Book review: “On Being Certain: believing you are right even when you’re not” by Robert A. Burton

This is a book for people (like me) interested in non-conscious thinking.  It deals with the important topic of the feeling of conviction.

“The feelings of knowing, familiarity, strangeness, and realness…don’t fit neatly into standard categories of mental functions – emotions, moods, or thoughts.  Collectively they represent aspects of a separate type of mental activity: an internal monitoring systems that makes us aware of and colors, judges, and accesses our thoughts” (page 216).  We have evolved an awareness of our thinking, and a reward system for encouraging as yet unproven thoughts, speculations that eventually may become useful new ideas “the brain has developed a constellation of mental sensations that feel like thoughts but aren’t” (page 217).

The most interesting aspect of the book is the explanation that much of our thinking is non-conscious; we can’t observe this thinking and consequently we don’t (can’t ever) know ourselves as well as we probably think we do.  Also it leads to feelings that we know something even when we aren’t sure why, and even when we are shown that we are wrong.

Burton criticises Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink for continuing the myth that we can train our unconscious to make better decisions.  And, of course, for promoting the idea that some people can know when their intuition is right.

As a general read though this is a book only for people really interested in the topic, there are a few nuggets of wisdom tucked into a meandering essay without a very clear message – cutting the length by half might help.  Advice for the reader, read the first few chapters then the last.

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