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Conversations in Science

A look at the mind's natural shortcuts

Wray Herbert, author of 'On Second Thought,' talks about the split-second decisions our brains make — and why we should spend less time going with our guts.

By Lori Kozlowski, Los Angeles Times

November 2, 2010

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Wray Herbert is thinking about your brain. He concludes that your thinking may be so ancient that you're making more mistakes than you'd prefer.

In "On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits" (Crown Publishers, 2010), the author writes about "heuristics" — shortcuts that our minds naturally take so we can make split-second decisions.

Many have compared the book to Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"; Herbert jokes that he calls his own book "Don't Blink" because he's challenging us to pause and take a second look at our patterns.

Herbert, director of science communication at the Assn. of Psychological Science, discusses how coldness and loneliness are linked; how telling a lie in an e-mail might make you want to wash your hands; and why most people would not want to wear a dictator's sweater.

The author recently discussed his new book with the Times.

Where did the idea for this book come from? From your own life?

Yes and no. In a broad sense, the book is about how the mind helps us make bad choices. I've made enough bad choices in my life. But really: I've been writing about psychology for years [and] very few people have ever heard of the word "heuristic." So I thought it might be a useful service to write about it, to show people how much they are on automatic pilot and how much they don't have to be.

How has your decision-making changed since writing this book?

I recognize these things in my daily life now. My wife does as well, since she lived with the book for a long time.

"Heuristics are normally helpful," you write — you say that they are crucial, in fact, to not over-thinking every choice. But they can hurt, too. Can you talk about that?

Consider that many of these heuristics are ancient, developed over eons. Our minds developed in ancient times. So, for example, people overestimate distances down because they have a fear of falling. People also overestimate the distance up because they have a fear of climbing. [Humans are unconsciously calculating anticipated fatigue. This stems from our need to conserve energy in ancient times.]

Each chapter is about a specific heuristic and what it does and how, in modern times, it has become more perilous.

I write in the intro about skiers on a slope. [This was an accident that occurred in 1995 in the Utah Wasatch Mountain Range.] A group goes out on a slope and triggers an avalanche, and one of the skiers dies.

The skiers used the familiarity heuristic — it says if something comes quickly to mind, follow it. [The skiers went with their first thought — to stay the course, which led to the disaster.] They employed the mimicry heuristic — you don't want to be the naysayer in the group. [No one in the ski group disagreed with the decision to stay the course.]

If at any time they had trumped these heuristics, the outcome could have been different.

Another shortcut is the default heuristic: Since every choice we make uses up energy, if we don't have to make a choice, we don't make it.

As an example, I write that it is much more convenient to need a kidney transplant in Paris than in D.C. In France, 99.9% of people are on the donor list, while in the U.S. only 28% are on the donor list.

At first it might seem that the French are just more altruistic, but in France you are a donor unless you opt out. In the United States, you are not a donor unless you opt in. That simple policy change makes the difference.

You tell a great little story about a friend of yours applying to medical school. He really wanted one school in particular, but to be safe he applied to several. He gets into his first-choice school, but all the others reject him. Instead of being happy, he focuses on the rejection.

This is what psychologists call the negativity bias. There's no rational reason why he should feel bad. But because as species in ancient times — because we could be killed, because we had to be aware of the dangers and threats — over eons of human evolution, we developed this overall tendency to ruminate on the negative.

A lot of these heuristics are fear-based. Are we better off focusing on the positive?

Heuristics are not good or bad. It depends on the situation. Sometimes the negativity is necessary. Still, when we are thinking negatively, it might be good to take a step back.

The visceral heuristic links the physical sensation of cold to the emotion called loneliness. Can you discuss?

That has to do with the earliest days of human development. Infants, to survive, have to be warmed by their mother. You can also see this with experiments and games in the laboratory: You create a scenario in which some people will be shunned (like being picked last on a team). The ones that are excluded choose hot beverages after the game is over.

Another part of visceral heuristic involves the term "embodied cognition" — we associate cleanliness with moral purity. If someone lies on a voice mail, they seek mouthwash afterward. They want to purify their mouths. If someone lies by e-mail, they seek hand washing afterward, or hand-wash wipes. This was a study at the University of Michigan.

Can you talk about other heuristic forces?

There's hindsight bias: When something happens, we think we knew it all along.

The momentum heuristic means we have a sense of intuitive physics. If we're at a ballgame, if we see a ball hit, we know before it lands if it was hit out of the park or not.

The momentum heuristic is also responsible for regret. If something doesn't happen the way our rudimentary mind thinks it should have happened, we think we did something wrong.

Why do we have a deep psychological need and yearning for space and distance?

Say you are standing on a hill, and there is a house far away. You sort of see the character of the house, the outline. If you are up close, you can see cracks in the paint. At a distance, we see the ideal.

It's the "mapmaker heuristic," and it probably goes back to when being penned in was dangerous. Having the ability to run was freedom.

Cooties heuristic? Are we hard-wired to be afraid of germs?

Psychologists often call it the contagion bias. It started as a healthy fear of germs, but we became distrustful of things tainted in any way.

I talk about sweaters. For example, would you wear Hitler's sweater? Most people probably wouldn't. Most people think it has bad essences. In the same sense, people want to wear their grandmother's wedding ring because it has good essences.

My point with all of these is that we started with something that made sense on a basic primal level. But now those hard-wired habits can lead to bad decisions.

Most of the ability to think as humans is located in the frontal cortex. What this book is arguing for is not to trust your gut all the time.

Let your front lobes do some deliberation.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity from a longer discussion.

lori.kozlowski@latimes.com