Book review, Non-fiction, popular science, psychology, Tali Sharot

The Influential Mind, What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others, by Tali Sharot, 2017

As a break from the recent relentless Pratchettery I have managed to finish this book of popular science written by Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist who also wrote ‘The Optimism Bias’. This is timely because the paperback version comes out on 2 August in the UK, and I suspect you will see piles of this book in your local bookstores.

The author is a serious scientist: she is a Ted talker, director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London and a Wellcome Trust Fellow and has been published on various topics including the neuroscience of optimism, emotional memories and cognitive dissonance in journals such as Nature. In other words this is more than just one of those light hearted copy and paste books on science that tell you little more than you will find on Wikipedia – this is a review of the literature and science of influence, albeit presented in an accessible fashion. Why influence? Well it’s key to understanding why people behave the way they do, and surely this world needs a bit more understanding and empathy at the moment.

‘The Influential Mind will make you gasp with surprise – and laugh with recognition. Many of our most cherished beliefs about how to influence others turn out to be wrong; Sharot sets them right. Packed with practical insights, this profound book will change your life. An instant classic’ Cass R. Sunstein, bestselling co-author of Nudge


No it won’t, no they aren’t, and no it isn’t.

It is understandable that the publishers chose this review to illustrate this book’s entry on their website and adorn the hardback edition’s front page. This is a classic case of log-rolling – two minutes on Google told me that Sunstein has co-authored papers with Sharot – but it is also an extreme example of hyperbole. The only way this book would change your life is if you tripped over it at the top of a stairwell. I have no recollection whatsoever of gasping as I read it – maybe the occasional slow nod of recognition at a point well made – and there are few if any laughs in here either. This is a serious book, and it really does it no favours to pretend it is life-changing or ground breaking – it is no more nor less than a thoughtful review of the existing research into this subject, presented in an accessible fashion. Popular science in other words, perhaps not at its finest but no worse than the rest of what is becoming a crowded field.

The most striking example the author cites when discussing the importance of understanding how influence works relates to the vexed topic of hand washing in hospitals. A study of how frequently doctors and nurses in US hospitals wash their hands found shocking failure rates, leading directly to infections. Monitoring the staff remotely via video had no impact – as long as they knew they weren’t going to face any punishment they simply did not change their behaviour. What had a dramatic impact however was publishing hand washing rates in real time on a screen in the staff restroom. Rates shot up. Sharot speculates that this was because positive feedback on performance was perceived by staff as a non-pecuniary reward. In other words, rewarding people can influence their behaviour. Who knew? So far as I know there were no similar punishment trials where people had a % of their salary deducted each time they failed to wash their hands, but I guess it would have had the same results.


Elsewhere this book hits more topical and predictable targets. Trump and his power to persuade based on emotion rather than logic, the anti-vaccine movement and how to counter it (don’t try to address the lies in the anti-vaxx case, just emphasise the positives of vaccination i.e. the avoidance of death) and the times when the wisdom of crowds can be misleading. This is all packaged in an engaging and relatively short book which you will find interesting if you are looking for an introduction to this topic.