Wray Herbert and his book "On Second Thought"

Wray Herbert and his book "On Second Thought" (Photos courtesy of Crown Publishing)

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.