

  29. 5 out of 5

    Arthur

  30. 5 out of 5

    Michele Moro

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