Second Thoughts

Our take on a new book about ‘outsmarting your mind.’

Surely we don’t need another book to tell us how stupid we are? In 2008 alone, Predictably Irrational, by MIT behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, regaled us with examples of behavior and decisions that defy logic (the aspirin we’re told costs $1 makes our headaches go away faster than an identical one that we’re told costs a nickel), while Sway described “the irresistible pull of irrational behavior,” and Nudge explained how slightly reframing decisions—to increase employee participation in a 401(k), make opt-in the default rather than opt-out—can cause us to make better choices. In this year’s The Invisible Gorilla, psychology profs Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons describe “how our intuitions mislead us.”

On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits is the newest entrant in this overcrowded field, and it is inevitable that author Wray Herbert, a longtime psychology writer (including for, where he wrote the Mind Matters Web column; for Psychology Today; and for Huffington Post), hacks through much the same terrain. But he brings a twist: advice on how to avoid the mental pitfalls that cause us, for example, to assume that an intense level of emotion will continue at that intensity for the foreseeable future. I’m talking about you, euphoric-in-November-2008 Obama voters: by falling into the common cognitive trap of expecting a peak emotion to persist, you become that much more disenchanted when, inevitably, it doesn’t.

That expectation of emotional persistence is the result of the “futuristic heuristic,” one of 20 “heuristics”—cognitive rules of thumb that “everyone uses every day” when reaching judgments and making decisions—that Herbert identifies. I have two bones to pick with him, however, before we’re even out of the introduction. He calls the heuristics hard-wired and universal. Hard-wired implies that it can’t be changed, but the whole thrust of the book is that these bad mental habits can be. As for “universal,” we’ve seen time and again that a behavior found in college students in the West and deemed “universal” turns out to be nothing of the kind once researchers get around to looking at the other 99 percent of humankind. But assuming that Third World villagers are not his most likely readers, and that “hard-wired” is shorthand for “common default mode,” let’s give Herbert a pass.

Have you fallen for the “familiarity” heuristic, in which we fail to be on our guard when a situation is one we have encountered many times before? A group of back-country skiers did: having skied the same Utah terrain often, they didn’t take ordinary precautions or heed signs of avalanche risk, as a result of being lulled into complacency by familiarity. The group leader was killed in the avalanche. A more common version of the familiarity heuristic: people are more likely to buy stock in a new company if its name is easy to say and read.

The fluency heuristic? If you read instructions for, say, cooking or exercising in an easy-on-the-eyes font, you are more likely to regard the task as easy than if the instructions are in, say, bold italics. And because of the arithmetic heuristic—which I had always thought of as just plain innumeracy—being told that 10 in 100 mental patients commit crimes makes people more fearful than if they’re told that 10 percent of such patients do. A concrete thing like the number 10 is apparently more evocative than a percentage. Similarly, people prefer odds of 9–100 to odds of 1–10, focusing on the larger numerator (ooh—nine chances!).

But is the scarcity heuristic—in which we value what is rare and assume that if something is valuable it is scarce—really why an unmarried 50-year-old woman concludes that “good men” are rare, or might it be a valid extrapolation from her experience? And can we really invoke the decoy heuristic to argue that Nader helped Gore in the 2000 election? Herbert describes research finding that when voters consider a third-party candidate (Nader) but don’t vote for him, they pull the lever for the candidate he most resembles (Gore). Maybe, but what about all those voters who did go for Nader, and who outnumbered the Bush-Gore spread in Florida? The decoy effect might work in other choices, pulling us toward the choice it most resembles, but not in elections, where some people do in fact choose the decoy.

The future heuristic may not be as foolish as Herbert suggests either. This heuristic causes us to consider events in the future more valuable, more interesting, and more important than those in the past. Volunteers setting a price on their labor ask for more for a job to be done than one already completed. That may seem irrational, but there is no opportunity cost for past events; there is for future ones (if you’re doing that job, you’re not doing something else). It seems perfectly reasonable to expect to be compensated for giving up that possibility. In this case the heuristic is reasonable, not a cognitive trap that leads us to make foolish decisions.

Herbert speculates that heuristics exist because the brain evolved to make rapid choices. Not necessarily: that’s the kind of evolutionary explanation pejoratively called a just-so story, in which you take a trait and spin a plausible-sounding backstory for how it came to exist. (I groaned when he argued that because it is adaptive to prefer healthy, fertile, “ripe” mates, people have a “visceral” heuristic for ripe fruit. How about the simpler explanation that eating the unripe kind can make you feel sick?) Heuristics could instead be byproducts of neuronal processes with no adaptive benefit, then or now.

It’s hard to write a book like this without falling into the “here’s another study!” trap. I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how to avoid it. In magazine writing, too, if you want to describe a new finding you’ve got to describe the experiment (mea culpa). But the effect of citing multiple studies for each of 20 heuristics is a bit numbing. The drumbeat of studies has another downside: many of the experiments examined the behavior of just a handful of college students in artificial situations. As you read about one study after another after another, you begin to wonder how relevant the findings are for real people.

The durability heuristic, which causes us to assume that an intense emotion will persist, may or may not be universal, but it does describe a lot of us in the real world. So, about those Obama voters. The euphoria of Nov. 4, 2008, felt like the new normal to millions of people: with Obama in the White House, happy days would be here again. Even without almost 10 percent unemployment, that wasn’t going to happen. (Your car was going to need repairs, or your kid was going to need braces, or some other aspect of real life was going to hit you.) The violent clash between expectation and reality is a big part of the reason for Obama’s abysmal approval ratings (47 percent in last month’s NEWSWEEK Poll).

The reason to be aware of these mental heuristics is, Herbert rightly argues, that we’ll keep defaulting to them “unless we deliberately talk ourselves out of [them].” That doesn’t provide a road map for Democratic strategists, but it could keep the rest of us from making mistakes whose consequences range from dying in an avalanche (the familiarity heuristic) to failing to follow directions because we don’t like the font they’re written in (the fluency heuristic).