On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hardwired Habits
by Wray Herbert. Crown Publishers, 2010
Baby sea turtles don’t sit around pondering what to do after they hatch—they head straight for the safety of the ocean. Like sea turtles, humans rely on their instincts to survive, although we have evolved a more cerebral set of tools to do so. As Wray Herbert, a longtime contributor to Scientific American MIND, explains in his new book On Second Thought, we depend on hardwired mental shortcuts called heuristics to help us make decisions and solve problems efficiently.
For instance, when we walk into a new restaurant, we don’t have to waste time figuring out what to do next. We instinctively know to wait for a table, sit down, look at the menu and then order our food. Similarly, when faced with an endless choice of cereals, we reflexively reach for the product we know we like instead of pacing up and down the aisle comparing every last box.
But sometimes heuristics can lead to illogical reasoning or bad decisions. Consider what Herbert calls the cooties heuristic—an aversion to something we believe is contaminated. This mental shortcut helps us, and helped our ancestors, avoid infection and food poisoning—but we can take it too far. In one study, psychologists asked people whether they would be willing to wear a sweater Adolf Hitler once wore. Although no such sweater exists and no article of clothing could transfer Hitler’s personality, most participants adamantly refused.
And there’s the scarcity heuristic, which says that if something is rare it must be valuable and, conversely, if something is valuable it must also be scarce—a guideline that makes sense for prized materials, such as gold or precious reserves of food in lean times. Still, this rule of thumb can lead us to hopeless conclusions. The scarcity heuristic helps to explain why we often think that a good man or woman is hard (if not impossible) to find. Using this logic, some people just give up the search for a mate, even though they couldn’t possibly have exhausted every option.
“Heuristics are neither good nor bad all the time,” Herbert admits. “It’s all about getting the balance right.” The key to that balance, according to Herbert, is recognizing that mental shortcuts exist in the first place. To help us become aware of our snap judgments and avoid the irrational ones, Herbert divulges 20 different heuristics in 20 chapters and discusses their pros and cons.
At times, On Second Thought feels like a rundown of mental heuristics with only vague advice on how to avoid the pitfalls. So skipping to the particular topics that interest you most may be wise. In other words, take your own shortcuts.