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Book Review: Behaving Badly

In an introductory note to the readers of Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business, author Eden Collinsworth, a former business executive and media consultant, cautions that she “is not an ethicist or a social scientist and this is not an academic debate on the topic of morality but an adventurous search for its modern-day relevance.” That’s a fair warning. The book is indeed adventurous. As a casual reader, I found it lively and entertaining. But as a social scientist, I was disappointed.

Behaving Badly is Collinsworth’s romp through moral issues in domains such as cheating, lying, killing people, making vast sums of money, programming robots, ordering drone strikes, attempting to defy mortality, using sex to sell celebrities, and creating and designing babies with ever more sophisticated technologies. The work is wide-ranging: interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and historical.

At the core of the book are accounts of interviews the author conducted with quite an assortment of different people. Sometimes she traveled to different continents to interview them; other times she invited them to breakfast at her London apartment. Among the people she interviewed were a convicted murderer, a neuroscientist, the editor of the Financial Times (about miscreants in the financial sector), Candace Bushnell (of Sex and the City fame), Margaret Atwood, the founder of Ashley Madison (tag line: “Life is short. Have an affair.”), a whistleblower, a trend spotter, a woman who provided security for prominent people with targets on their backs, a political leader from Kenya who was imprisoned multiple times for his advocacy of human rights, an escapee from a concentration camp, a pop star from Turkey, an artist with a focus on celebrities, a game designer, and several military leaders.

Of course, in a book on morality in contemporary life politics is going to figure prominently. Collingsworth gets in some digs about Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, takes a few swipes at Hillary Clinton and slips in a snide remark about Barack Obama, thereby assuring that just about every American voter will feel annoyed with her at some point.

Probably every reader – whether American or not – will also find much to like about the book. The twenty-four chapters are short and breezy, and each one skillfully draws the reader into the one that follows.

When I took off my “sit back and enjoy it” hat and donned my social scientist cap, I found Behaving Badly exasperating. There is a vast scholarly literature on morality, including stacks of scientific studies. There are databases that make it easy to see the big picture of what is available, both in academic journals as well as books.

Collinsworth describes going to a library in London, where she types keywords into a computer then browses the shelves of the relevant sections. She chooses one book because it was written by an American, another because she likes one of the words in the title, and others for equally idiosyncratic reasons. She ends up finding a lot of relevant and telling tomes, but also misses all sorts of research and writing relevant to the questions that interest her. “There’s research on that!” was the note I wrote in the margins, over and over again.

Collinsworth seems more interested in talking to people than mastering the issues. Although some of her interviews generated fascinating discussions and insights (her conversations with military leaders were among the most impressive), the yield from others seemed rather thin, especially given the effort expended to track down the sources.

When introducing her interviewees, Collinsworth sometimes tells the reader what she thinks about the issue at hand (we learn more about her ideas about morality than anyone else’s), and then notes that she tried to get the interviewees to agree with her. From a scientific perspective, if you want to learn what someone really thinks, that is not a good interviewing technique. Fortunately, most of her interviewees seemed resistant to those influence attempts.

The best social science books, I think, have a central question and a clear structure. Readers know where they are in the argument, what has been shown and what has yet to be addressed and what it is all adding up to. Behaving Badly, in contrast, is meandering and unsystematic. That’s different from boring.

Collinsworth seems like a smart, engaging person with a wealth of intriguing life experiences. If I were attending a dinner party that went on for hours, I’d want to be seated next to her. But if I am going to invest in reading more than 250 pages, I would like the book to be made of sterner stuff.

Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business

Eden Collinsworth

April 2017

Hardcover, 272 pages

$26.95

Book Review: Behaving Badly

Psych Central's Recommendation:
Not worth your time

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Bella DePaulo

Bella DePaulo is the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out. Before she started studying single life, she published many articles on the psychology of lying and detecting lies.

APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2017). Book Review: Behaving Badly. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 25, 2019, from https://psychcentralreviews.com/2017/book-review-behaving-badly/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 Jul 2017
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 2 Jul 2017
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