Surprising Ways to Be Wise: The Wisest One in the Room: How You Can Benefit from Social Psychology’s Most Powerful Insights
by Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross
Free Press, 2015 ($26)

To appreciate how good this book is, you need to know a bit about social psychology—the rock-star branch of psychology that has produced a long list of headline-grabbing research, including Stanley Milgram's classic 1960s experiments at Yale University showing how easily people in lab coats can pressure average citizens into apparently shocking innocent people to death. Speaking of stars, these experiments were dramatized in a 1976 movie featuring William Shatner as Milgram and again last October in Experimenter, which starred Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder.

Social psychology is all about psychological processes that become evident only when people are in social situations. It seeks to discover general principles of human behavior by conducting what are often fiendishly clever experiments with small groups. Unfortunately, many of these principles turn out to be obvious in retrospect, and some of the most famous experiments have proved hard to replicate. One of the highest-profile social psychology experiments of all time—the Stanford Prison Experiment (also now a major motion picture)—doesn't meet even minimal standards of good scientific research. It lacked a control group, for example.

Now that you know the discipline's dark side, dig deeply into this new volume by prominent social psychologists Gilovich of Cornell University and Ross of Stanford University. In nine very readable chapters, they have mined their field for the gold nuggets—surprising, practical principles derived from many of the best studies in their specialty.

The book sparkles with examples, but here are just three: If you want people to develop a genuine interest in something, give them only small rewards for their participation; big rewards get people more interested in the rewards than in the activity. If you want people to be more honest, have them sign an honesty statement before they begin a task; pledging truthfulness at the completion of a task—like we all do on our tax returns—has little effect. And if you want to influence which candidate people will vote for, it matters greatly whether those people focus on whom to select versus whom to reject. Even though I've taught psychology courses for decades, the authors surprised me repeatedly with these kinds of practical guidelines, all supported by experiments they describe in clear, nontechnical terms.

On the downside, the end of the book gets political, even preachy, when Gilovich and Ross start to apply their principles to specific issues, such as Middle East conflicts and climate change—topics on which, they admit, they have strong personal views. But even here there are surprises. Social psychology suggests, for example, that extreme tactics by environmentalists are “misplaced.” Instead of dire warnings about our great-grandchildren's fate, “gentle nudges and modest incentives” are the real keys to controlling climate change. Read, be surprised and become wiser.