How to Outsmart Your Brain's Hard-Wired Bad Habits

Quick decisions can get you killed, author Wray Herbert reveals in an excerpt from "On Second Thought."


The skiers stuck to their plan because they were cognitively biased toward going ahead rather than switching gears. They were stubborn, but not in the way we commonly use the word to mean an obstinate attitude. Their brains were being stubborn, in the most fundamental way, right down in the neurons. We default hundreds of times a day, simply because it's effortful to switch plans. We stay in relationships that are going nowhere simply because it's easier than getting out. We buy the same brand of car our father did and hesitate to rearrange our stock portfolio. And we uncritically defer to others who make decisions for us—policymakers, who make rules and laws based on the assumption that we will act consistently rather than question.

There were other heuristics reinforcing the ill-fated skiers' commitment. They probably got some additional mental nudging from what McCammon calls the acceptance heuristic. Also known as the mimicry heuristic, it is basically the strong tendency to make choices that we believe will get us noticed—and more important, approved—by others. It's deep-wired, likely derived from our ancient need for belonging and safety. It can be seen in the satisfaction we get from clubs and other social rituals, like precision military formations and choral singing. It's a crucial element in group cohesion, but we often apply it in social situations where it's inappropriate—or even harmful, as it was in many of the accidents that McCammon studied. His analysis showed a much higher rate of risky decision-making in groups of six or more skiers, where there was a larger "audience" to please.

These are just a few heuristics. Some psychologists estimate that there are hundreds of powerful heuristics at work in the human brain, some working in tandem with others, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes undermining one another. The best way to rein in bad thinking is to recognize it, because once we recognize faulty thinking, we are capable of talking ourselves into better thinking. We have the power to engage the more deliberate and effortful part of our brain, and that process starts with understanding the heuristic brain in action.

Excerpted from On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hardwired Habits. Copyright © 2010 by Wray Herbert. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.