By turns fascinating and depressing, Aja Raden’s book explores lies and subterfuge from biological to sociological. Animals survive because they camouflage themselves as other things and humans have achieved much because they can make things up. But it’s more than that. Our brains are wired in such a way to inherently believe what we see and what we’re told, even if we’re shown evidence that we were mistaken. This hardwired acceptance helps society grow and people work together to achieve what we could never do by ourselves. Yet it is also the very thing that makes us easy marks.
Throughout the book, Raden covers things from sleight of hand to pyramid schemes to false memories. She explores how our brains, in order to make any sense of the world it perceives, must fudge the numbers, filling in blanks where it doesn’t have time to collate. Consequently, your memories are made up of false realities. And each time you remember something, you’re remembering the last time you remembered it, creating weaker and weaker copies, altered by our mind’s eye’s attention. Other forces, like our biases, help to shape the world we perceive. This gets to the essential difference between facts and truth.
Raden also takes us on a tour of those who exploit our brain’s glitches. Sleight of hand plays on our brain running slightly behind reality, filling in blank spaces based not on what’s happening, but on what’s expected. From priming to salting the mine, there are many ways to make a person believe something, in part because the brain makes us want to believe things.
It’s reassuring, yet sad to see credible reasons intelligent people fall for stupid things, and why those people have such a hard time changing their minds. You can pile evidence in front of someone that climate change is real, that they’ve got no real chance of winning the lottery, that faith healers are con artists, that homeopathy is bunk, but you can’t convince them because they’re hardwired to believe something else.
If nothing else, the book should force you to look at what you believe, why you believe it, and to a degree, how to assess what you believe. It was reassuring to see that our weaknesses are also our strengths, that we can overcome our natural biases and thrive. Yet it was also sad to see that we’re still falling for the same snake oil and we almost can’t help it.