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