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Review of The Art of Thinking Clearly by

The Art of Thinking Clearly

by Rolf Dobelli

This book is the dead tree equivalent of a BuzzFeed post. Its title could be “I Got 99 Cognitive Biases But a Psychology Degree Ain’t One.” Or maybe not.

Rolf Dobelli enumerates 99 thinking errors, or cognitive biases, in The Art of Thinking Clearly, dispensing as he does tips for leading a more rational, less error-prone life. Anyone who has done even the least amount of reading in this subject will recognize many of the cognitive biases that Dobelli describes here. Unlike most popular cognitive psychology books, however, this book makes no central argument and does not examine these biases within a larger context. It is literally just a list, with extended descriptions, of the biases. At times, Dobelli occasionally ascribes the bias to some evolutionary origins, and he will quite often cite some interesting experiments conducted by psychologists (he is not, by the way) that revealed or provided insight into the bias in question. In his introduction Dobelli explains that the book began life as a personal list kept for his own benefit, and I can believe that.

Dobelli covers 99 biases in 300 pages, so he can’t spend much time on each bias. Not every bias is as interesting or worthwhile as the next. But from the very beginning, I was frustrated by the brevity of each chapter. Just as I read something that intrigued me, Dobelli shepherded me on to the next bias like some kind of frantic tour guide worried that we won’t have time to see all of the art. Please stay with the tour, no cameras.

I wanted to be mollified by dazzling prose, but I had to settle for somewhat dull attempts at wit. I wanted to be satisfied with lucid, if too concise, explanations of these biases, but I had to settle for somewhat tepid attempts to demonstrate these biases without getting drawn into the bigger discussions of the cognitive and behavioural science that underlies them. Dobelli ties his own hands here, to poor effect.

To be fair, it is clear that Dobelli is well-read in this field. He has done his research (even if the “note on sources” section frustratingly places the sources under headings by the bias name but not the chapter number, and there is nary an endnote to be seen). It’s clear, judging from the number of times he quotes from or references Thinking, Fast and Slow, that he has been heavily influenced by the work of Daniel Kahneman. In fact, one could say that The Art of Thinking Clearly is little more than attempt to distil the biases and only the biases mentioned in Thinking, Fast and Slow and similar such books.

The thing about blog posts like this is that they seldom linger in one’s short- or long-term memories. They are space-filling exercises, attempts to get eyeballs to the page and clicks on ads. It doesn’t work well in book form; I don’t, as a general rule, enjoy books of lists all that much. There are some exceptions for lists compiled and enumerated in a hilarious manner, but that isn’t the case here. Yet with the cognitive biases removed from a larger context and reduced merely to a checklist of errors to avoid, Dobelli robs them of their greater meaning.

So if you’re truly interested in this subject matter, why not just skip The Art of Thinking Clearly and go read Thinking, Fast and Slow? I have. It’s much better than this book and much more informative, and it’s written by an actual psychologist. This book, like the BuzzFeed post it resembles, is a pale imitation of something more meaningful and accomplished. Imitation flowers have their place, but life is too short to waste it on imitation books.


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