Dec 1, 2011

REVIEW | You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney, Penguin Group, 2011

" You are not so smart"
David McRaney
In “ You are not so smart”, David McRaney analyzes the unique ways that people are not so smart. He takes the human as an individual and breaks down the psychological ways that we “think” we maintain our individuality, out multi-layered personalities, and our reactions to everyday scenarios. When in fact, McRaney shows us that overall everyone thinks and reacts the same. At first I am sure that there does not seem to be any obvious connection between “You are not so smart” and contemporary art. Yet on a deeper level the psychology that McRaney has opened my eyes to and the connection that it seems to have to contemporary art is phenomenal. Some key points out of the 48 chapters that seemed to hit spot on with the structure of contemporary art/artist deal with things like: Confirmation Bias, Introspection, The Affect Heuristic, and Attention.

Confirmation Bias: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions. Artists paint about things they know and when we analyze these pieces of art we want to believe we already understand the topic they choose instead of realizing that more often then not we really do not know the subject. We are so uncomfortable about not knowing new information that we seek out particular information present in the pieces to confirm evidence that we do know it, but we are subconsciously lying to ourselves. The same goes for the artist painting or creating the piece. They ignore what they do not know and focus on what they know because what they are unaware of challenges their preconceived notions of understanding the topic.

Introspection: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up. When artists explains their pieces they usually have a pretty rational logical explanation for what they’ve done, or do they? Just like when a viewer analyzes a piece by an artist it seems we make up a logical reason for why a piece is what it is. According to McRaney’s introspection theory this whole idea we create is false. In fact when put under pressure not only the artist but the viewer will make up something while wholly believing their motivation and desires for the explanation given are rational and thought out.

The Affect Heuristic: You depend on emotions to tell you if something is good or bad, greatly overestimate rewards, and tend to stick to your first impressions. Artist and viewers do this heuristic constantly. Based on the works we view or the first impression an artist gets when dealing with an issue that he or she will use for the foundation of their work, is based on the emotional response as to whether something is good or bad. Artist as well as viewers tend to make snap judgment decisions concerning the topics they are viewing or creating. According to McRaney, the affect heuristic is the Holy Grail of cognitive biases in advertising and politics which whether artist do it on purpose or not, serves in their best interest when trying to get their works into the public sector. As a viewer we are pretty crappy at dealing with abstraction in our lives so we base our decisions on our immediate emotional responses.

Attention: You are aware only of a small amount of the total information your eyes take in, and even less is processed by your conscious mind and remembered. The best way to remember this is “tunnel vision”. When we view a piece of artwork or when an artist paints a piece we all tend to focus on one main point while blurring out surrounding interferences creating a moment-to-moment perception. Both artist and viewers would like to believe we capture everything presented before us and that our mind acts like a recording videotape, when in reality, this is totally false. Large parts of our day to day are completely forgotten and most of the time never even taken in by our memory to being with. The same goes for artist and viewers. When painting, an artist will focus in on one aspect of their work and surround themselves so much to a point that surrounding influences are blurred out. The viewer will focus in on main points of a work, and surrounding influences that could explain the reasoning behind the artist decisions are blurred out. To sum this up, we see what we want to see and avoid the rest.

I think that all the theories that McRaney presents to the reader go hand in hand with contemporary art. We see what we want to see, we depend greatly on emotions to not only create art but analyze art, we make up explanations for why we think a piece of art is the way it is, and we believe what we want and ignore what does not coincide with what we already know. McRaney has spent years developing his research based on his line of work in psychology and the references of highly intelligent scientist from around the world who have devoted much of their life’s to researching the methods of the human mind. I think that through McRaney’s studies contemporary art takes on more meaning, it explains what we think we already know and breaks down the reasoning behind an artist mindset as well as helping us discover what pushes artist to work the way they do.

-- Kristi Underwood


  1. Nice! I think this book would make for an interesting read and I think you did an excellent job tying it to the focus of the class.

    -John Elmore

  2. I think psychology plays such an important part in art! The way I might respond to some art is by the color. It always gets my attention and it seems as if I can feel the different mood changes depending on the colors. If they are more on the blue side or cool colors I tend to get an calmer emotion sometimes it might even be sad. That's just me though. Anyways I know for sure I catch myself doing this and I will honestly admit to it.

    -Brittany Rutledge