Delusions of the Crowd: Why People Go Mad in Groups by William J. Bernstein

This was a fascinating but also frustrating read. It chronicled the “manias” that have gripped people including ponzi schemes, stock schemes, and religious cults. It isn’t hard to see how some of the previous delusions that have gripped people look disturbingly similar to the current crypto craze.

Few things corrode journalistic excellence as the ease of writing about the revolutionary ventures of brilliant businessmen, who with alarming frequency grace magazine covers, first as heroes, then as accused felons.

I like how he talked about narrative. Narrative is a way that newspapers package stories because they are stories. Humans like stories. Stories are ways of understanding things. This is how we can fall for schemes, or scams because the story just sounds so good.

In the world of psychology, this is called “transportation.” Psychologist Richard Gerrig defines a narrative as a device that mentally transports the listener or reader away from their immediate surroundings; when it ends, they return to their surroundings “somewhat changed by the journey.”

This is why we love books and video games. It feels like a lived experience.

As put by Emily Dickinson, There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry - This Traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of Toll - How frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human Soul.

How beautiful is that passage?

Sometimes, the author went into excruciating detail and seems to lose the plot a bit when it got into the religious mania. He had to inttoduce so much back story, and then of course introduce the people and their life history. This is a very standard type of non-fiction writing that peole use in books like this. It is a good way to introduce people that are important in the present but sometimes it got tedious. As shown in the below example I just made up:

Person did this very important things. Person grew up here and did this stuff. Then lots of other stuff. (10 pages later) Person did this important thing. (Then the author finally gets tot he point of why we need to know about this person).

The chapters were very long. I am a hard-core reader but struggled to get through some of the chapters in one sitting. There weren’t any headings in the chapter, so I found it difficult to find somewhere to put down the books. Authors, please give readers a place where we can take a break. If I do stop in the middle of a chapter, I will find it hard to get back into the flow of the chapter.

The topics he prsents are very important but the book needs better editing to make it flow together better. Also, I think some parts of the book could be told in a much snappier way.

On their surfaces, the religious and financial events appear to prepresent different phenomena, but they were powered by the same social and psychological mechanisms: the irrestible power of narratives; the human proclivity to imagine patterns where there were none; the overweening hubris and overconfidence of both their leaders and followers; and, above all, the overwhelming proclivity of human behings to imitate the behaviour of those around them, no matter how factually baseless or self-destructive.

Read that and tell me you aren’t thinking of FTX, crypto, and Sam Bankman Fried. It feels like a whole book could be written just about crypto. This feels like a mania to me.

The parts of the book about religious manias feel like they have less accompanying research than the financial manias. I would like to have more details on research into the manias and how people fall for them. I guess it’s harder to quantify why people get ‘fooled’ for rreligious manias? Or if you push it too far, you might even start questioning why people believe in religion at all? The author seems to really disdain religious manias.

Some of the quotes in this book are too perfect and should be reused in a book about crypto:

Mirroring the expectations of end-times adherents, few beliefs are more agreeable than the promise of effortless and unbounded wealth, and its acolytes do not easily part with so comforting a notion. For the faithful, the path of least resistance runs through a balanced state of disagree/dislike, labeling skeptics dim bulbs who “don’t get it”.

Another:

Fred Schwed puts it most succinctly: “The burnt customer certainly prefers to believe that he has been robbed rather than that he has been a fool on the advice of fools.”

The part of the book where he talks about Christian Evangelicals/Christian Zionists really made me understand the situation in Israel and the strong relationship that USA seems to have with them. This section of the book almost seems like it could be spun out into a book by itself. It talks about Balfour declaration, how the Christians are trying to help Israel bring about revelation, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the rapture. The author sums up the whole situation in the Middle East most wonderfully:

If there is a cataclysmic war in the Middle East, it will likely result from God telling different people different things…

I found many things to like about this book, but as a whole it suffers from too large a scope, and disorganization. It feels like there are two books in here: financial scams/Ponzi schemes, and the Christian Zionist topic. I still learned a lot from this book but I wouldn’t recommend this to others to read. I’m sure there must be better books on these more specific topics. I don’t regret reading it but parts of it were a slog and those without patience will most likely give up about partway through this book.

Rating: ★★★

Book #85 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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