Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

An Interview with Wray Herbert, Author of "On Second Thought"

A must-read for anyone interested in 'why we do what we do'

When I first started writing about psychology topics, Wray Herbert was one of the writers I looked up to the most. His ability to thoughtfully break down complex topics and deliver them with engaging stories--full meaning in tact--is an example of what science journalism should be. Having read his work for a couple of years (at his blog, "We're Only Human" and other venues), I had hoped that he'd eventually write a book more comprehensively tackling the topics he'd addressed in brief pieces. Thankfully, he has, and it was well worth the wait.

"On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits" is twenty chapters of trenchant though accessible analysis of why we do what we do. If you can imagine sitting across from a remarkable conversationalist, discussing ideas that drive to the core of why we humans so often think and act in ways not in our best interest, then you have a sense of what reading Herbert's book is like. Every page communicates something interesting and revealing, with a library of credible research backing it up.

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I was recently fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with the author and ask him a handful of questions about the book and its topics.

How did you originally become interested in the topics that eventually became "On Second Thought"?

I had for some time been writing my first blog---called "We're Only Human"--and it focused on the quirks of human nature. Isn't it funny how irrational this highly evolved species can be? And we are funny and odd and entertaining. But the more I read and wrote, the clearer it became that these quirks and biases oftentimes aren't so funny. Indeed, they can be perilous, and lead us into all sorts of mischievous thinking and behavior.

For example, we have a deeply rooted tendency to sort the world into simple boxes and categories; it's the mind's way of coping with the vastness and complexity of human experience. But this cognitive strategy also gives rise to the worse kind of cruel and unfair stereotyping if unchecked. Others of these stubborn biases mold our basic perception of the world and make us conserve energy more than we really need to in modern times, leading to sloth and resistance to any kind of hard work-including exercise. These biases are powerful and very difficult to trump. They can even be fatal: I describe in the book how several experienced backcountry skiers were trapped into several poor choices by their "quirky" irrational thinking. One died.

 

Someone picking up your book new to the topics may be unfamiliar with the concept of "heuristics." What exactly is a heuristic, and why is it so central to our thinking and behavior?

Heuristics are deeply entrenched habits of mind--that's the best and simplest definition, but it's not perfect. The entire time I was writing "On Second Thought", I debated with myself (and my editor) whether or not I should even use the word heuristic. It is a bit of scientific jargon, so it was risky to use in a book aimed at the general public. I decided in the end to use it, because most synonyms are loaded with a point of view: For example, some cognitive psychologists describe heuristics as tools, or mental "shortcuts"--but this sounds too positive for something that can be psychologically destructive. Others prefer cognitive "traps"--which captures only the negative aspects of heuristic thinking.

There is a heated debate within academia on this question, and while I don't resolve it, I do come down somewhere in the middle, with those who use the phrase "ecological rationality." What that means is that heuristic thinking is neither good nor bad all the time; what's good or bad is the fit. Some problems require a fast, automatic response--going grocery shopping, for instance. We'd be paralyzed if we had to deliberate every single purchase every time we walked into a grocery--we need automatic, heuristic thinking to get through the day. The problem comes-and this is the theme of "On Second Thought"--when we rely on our automatic, rapid-fire mind to make complex social decisions and judgments. The book's 20 chapters explore how these subtle and pervasive habits of mind can trip us up in ways we could never imagine.


You mention in a few chapters that "hard-wired heuristics" tend to spill over into the "world of emotions." What's an example of that?

Here's an example that surprises many people. We all carry around in our neurons an exquisite sense of the physical world--what psychologists call "intuitive physics" or "naïve physics." Without having to solve a single equation, we "know" gravity, trajectory, momentum and so forth. That's how we navigate the world without running into one another, so it's a good thing. The problem comes when we perceive--or believe--that these same physical laws govern our social and emotional worlds. Consider momentum. We see momentum in sports--think of the "hot hand" or a team that's "on a roll"--even though there is no scientific evidence for psychological momentum of this kind. What's worse, we see it in our personal and professional lives as well.

We perceive momentum in political campaigns, the stock market, and social movements, and one result is that we become complacent and fatalistic; we feel powerless when events have a life of their own, and we stop making effort. Or alternatively, we can feel we've lost our momentum-that we've been derailed by some unhappy occurrence. Then we start what psychologists call "counterfactual" thinking, or what we know simply as regret: "If I had only done this." "What if I had done this instead?" And we get mired in the past, ruminating about our mistakes. So our fundamental strategy for negotiating our physical environment shapes everything from fatalism and complacency to disappointment and regret.

 

I was especially intrigued by the "Whodunit Heuristic" because I think it speaks to the moral conundrums we find ourselves facing all the time, and the positions we take in the name of "right" or "good" or "moral." Would you say that we can't help but take these positions because we are moral beings? If so, how can we ever get beyond "us versus them" in the moral arena?

The human mind seems to have a fundamental sense of right and wrong-moral intuition. So in that sense we're probably incapable of not judging both ourselves and others all the time. The problem is that our moral instincts and our modern, legalistic reasoning often conflict, resulting in "moral dumbfounding." That's when we strongly feel that something is wrong but can't explain why-because there is no rational argument against it. That's why it's so hard for conservatives to make a case against gay marriage. At its core, the argument is simply that homosexuality does not seem "right."

This is what satirist Stephen Colbert--an intuitive psychologist--calls "truthiness"-things that people know intuitively, from the gut, without any support from facts, evidence, logic, or intellectual examination. Such moral emotions may have their roots in primitive emotions like disgust, but that doesn't make them right for an enlightened world. Our moral responsibility is to second-guess these primitive emotions and write laws that are just and fair.


I can't help but take away a feeling that we humans have a lot of cognitive obstacles to navigate every day to make good decisions and avoid falling into bias traps. Is there a "golden rule" of managing heuristics that you might recommend keeping top of mind?

It's a minefield out there. What I hope to convey is that the lives we lead are much more automated than we can ever imagine, and that this is not always a good thing. Heuristic thinking is subtle and invisible at times, and it takes a lot of hard work-thinking about our own thinking--to trump these habits of mind. I don't know that there is a "golden rule," but I do believe that simply being aware of the nature of the heuristic mind is the crucial first step toward living more deliberate, sensible lives.


A closing question: After reading your book, what one additional book would you recommend reading to complement the ideas you discuss, and why?

Both of Dan Ariely's books--"Predictably Irrational" and the more recent (and more personal) "Upside of Irrationality". They cover some of the same territory, but he slices it up differently and speaks in the voice of a scientist. They are very entertaining and provocative books. I like Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" as well. I'm often asked if I wrote "On Second Thought" as a response to "Blink", which I did not. But the two books do differ on the basic question of how much we should trust our gut. I'm less trusting, I guess. I sometimes call my book "Don't Blink" or "Blink at Your Own Peril"!

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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