Friday, November 5, 2010

"On Second Thought" - Outsmarting Our Hard-Wired Habits

I've been reading On Second Thought, a fascinating book by Wray Herbert that reveals 20 heuristics. A heuristic is a rule of thumb that you use unconsciously and automatically in decision making.

According to Herbert's research, the human brain evolved to approach situations a certain way. Through use, these mental habits become hard-wired and can cause us to make irrational decisions. The goal of the book is to expose these ways of thinking, so we can outsmart our own cognitive tendencies.

One such mental habit is the "Decoy Heuristic." For example, imagine that you're house-hunting and the two best choices in your price range are (A) one that is 1600 square feet (a little small) and only two miles from where you work. Another choice is (B) 2400 square feet (more than adequate) but it means a 22-mile commute in heavy traffic.

You are torn between these choices until you spot another priced-right option. This one (C) is 1400 square feet and four miles from work.

If you're like most people, you quickly rule out C. But choice C makes choice B seem even better. By making C the obvious loser, you quickly and easily make B the winner, even though A might be more beneficial for you in the long run.

This isn't a logical way to decide, but according to research, rather than agonize over risky choices, the tendency of many people is to stop analyzing the options and quickly adopt an easier, less-stressful choice that does no harm. We are attracted to the better of one option and its "decoy," a similar, less beneficial option.


Another is the "Future Heuristic." This involves the ability to know that the future is coming but the failure to project ourselves into it and analyze future events. We tend to view the present without appreciating a potential future context.

This means that if your family, your home, your job, or your health are satisfactory, you tend to not think about what could happen in the future. You know that things change, but you automatically assume that good things will stay that way. You don't imagine these important things in jeopardy or lost to you. It's hard to sustain the feeling of joy and gratitude you experience when something good comes into your life. As a result you tend to take them for granted rather than appreciate them or do things to nurture and preserve them.

Researchers have concluded that thinking about the absence of something can refresh our appreciation of it. Imagining your life without the blessings helps you see your happy condition as new and wonderful again.

I do this from time to time. I don't like the idea of taking my wife for granted. I want to appreciate her. But like everyone, from time to time I habituate to my situation and lose the sense that what I have around me is precious.

So on occasion I'll pause a few moments and imagine my life without her. I'm in the house, but she is gone forever. I'm alone. I miss the wonderful meals she used to prepare. I think about doing it myself and realize I'm not up to the task. There's no one here who will listen to me talk about life. No one here to share fun experiences with. No comforting presence. I realize that this really could happen. I let the scenario sink in, and I feel a stabbing feeling in my chest.

Then I go into the next room and see that she is still here. I feel blessed and happy. I feel joy and appreciation.

And that's what I want to feel. So this exercise of imagining the loss works for me. It brings the present into the context of a reasonably possible future. It jolts me out of my complacency. For a while, anyway.

So gratitude can sometimes take work. Maybe this exercise will work for you, too.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

demuzeekmon said...

Thank you Denny for the practical way of taking stock in our blessings. So many times we do not know how to 'get back to' the feeling of joy.
I hope that your intention is to point out that this is step 1. The 'good' feeling alone is not enough. We must act on the renewed feeling. Otherwise we could still be left with regrets.