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A Review of
The Wisest One in the Room: How you can benefit from social psychology’s most powerful insights
Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross
Hardback: Free Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert
Poet William Stafford wrote, “Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why…” and I’m sure his words could well serve as an epigraph for this fine and indeed, “wise” book by social psychologists, Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross. Between them, they have over 80 years of experience in the two fields which define the scope of this book: social psychology and judgment and discernment with both fields explored in depth and with precision in terms of both analysis and application. Their exploration of what it means to be wise and to apply it in response to both ordinary and extraordinary questions and situations is both disciplined and practical. They persuasively make the case that what they consider the very heart of human psychology and, consequently, human folly–the reflexive belief that our perceptions bear a one-to-one correspondence to reality, often going a step further in the presumption that our own personal perceptions are especially accurate and objective—is malleable and amenable to alteration. This observation—one familiar to most of us however sheepishly we might respond to its veracity—forms the foundational thematic element of the book and is, then, a recurring point of reference throughout. Gilovich and Ross make a compelling case for understanding not only why we do what we do and how we can transform knowledge, experience and insight into wisdom, it offers direction in harnessing this powerful amalgam in personal, social and political situations towards the objective of creating a more sustainable, just and equitable world for all. In this, they succeed admirably and while there are minor suggestions that can be made regarding the structure of the book, it is a compelling and worthwhile addition to the library of anyone interested in the pragmatics of applied social psychology.
The book is organized into two parts: The first half addresses the fundamental question: what is wisdom? While some of the answers given are familiar philosophical responses, it is social psychology which concerns the authors such that their definitions are centered upon a clear understanding of human folly and a precise grounding in the research and language connected to the psychology of our distortions in judgment and response. Terms and concepts, such as “naïve realism”, “cognitive dissonance” “fundamental attribution error” and “the primacy of behavior” are examined via the familiar structure of an introductory anecdote followed by a detailed description of the relevant research studies with ample illustrations of how the principles function when applied to real-world situations. This basic structure well serves the needs of most readers by making rather complex scientific data accessible by a conservative use of potentially overwhelming technical language. In presenting their data and research studies, the authors do an admirable job of offering readers substantive information that is familiar and relatable—most of us have seen these ideas, attitudes and behaviors in action in ourselves and others—while not trivializing what are persistent and entrenched problems in human society across political, cultural, religious and generational demographics.
The second half of the book makes fluid connections with the first in focusing on the application and outcomes of the concepts examined to that point. Myriad examples are offered on how, for instance, we might “reduce dissonance” or “rationalization” in our choices and by showing how persistently stubborn questions might be addressed: How can teachers of at risk students help them to adopt a more flexible belief paradigm about their own intelligence and abilities? How does the language utilized in asking questions alter and shift responses and behaviors? How might we resolve the complicated and growing problem of climate change when we know that it is essential to dramatically change societal norms if we are to stem the tide of global warming? The authors provide tangible and intriguing answers based upon research that shows just how such questions and concerns can be assisted towards change that serves the greater good. The book makes a convincing argument that social psychology has much to offer toward the objective of changing values and establishing new norms in social attitudes that could well be considered a source of collective wisdom.
The book does have some weaknesses: The preface and prologue are essential to the full appreciation of the book as both bring facts, narrative, nuance and completion to critically important aspects of the fundamental point of the text. In one seemingly small matter, the book makes frequent reference to the first names of both authors when discussing research they authored or participated in, a fact that might be confusing to a reader who has not been introduced to them by reading the preface and understanding that such will be the case going forward. The source, scope and rationales for the research and studies used are also explained in some detail which might not impact anyone’s understanding of the book as much of it is covered again in the first chapter but the preface seems unnecessary—it might work better assimilated into the first chapter with perhaps a shorter “introduction” or none at all. The prologue is a work of art that should exist as the final chapter: it tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s deft and brilliant handling of his new Presidency beginning shortly after his election in 1994. He was faced with the overwhelming but essential need to bring his country together and he brought to bear a developed and mature wisdom, utilizing the entire canon of skills, knowledge and techniques of social psychology outlined in the book—the prologue tells a beautiful and heartening story of courage, grace under fire, and the wisdom born of a lifetime of suffering, reflective thought and deep love and concern for the good of humankind. I would hate to know that a reader failed to read the prologue, viewing it as nothing more than a few possibly unnecessary details the authors neglected to include in the body of the work.
On balance, this is a terrific book with much to recommend it to anyone committed to social justice, the healing of the planet, better relationships, a more cooperative and productive work environment, world peace. For people of faith, this is a bountiful resource for clergy, ministry committees and vestries for use in developing vital and thriving congregations committed to healthy and effective communication while encouraging “best practices” in the identification and development of the spiritual gifts of individuals and groups. We have much to learn from the research and writing available from the social sciences and the humanities and this wise and generous book is a wonderful addition to our embrace of those disciplines and the guidance they can give to all of us hoping to build a better world.
Michelle Wilbert is a spiritual director, writer, poemcatcher and farmwife.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com