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On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits [Paperback]

Wray Herbert
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"Eminently "Gladwellian"...Herbert clearly shows the effects of various daily mental maneuvers and peppers the text with explanations of how the human mind has evolved." Washington Post
"Brings a twist [to the psychology shelf]...could keep us from making mistakes whose consequences range from dying in an avalanche to failing to follow directions because we don't like the font they're written in." —Sharon Begley, Newsweek
"Think twice before you trust your gut...Herbert uses real-world examples and cutting-edge research to show how heuristics--hardwired mental shortcuts we think of as intuition--can both help and hinder the decisions we make every day." US News & World Report

“Counters the argument set forth in titles like Malcom Gladwell's Blink… successfully shows readers how ancient shortcuts can impact our modern living and how to use this knowledge to make better decisions.” Library Journal

“Wray Herbert displays his gifts as a science writer par excellence…On Second Thought goes a long way toward leveling the mental playing field by outing the hidden power of our unconscious mental models.” —Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
"There is one way to be rational, and many ways of being irrational. With stories, anecdotes, and studies, Wray Herbert takes us through a guided tour of our many irrational tendencies, holding our hand, and helping us to see the mistakes we all make every day."—Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational
“A wonderful book that should be read by the public and experts alike…the most complete statement currently available on the foibles manifest in everyday decision-making and surely one of the most interesting books that I have had the pleasure of reading." —Ellen Langer, author of Mindfulness
“Wray Herbert is one of our finest writers of psychological science…here he blends the most fascinating findings from cognitive psychology with his own experiences into a seamless story of the mental biases and quirks that help us navigate through life—and occasionally get us stuck in brambles. On second thought . . . I’d say the same thing.”
—Carol Tavris, coauthor of Mistakes Were Made

“A fascinating and important book that reveals the invisible errors we make time and again… don’t tackle any big adventures or major undertakings until you’ve read On Second Thought.  It could save your nest egg, your relationship, and even your life.  No kidding!”—Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big Life

“From ‘looming maladaptive style’ to the ‘cooties heuristic,’ Wray Herbert takes us on a journey through the styles of thought we usually take for granted.  In clear and lively prose, he describes psych experiments and real-life quandaries that reveal how our cognitive habits get in our way – or, occasionally, save our skins.  It all adds up to a fascinating book that is altogether a treat. —Robin Marantz Henig, author of Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution

From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

WRAY HERBERT has been writing about psychology and human behavior for more than 25 years, including regular columns for Newsweek and Scientific American Mind.  He has also been science and health editor at US News & World Report, psychology editor for Science News, and editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. He currently serves as director for science communication at the Association for Psychological Science, where he writes a popular blog about the latest in psychological research. He lives in Washington, D.C.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

On February 12, 1995, a party of three seasoned backcountry
skiers set out for a day on the pristine slopes of Utah’s Wasatch
Mountain Range. Steve Carruthers, thirty-seven years old, was the
most experienced of the group, though they were all skilled skiers
and mountaineers. Carruthers had skied these hills many times and
was intimately familiar with the terrain. Their plan was to trek over
the divide from Big Cottonwood Canyon to Porter Fork, the next
canyon to the north.
Two hours out, they met another skiing party. A storm had
dropped almost two feet of new snow on the range the day before,
and the two groups stood together for about five minutes, chatting
about the best routes through the mountains. A couple of skiers in
the other party were a bit spooked by the foggy conditions, but they
all decided that they would be okay if they chose a prudent route across
the lower slopes. Carruthers’ party broke trail through the sparse woods
of Gobbler’s Knob.
Within the hour, Carruthers was dead. As the skiers headed
across a shallow, treed expanse, they triggered an avalanche. More
than a hundred metric tons of snow roared down the mountainside
at fifty miles an hour, blanketing the slope and pinning Carruthers
against an aspen. The other party heard the avalanche and rushed to
the rescue, but by the time they dug Carruthers out, he was unconscious.
He never regained awareness.
The other two skiers in Carruthers’ group survived, but they
faced some serious criticism back home. What were they thinking?
This pass was well known as avalanche terrain, and February was
considered high hazard season. The chatter in the tight-knit skiing
community was that Carruthers had been reckless, that despite his
experience he had ignored obvious signs of danger and tempted fate.
None of this rang true to Ian McCammon. McCammon had
known Carruthers for years, and the two had been climbing buddies
at one time. Sure, Carruthers may have been a risk taker when he
was younger, but he had matured. Just recently, while the two men
were riding a local ski lift together, Carruthers had talked adoringly
about his lovely wife, Nancy, and his four-year-old daughter, Lucia.
His days of derring-do were over, he had told McCammon. It was
time to settle down.
So what happened on that fateful afternoon? What skewed this
experienced backcountry skier’s judgment that he would put himself
and his party in harm’s way? Did he perish in an avoidable accident?
Saddened and perplexed by his friend’s death, McCammon determined
to figure out what went wrong.
McCammon is an experienced backcountry skier in his own
right, and a wilderness instructor, but he is also a scientist. He has a
Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and as a researcher at the University
of Utah, he once worked on robotics and aerospace systems for 
NASA and the Defense Department. He already knew snow science
pretty well, so he began reading everything he could on the science of
risk and decision making. He ended up studying the details of more
than seven hundred deadly avalanches that took place between 1972
and 2003, to see if he could find any commonalities that might explain
his friend’s untimely death.
With the rigor of an engineer, he systematically categorized all
the avalanches according to several factors well known to backcountry
skiers as risks: recent snowfall or windstorm, terrain features like
cliffs and gullies, thawing and other signs of instability, and so forth.
He computed an “exposure score” to rate the risk that preceded every
Then he gathered as much information as he could on the ill-fated
skiers themselves, all 1,355 of them: the makeup and dynamics of the
skiing party, the expertise of the group leader as well as the others,
plus anything that was known about the hours and minutes leading
up to the fatal moment. Then he crunched all the data together.
His published results were intriguing. He found many patterns
in the accidents, including several poor choices that should not have
been made by experienced skiers. He concluded that these foolish decisions
could be explained by six common thinking lapses, and he
wrote up the work in a paper titled “Evidence of Heuristic Traps in
Recreational Avalanche Accidents.” The paper has become a staple of
modern backcountry training and has no doubt saved many lives.
Heuristics are cognitive rules of thumb, hard-wired mental
Shortcuts that everyone uses every day in routine decision making
and judgment. The study of heuristics is one of the most robust areas
of scientific research today, producing hundreds of academic articles
a year, yet the concept is little known outside the labs and offices of
academia. This book is an attempt to remedy that.
Heuristics are normally helpful—indeed, they are crucial to
getting through the myriad of decisions we face every day without
overthinking every choice. But they’re imperfect and often irrational.
They can be traps, as they were in the frozen mountain pass where
Carruthers perished. Much has been written in the past couple of
years about the wonders of the rapid, automatic human mind and
gut-level decision making. And indeed the unconscious mind is a
wonder. But it is also perilous. The shortcuts that allow us to navigate
each day with ease are the same ones that can potentially trip
us up in our ordinary judgments and choices, in everything from
health to finance to romance.
Most of us are not backcountry skiers, and we will probably
never face the exact choices that Carruthers and his friends faced at
Gobbler’s Knob. But just because the traps are not life threatening
does not mean they aren’t life changing. Here are a few of the heuristics
that shaped the backcountry skiers’ poor choices—and may be
shaping yours in ways you don’t even recognize.
Consider the “familiarity heuristic.” This is one of the cognitive
shortcuts that McCammon identified as a contributing factor in
many of the avalanche incidents he studied. The familiarity heuristic
is one of the most robust heuristics known, and indeed one of
the original heuristics identified and studied by pioneers in cognitive
science. It is a potent mental tool that we draw on every day for
hundreds of decisions, and basically what it says is this: if something
comes quickly to mind, trust it. It must be available in your memory
for a reason, so go with it. The basic rule of thumb is that familiar
equals better equals safer.
That’s a very useful rule for, say, grocery shopping. There are
potentially thousands and thousands of choices that must be made
every time you enter your local supermarket. But what if you actually
had to make every one of those judgments, comparing every kind of
yogurt and every couscous brand before making a selection? You’d
be paralyzed. So instead you spot the brand of yogurt or couscous
you’ve bought dozens of times before; you grab it, you pay for it, and
you’re out of there. No need to study every item on the shelf. It’s also
a useful rule for ER physicians, airline pilots, and soccer players—
people who have to make rapid-fire decisions and are trained to
quickly identify familiar patterns and react.
Heuristics are amazing time savers, which makes them essential
to our busy lives. Many, like the familiarity heuristic, are an amalgam
of habit and experience. We don’t want to deliberate every minor
choice we make every day, and we don’t need to. But there are always
risks when we stop deliberating. McCammon’s avalanche victims, for
example, were almost all experienced backcountry skiers, and indeed
almost half had had some formal training in avalanche awareness.
This expertise didn’t guarantee that they would make the smartest
choices. Paradoxically, their expertise may have hurt them. They were
so familiar with the terrain that it seemed safe—simply because it always
had been safe before. It was familiar, and thus unthreatening.
The skiers let down their guard because they all remembered successful
outings that looked pretty much the same as the treacherous
one. In fact, McCammon found in his research that there were significantly
more avalanche accidents when the skiers knew the specific
locale, compared to ski parties exploring novel terrain.
Most of the avalanches in our modern lives have nothing to do
with snow. The familiarity heuristic (including the related fluency
heuristic, discussed in Chapter 4) has been widely studied in the area
of consumer choice and personal finance—and not just how we buy
groceries. Princeton psychologists have shown that people are more
apt to buy shares in new companies if the names of the companies
are easy to read and say, which actually affects the performance of
the stock in the short run. University of Michigan psychologists have
shown that language (and even the typeface in which something is
printed) can affect all sorts of perceptions: whether a roller coaster
seems too risky or a job seems too demanding to take on. Even
very subtle manipulations of cognitive familiarity are shaping your
choices, big and small, every day.
So familiarity and comfort can be traps. But the fact is, Carruthers’
decision making really started to go wrong long before he
even started waxing his skis. It started back in the warmth of the
living room, when he or one of his buddies said, “Hey, let’s take a
run out to Gobbler’s Knob tomorrow.” ...
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