Book Review: ‘Thinking: A Memoir’ By Richard E. Nisbett

A memoir by one of U-M’s most celebrated observers of human nature reveals too little about what makes him tick
thinking a memoir
Thinking: A Memoir // Image courtesy of Richard E. Nisbett

Back when I taught rhetoric and composition — better known as “freshman English” — at Penn State University, one of the course’s central themes involved audience consideration. I taught students to ask themselves: Whom do I want to read my piece? Through what means might I most effectively reach those people? What are their values, and consequently, what tone should I employ? What are my goals?

I revisited these questions often while poring over Richard E. Nisbett’s Thinking: A Memoir. A University of Michigan distinguished professor emeritus, Nisbett is enough of a social psychology superstar that Malcolm Gladwell once wrote in The New York Times Book Review: “The most influential thinker, in my life, has been the psychologist Richard Nisbett. He basically gave me my view of the world.”

That is sky-high praise. And if nothing else, Thinking provides an overview of the impressive breadth of Nisbett’s field of inquiry — including the opacity of our own motivations, how and why we get distracted from statistical “big picture” indicators when making decisions, and how the American South’s “culture of honor” results in higher rates of violence.

But that’s not all this book is. Working within the framework of an intellectual autobiography, it begins as a more conventional, linear memoir that’s interesting but not as satisfying as I had hoped.

The book opens with Nisbett’s free-range childhood near El Paso. His unsupervised (and often dangerous) early solo adventures — including jumping off the roof and repeatedly leaping into the Rio Grande despite not knowing how to swim — were, he insists, what set him on the path to a life in science: “My unconscious mind was undoubtedly doing lots of work on those expeditions that wouldn’t have gotten done if I had been playing games with neighbor children.”

Nisbett’s descriptions of his early life range from nostalgically candid to evasive. In only a few pages, he jarringly jumps from high school friends to racism to his affection for rock ’n’ roll to his mother’s frustrated ambitions to his father’s mental illness. (“One starry June night, my father went into the backyard, stripped all his clothes off, … and announced that the world was coming to an end.”)

Richard E. Nisbett - thinking
Richard E. Nisbett, pictured above, is the other of Thinking: A Memoir. // Photograph courtesy of Richard E. Nisbett

Next, we’re off to Tufts University, where he dismisses his classmates as having been drawn from a “narrow range of talent” within America’s Northeast: “I was able to find some bright people to hang out with, for sure, but the hordes of scintillating intellects I had imagined might be at Tufts turned out not to be there.”

If that reads as pompous, wait until he’s 24 and applying for faculty jobs at Penn, Harvard, and Yale. In the book’s most bracing (yet nonetheless enraging) moment of self-awareness, Nisbett notes: “You should know that I didn’t apply to any of the three schools that expressed an interest in me. This was the era of the old boy network. In those days, when the top departments had an opening, they called the best researchers in their field and asked them if they had any good men coming out.”

Nisbett landed unhappily at Yale, before making his permanent professional home at the University of Michigan where, in a line that will surprise more than a few locals, Nisbett says he found that “the paucity of people at Michigan intent on showing you how smart they were was a little unnerving initially.” (I never found them to be in short supply during my time in Ann Arbor, but … OK.)

The rest of Thinking focuses exclusively on Nisbett’s various research ventures, including
the conclusions at which he and his collaborators arrived. These sections contain flashes of compelling insights, certainly, but they hardly drive the reader forward.

Which is why, again and again, I found myself asking: Who exactly is the target audience for this particular Portrait of the Academic as a Young Man?

The only reasonable answer I could produce was: those working (or aiming to work) within the field of social psychology. There’s a lot of name-dropping here that will be lost on non-experts, as well as plenty of praise of Nisbett’s close colleagues as “talented” and “charming.”

I read Thinking hoping to understand Nisbett. I yearned for a deeper, more sustained exploration of the links between Nisbett’s life of the mind and his, well, life. Thinking mostly left me empty.

This story is featured in the February 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.