March 1, 2012

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A. J. Jacobs

My New Year's resolution to read less is slowly crumbling in these dark damp days of late winter. I have succumbed regularly in these past few weeks to my favourite drug - easy reading, funny books. The Guinea Pig Diaries qualifies admirably in that category.
The subtitle of this fairly ridiculous book is "My Life as an Experiment." A. J. Jacobs is the author who also wrote The Know-It-All (in which he took a year to read the Encyclopedia Britannica right through) and The Year of Living Biblically. He's the master of experiential or immersion journalism and in this third book he describes nine different immersion experiments ranging from a day to a month long. He tries such things as impersonating a beautiful woman, being completely honest in everything, outsourcing all his daily tasks overseas, "uni-tasking" (as opposed to multi-tasking) and spending a month doing everything his wife tells him to.

It truly is ridiculous but it's funny too, and in the course of his experiments he comes to some profound insights about life and people. In between he reflects on how his experiments have changed him, and they have, especially his year of living according to the Bible, which he says has left a permanent habit of thankfulness with him, and although not a believer per se, he prays a prayer of thankfulness every day, sometimes many, and is teaching his children to do the same.

One of the most fascinating things he uncovers in his "Rationality Project" (Chapter 5) is a monstrous list of about 56 cognitive biases that affect the way we think about things. For instance, the "Self-serving Bias" lets us attribute our successes to internal factors but our failures to situational factors beyond our control. So you got an A because you worked hard but if you got an F it was because the teacher didn't like you. Because of the Romeo bias, men generally overestimate women's sexual interest in them. The Lake Wobegon Effect (Lake Wobegon, "where all the children are above average") makes us think we're smarter and more virtuous than we actually are.

I was reading pretty fast, so I'm not sure which of these he's making up (e.g. the IKEA effect, where the harder it is to put something together, the more value you attribute to it), but they all make sense to me anyway. I see Jacobs has a new book coming out in April called Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. I'll look forward to reading it.