How to effectively address the problematic tendencies of a happy brain
“Action is character.”
—F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, FROM NOTES TO AN UNFINISHED NOVEL, THE LOVE OF THE LAST TYCOON
I’m standing near the deli counter at the supermarket. Close to me are five or six other people, and we are all eyeing the same quarry—rotisserie chickens turning on a spit in the monster-sized oven against the far wall. The timer on the oven tells us that there are just over three minutes left before the chickens are ready. More people gather. I inch closer to the counter. The others do the same. I can feel a tension thickening in the atmosphere; my nerves are starting to peak, my heart is beating faster. I stop for a second and ask myself why I feel this way. All of us standing at the counter can see that there are more than enough chickens available for the crowd. Even if there weren’t, we are in a grocery store full of food. No one is going to starve in this scenario. In addition, we are all adults capable of civilly dividing the chickens among us when they arrive. None of us will have to fight for our food or risk our lives against other predators to secure our families’ sustenance. And yet, the tension persists.
What I know for sure is that I cannot undo my brain’s tendency to amp my energy level and alertness to ensure that I get the food I came for—a tendency that has been neurally hardwired, for good reason, and been shown to be valuable under certain conditions. What I can do is recognize what is happening, identify why the reaction is out of place for the circumstances, and relax.
That simple example illustrates the two things that must happen for us to effectively address the problematic tendencies of a happy brain: elevate awareness and take action. Awareness of why we are doing what we are doing is a crucial step toward action because it initiates a change in thinking—we have to pause to examine what’s going on. And this is why science-help is more useful than typical self-help. Gleaning evidence-based clues from cognitive science provides tools to bolster awareness and enable action. I’m certainly not arguing that they provide a fool-proof road map for action, but my hope is that after reading this website one you will have more usable knowledge to work with than you did before. The vital point to remember is that the gap between knowing and doing is ever-present until we commit to acting.
In this post I am going to offer a selection of knowledge clues drawn from research discussed throughout this website. Many of them build on discussions from earlier posts; a few are new to this one.
1. Slow down.
So many problems can be diffused by slowing down and carefully considering how to proceed in any given situation. In some instances, of course, there isn’t time to slow down and we have to just react. But generally we have more time than we allot ourselves to make decisions and draw conclusions. Putting on the mental brakes can stop you, for example, from reacting in anger to someone on the road—a situation that can rapidly escalate out of control. Slowing down provides time to consider how an issue has been framed and whether we have really considered all the relevant factors. Pausing for just a moment can allow you to challenge yourself about an action you are about to take that could have horrible consequences, like responding to an e-mail on your smart phone while driving instead of waiting until you can focus attention on the message you want to send—instead of parsing attention between the e-mail and driving. Slowing down is, in short, fundamental to nearly every topic in this website. If more of us would take just a couple extra moments to think an action through, we would all be much better off.
2. Be aware of the influence your preexisting beliefs are exerting on your current thinking.
We are all biased thinkers. No one is a “blank slate,” and therefore no one’s perception is free from the influence of preexisting beliefs. The question is, are we aware this is the case? Racists often justify their comments by saying, “That’s how I was raised.” And that may be true. Childhood imprinting is a major source of preexisting beliefs, and most are resistant to deconstruction. But forcing ourselves to be aware of this influence on a case-by-case basis can, with time, challenge the entire infrastructure of questionable belief. Cognitive psychology research reinforces this message again and again by showing that incremental change is a more effective way to go than attempting exhaustive change. Challenging ingrained patterns of thought takes work, time, and persistence.
3. Check your availability bias.
As mentioned earlier, a happy brain tends to make judgments using the most accessible and available information. For example, people typically judge the incidence of crime as much higher than it actually is. The reason cited by psychology researchers is that the news media focuses on crime, thus increasing its availability and accessibility to the audience. The same thing happens when you expose yourself to one perspective and ignore others; the availability of that perspective (about politics, for instance) leads to a bias that the chosen perspective is the correct one. If all the radio talk shows you listen to trumpet generally one perspective, we can safely predict how you will respond to different positions. Simply knowing this can be enough to challenge thinking, but frequently this bias is connected to related tendencies like confirmation bias and framing (discussed earlier), and substantial effort, along with more than a little humility, is needed to move in another direction.
4. Become savvy about framing.
Earlier we spoke of the brain’s tendency to sound alarms when focus moves outside the parameters of a perceptual “frame.” Perhaps while you were growing up, your parents and siblings told you and everyone else that you were the “smart one” in the family, while your brother was the “athletic one.” You didn’t realize that years of ingesting these labels framed your self-perception. Without ever really challenging the point, you simply expected to be less athletic than your brother, and that influenced you to not participate in sports, but rather spend time being the smart kid who gets all As. Said another way, you were complicit in keeping the “not-athletic” frame created by your family in place. Thinking differently of yourself just doesn’t feel right; in fact, it makes you anxious and uncomfortable. Breaking a deeply internalized frame like that is extremely difficult—just becoming aware that it exists is a major step. On a more day-to-day basis, we encounter dubious framing all the time; the way statistics are presented, or the way an argument is structured, for example. Developing the skill to deconstruct the frame allows us to see alternative explanations, and can also keep us from getting scammed by the unscrupulous.
5. Engage others to help keep you accountable to your commitments.
It is important not to confuse this statement with asking others to help you keep your commitments. The suggestion here is that when you make your commitments “public” with a select few friends and/or family, and ask them to check in with you on progress, you are giving yourself even more incentive to reach your goals, assuming the opinions of those people who matter to you. This suggestion builds from the realization that we are an interdependent species, not a wholly independent one. For most of us, asking others whom we respect to inject some accountability into our commitments can help produce better results.
6. Act on short-term rewards that will eventually yield long-term benefits.
As we have discussed, the happy brain tends to focus on the short term. That being the case, it’s a good idea to consider what short-term goals we can accomplish that will eventually lead to accomplishing long-term goals. For instance, if you want to lose thirty pounds in six months (just in time for swimsuit season), what short-term goals can you associate with losing the smaller increments of weight that will get you there? Maybe it’s something as simple as rewarding yourself each week that you lose two pounds. The same thinking can be applied to any number of goals, like quitting smoking or improving performance at work. By breaking the overall goal into smaller, shorter-term parts, we can focus on incremental accomplishments instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the goal.
7. Make goals tangible and measurable.
Continuing the discussion of goals, it helps to make them tangible (recalling that the happy brain is value-and reward-oriented). Losing weight has an obvious tangible and measurable result. Benefits from quitting smoking may not be as obvious right away, but tracking how you felt before you quit and how you feel a few months later makes the goal tangible. This little trick is called feedback analysis. Simply taking a few notes on yourself (on your physical and mental well-being, for example, not to mention how much money you have saved) and then revisiting those notes a few weeks or months later will provide tangible evidence of the goal’s value. The ways in which this tool can be applied are limitless, provided that your pre- and postassessments are honest and, to the best of your ability, unbiased.
8. The hunt is more exciting than the capture.
One of our brains’ especially frustrating habits is to focus on getting a reward, and then experience a feeling of loss once we get it. This cycle can spin us into a loop of wanting, getting, and regretting. Awareness that you are caught in the cycle is paramount. If you are bidding on items online and find yourself compelled to keep bidding up the price of an item beyond its value or what you intended to spend, force yourself to become aware that what you are doing is no longer in your best interest. The action part is harder because you have to walk away from the target. If you don’t, you cannot expect merely thinking rationally to correct the problem, because it rarely ever does. We are master justifiers, and almost any rational reason given (by ourselves or others) for stopping an action can be dismantled in minutes or less. Action in this case is necessarily absolute: stop and walk away. If the circumstances call for it, run.
9. Envision competing future narratives, but check your self-serving bias.
We have seen that our brains have difficulty placing us in the future, which makes making sound decisions that impact the long term a hard thing to do. We have also discussed that memory has both “looking back” and “looking forward” dimensions. We tend to simulate the future by reconstructing the past, and the reconstruction is rarely accurate. What can we do? Envision competing narratives of the future—good and bad. At the same time, make sure that we aren’t coloring those narratives with what psychologists call self-serving bias, which leads us to believe that our success will be due to our actions, and any failures will result from other factors.1 For example, a student studies for an exam and is convinced that if he earns a high grade it will be due to his intelligence and hard work. If he doesn’t get a high grade, it will only be because the exam was poorly written or the instructor weighted the grades unfairly. The student’s future narrative has only one dimension: Hard work and intelligence will result in a high grade. While it may seem odd to suggest envisioning failure at our own hands, it’s not a bad grounding exercise to avoid this sort of one-dimensional thinking. Failure is a possibility and should be recognized as such, even though we are obviously designing our actions for success.
10. Practice for the purpose.
In business circles, the term strategic thinking is thrown around with abandon. It’s a very general term that really only takes on meaning when applied to a specific situation. Strategic thinking in a marketing context is not the same as strategic thinking in a financing context. As a general proposition, the term is vague at best. As a specific application, it can be indispensable. Much the same is true of practice. Practicing to become faster has benefits, no doubt, but those benefits may not apply to every situation. Being fast in football is not necessarily the same as being fast at a track meet. In football, the application of “fast” likely includes knowing how to make sharp cuts while running, following routes, or avoiding being tackled. For a track runner, those skills are meaningless. Practicing for the purpose takes the best of generally applicable skills and combines them with specific applications. Without the application, your preparation isn’t even halfway complete. The caveat to remember is that it is also possible to overspecialize, in which case your brain will strain to apply your learning to new situations.
11. Finish what you start.
This suggestion is one in which leveraging a tendency of a happy brain works in our favor. Incompleteness represents instability to our brain. A basic illustration of this is the open-circle experiment. Draw a circle on a piece of paper, but leave a small gap such that the circle is not all the way closed. Now stare at it for a couple minutes and notice what happens—your brain wants to close the circle. For some people the urge to close it is so strong that they’ll eventually pick up the pencil and draw it closed. The same dynamic can be applied to stop procrastination from burning you. The trick is simply to start whatever project is front of you—just start anywhere. Psychologists call this the Zeigarnik effect, named for the Russian psychologist who first documented the finding that when someone is faced with an overwhelming goal and is procrastinating as a result, getting started anywhere will launch motivation to finish what was started.2 When you start a project—even if you begin with the smallest, simplest part—you begin drawing the circle. Then move on to another part (draw more of the circle), and another (more circle), and so forth. The one prerequisite for the Zeigarnik effect working is that you are motivated to complete the project in the first place.
12. Ask, don’t tell (yourself).
Self-motivation isn’t easy, but a few subtle tweaks can make it easier and more productive. Psychology research suggests that asking yourself if you can accomplish a goal is more effective than telling yourself you will. You’ll recall the comparison between the Little Engine That Could telling himself, “I think I can, I think I can,” and Bob the Builder, whose mantra is “Can we fix it? Yes we can!” As it turns out, Bob’s approach is more productive from a motivational standpoint.
13. Form useful habits.
Psychology research tells us that the average amount of time necessary to reach maximum automaticity (a jargony term for habit) is sixty-six days. But when you are trying to develop a healthy habit, it’s likely that it will take at least eighty days for it to become automatic. The more complex the habit, the longer it takes to form. An exercise regimen, for example, will take most people at least one and a half times longer than more basic endeavors like changing eating or drinking habits (which still take a long time). You can afford to miss a day here or there, but the more cumulative days you miss, the more habit formation is disrupted. The crucial point to remember is that creating useful habits is as important as discontinuing bad ones—and worth the effort.
14. How you want others to see you changes your first impression.
We discussed earlier that our brains interpret first impressions as value propositions. In addition, we are prone to judging the first impression someone gives us by the standard we’ve set for ourselves. So if we want to come across as gregarious and fun loving, we are also evaluating others by that measure. If they fall short, it may be because they aren’t measuring up to an artificially high standard. But what if we don’t have a particular impression in mind when meeting someone new? The research suggests that we are still making a value assessment, and in part this assessment is about trust. From the get-go, our brain is making calculations as to whether the person in front of us can deliver on a trust exchange or if something isn’t quite adding up.
15. Try to remember, your memory just might be wrong.
Memory is not a recording, it’s a reconstruction. We are prone to “confabulate” pieces of actual memory with other information, and a happy brain assembles the parts into something we can easily mistake for a flawless recollection. Most of us will not realize that our memory of an event lacks information that has been supplemented by our brains from other sources. This has huge implications for eyewitness testimony—and for you when you are arguing with your spouse about something you claim to remember perfectly. Better to swallow the fact now that “perfect memory” shares the same handicap of everything that is “perfect”—it isn’t.
16. Habituation happens.
It’s a cruel fact of human existence that with enough time, we can become bored with just about anything. Whether it’s a new car or a new dog, a great Indian dish or a great song, eventually the initial pleasure fades into something more mundane—which doesn’t necessarily mean we come to dislike the thing in question, but rather that we habituate to its once tantalizing allure and simply enjoy it less. Even sex (gasp!) isn’t immune. The challenge we face is overcoming “variety amnesia”—our tendency to forget that we’ve been exposed to a variety of great things, be they people, food, music, movies, home furnishings, or other—and instead focus our attention on the singular thing that no longer gives us the tingles. To shake ourselves free from this negative trap, we must “dishabituate” by forcing ourselves to remember the variety of things we’ve experienced. For example, let’s say that you’ve become bored with a particular musical group you once couldn’t listen to enough. Research suggests that what you need to do is recall the variety of other songs from other musical groups that you’ve listened to since the last time you listened to your once-favorite band, and by doing so you’ll revive appreciation for your fave. Psychology researchers call this little head trick a simulation of virtual variety, which reduces satiation—the lessening of satisfaction over time—in a way similar to that of experiencing actual variety.
17. Imagine eating the treat to short-circuit food temptations.
If you imagine looking at a tempting treat, your desire for it will increase. But research indicates that if you imagine eating the same treat, your desire will lessen. The reason is that to our brains, imagining an action and doing it are not too dissimilar. We can trick ourselves into feeling like we’ve already enjoyed the treat, leaving our brain with less reason to target the genuine article.
18. Empathy isn’t blind.
Remember the yawning chimps from earlier posts? The gist of that research is simply that we empathize much more with those familiar to us, and this familiarity bias is demonstrated in something as basic as contagious yawning. It’s also evidenced by contagious laughing and crying, among other behaviors. Our ability to empathize with others is an important one, but if you notice, it’s far easier to empathize with someone you know than with a stranger. The reason is that our brains evolved to socially relate to a relatively small group. Some specialists in this area put that number at roughly one hundred fifty members. Beyond that, we draw more distinct lines and are selective about investing emotional energy. Unfortunately, this same tendency can make us callous to the plight of those who need help in other parts of our country and around the world.
19. Practice metacognition.
Metacognition simply means “thinking about thinking,” and it is one of the main distinctions between the human brain and that of other species. Our ability to stand high on a ladder above our normal thinking processes and evaluate why we are thinking as we are thinking is an evolutionary marvel. We have this ability because the most recently developed part of the human brain—the prefrontal cortex—enables selfreflective, abstract thought. We can think about ourselves as if we are not part of ourselves. Research on primate behavior indicates that even our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, lack this ability (although they possess some self-reflective abilities, like being able to identify themselves in a mirror instead of thinking the reflection is another chimp). The ability is a double-edged sword, because while it allows us to evaluate why we are thinking what we are thinking, it also puts us in touch with difficult existential questions that can easily become obsessions. For the purpose of this website, it is important to recognize metacognition as an essential part of nearly everything we have discussed.
20. Don’t always trust “common sense.”
The term common sense can be applied to just about anything you think is obvious, or at least should be to anyone with half a brain. The problem with this usage is that many things that initially seem obvious are not (the “tip of the iceberg” effect). Moreover, often when someone says that “XYZ is just common sense,” he either doesn’t fully understand XYZ and its implications, or would prefer that you don’t ask too many questions. In other words, it can be a diversionary tactic. After all, who wants to be the person who questions that which should just be “common sense”? My advice? Be that person.
21. Not all contagions are physical.
In our discussion of psychosocial contagions, we reviewed a handful of well-researched contagions, such as anxiety, blame, and happiness. Clearly there are good and bad aspects of catching or transmitting psychosocial contagions (most people I know wouldn’t mind catching a little more happiness). The important point to remember is that awareness of the influence can prevent negative outcomes, particularly where fear, anxiety, blame, and anger are concerned. In a group setting, it is all too easy to be pulled into the viral spread of emotions that can, if left unchecked, lead to catastrophe. Consider retail store stampedes during the holidays, for example, that often result in people being trampled to death. Or mob scenes at sporting events and concerts. These are all examples of psychosocial contagions gone awry, and anything we can do to halt their spread is worthwhile.
22. Feeling right is not the same as being right.
One of the foibles we discussed has to do with how certainty feels. A happy brain interprets uncertainty as a threat and wants us to get back to “right.” But what we often overlook is that what we are really trying to recover is the feeling of being right—because it is the emotional response to rightness that shuts off the alarms and puts us at ease. It’s easy to confuse this feeling with the real thing, and all of us are culpable. The truth, however, is that the evidence may not align with the source of your certainty, and that’s a difficult realization for any of us to acknowledge.
23. Know when to engage heuristic override.
Heuristics are simple, efficient rules—either hardwired in our brains or learned—that kick in on occasion, especially when we’re facing problems with incomplete information. Happy brains like heuristics because they stifle uncertainty. They can be advantageous tools, but they can also be misleading handicaps. For example, when we are trying to decide which route to take on a trip and have several options to pick from, it is beneficial to rely on a simple heuristic guideline that says, “The most direct route with the shortest distance is usually best.” But when we are struggling to determine whether to tell a friend that he is acting recklessly—and know we are risking the friendship—or just try to support him through a rough time and possibly preserve the friendship, there is no basic heuristic that will illuminate the way. The decision is case-specific, and the choices both have pros and cons that must be weighed against each other, and even then the decision will be difficult. Our challenge is to know when heuristics are useful, when they are not, and when they will actually make a situation worse. If we can’t use them to aid in the decision, it’s time to engage heuristic override and move on to the tough work of struggling with ambiguity.
24. We are compelled to connect.
The human brain evolved to identify patterns by connecting pieces of information in our environment. While this hardwired habit has been vital to our survival and generally serves us well, it also leads us to make something out of nothing. We routinely make connections between chance events and assign meaning to randomness. These are not tendencies we can simply discontinue, but becoming aware of our compulsion to connect puts us in a better position to check ourselves when our pattern-finding penchant goes over the top. This is no trivial issue. People spend enormous time and money investing themselves in complex belief systems built on little more than coincidental toothpicks. The key is to value our brain’s remarkable capacity for pattern detection while exercising vigilance about how we apply this ability in our lives.
25. We crave agency.
Seeking “agency,” as we discussed, refers to our desire for a responsible party for the good and bad events we and others experience. If something horrible happens and there is no apparent agent behind it, our brain will search one out regardless. Statements like “Everything happens for a reason” imply agency, because presumably someone or something has preordained the “reason.” More direct positions such as “This is part of God’s plan” tag a divine, personal agent as the cause—even if the rationale for why that agent would want such a thing to happen is inexplicable. One of the hardest things for us to accept is that many things happen without any form of agency. The thought of this alone is enough to put the happy brain on guard because it opens the door to uncertainty.
26. Doing anything at all is a goal in itself.
We tend to think of goals as being specific, but research suggests that a broader goal of simply staying busy also inspires us. What this boils down to is that doing something is better than doing nothing, all else being equal. The “something” can be anything, no matter how trivial it seems to others. This finding echoes a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
27. We are not very good emotional forecasters.
When we try to place ourselves in a future situation that is more emotionally charged than the one we are in now, we fall prey to “intensity bias”—a skewing of perspective that leads us to believe we can forecast how we would react under emotionally charged conditions. This is why it’s very easy to say, “If I had been in that situation, I would have…” But unless we have been in the same or a similar situation before, we really have no credible basis for knowing how we would react.
28. Faster feedback is jet fuel for performance.
Fear of disappointment is a powerful motivator. Combined with the fact that we are less prone to worry about outcomes in the distance, the timing of feedback becomes an important element in the motivation mix. When feedback is out in the distance, it feels less relevant, and therefore less deserving of a happy brain’s attention. But when feedback is immediate, we focus our attention on what’s coming around the corner and consequently put more energy into our performance.
29. Our lie-detection skills are on par with rolling dice.
Dr. Paul Eckman has dedicated his career to understanding the verbal and nonverbal clues people give when lying and how effective we are in identifying lairs.3 His conclusion is that most of us may as well just guess if someone is lying, because even when we try in earnest to identify liars, we do no better than chance. It’s alarming to realize just how bad we are at catching liars, and it’s equally alarming to know that trying to be empathetic can make us even worse lie detectors. Research suggests that mimicking another’s behavior, one component of empathy, makes you even more susceptible to deception than you were already. That doesn’t mean we should not be empathetic, but we should be careful about being too empathetic too quickly.
30. Make checklists and use them.
Since memory is, as we discussed, more fallible than most of us realize, it helps to have memory props on hand to help out. Checklists are a simple but effective tool to keep holes in memory from wrecking your day or your life. You can read any number of posts about using lists as part of a time-management system, but my point, in the website you are reading right now, is simply that, no matter what system you use, the basic principle of the list remains the same: to keep you from falling prey to the imperfection of memory. Make them and use them.
31. Counterfactual thinking is a dangerously valuable skill.
All of us have a tendency to look back on a decision and think, “If only I had chosen differently, I’d be better off now.” We come to this determination by imagining that the facts of the decision could have been different than they really were. For example, you might think: “If I had taken the job in New York five years ago, then I would have been able to network more effectively and my career would be more fulfilling now.” Perhaps that statement is 100 percent accurate. But more likely, it’s partly accurate and partly a fabrication. It lacks consideration of all the variables you had to consider at the time and the fact that you spent days digesting those variables to come up with an answer. The fact is, with the information you had, you decided not to take the job in New York, and the decision can’t be reversed. We think counterfactually for a very good reason; namely, it allows us to learn from our missteps and make better choices in the future. This is a deeply embedded survival skill of the happy brain and we should feel fortunate that it is. But when this skill is misapplied and we start dwelling on counterfactual comparisons, the result is not going to be pleasant (ranging from generally dark emotions to serious depression). Our challenge is to know when to throw the red flag and stop ourselves before the dwelling begins.
32. Repetition is the mother of persuasion.
Every election year, I dread the onslaught of political advertisements. I try my best to avoid them and can’t wait until they end. But the one thing I do pay attention to is whether or not the messages repeated the most become major factors in the election. They almost always do. Does it matter if what one candidate is saying about the other is factual? Sometimes, but generally it does not. What matters most is that the message has been repeated enough to color public perception. And the really interesting part is that the public doesn’t even have to be paying much attention—in fact, the less attention we invest in deciphering a message, the more likely we are to believe it. The more we focus on the message and deconstruct it, the more likely we are to be skeptical. More of the latter approach is desperately needed.
33. Metaphor is powerful medicine.
Seasoned speechwriters know that the best way to convey a message is with metaphors the audience can grab and understand with little effort. Metaphors can make multifaceted concepts seem simple and vague ideas seem relevant. With very few words, they can change the way we think about difficult topics. Research suggests that when metaphors are used to frame a discussion (like whether crime should be viewed as a “beast” or a “virus,”) the rest of the discussion will be viewed through the lens of the metaphor. Being mindful of how metaphors are used in what we read and hear puts us in a better position to evaluate what’s really being said—or not being said.
34. Your brain is not only in your head.
The theory of “embodied cognition,” that our bodies are active participants in cognition, has been steadily gaining momentum. Research continues to show that the mind is influenced by the weight, size, texture, taste, temperature, and other attributes of physical objects. Experiencing weight in a physical sense, for example, influences our perception of “weightiness” in a perceptual sense. What this means is that influences on our thinking surround us all the time and we don’t realize it, though exactly why this happens is still not entirely clear. What is clear is that the mind—what our nervous system does—is never fully isolated from the world around us. Rather, it is constantly interacting with the environment, and this interaction is integral to how we think.
35. You don’t know what you don’t know.
Obvious as this may sound, in practice it’s not so obvious at all. It’s tempting to think that we can jump right into an occupation and perform just as competently as anyone else. Perhaps the others have been practicing their trade for years. But still we think, “Why waste all that time when I can just start doing it?” The reason underlying this thinking is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Practice and experience aren’t just preparation—they are part of a process of discovering what you could not possibly know as an outsider to whatever trade or profession you hope to become competent in. The phrase taking your knocks is a rough but accurate way to describe the process.
36. Cognitive fluency enables learning, but also propagandizing.
When information is presented to us in an accessible, easy-to-digest way, our brain experiences fewer obstacles to processing it—even if the content is complex. Another way to say the same thing is that the more cognitive fluency information has, the easier it will find a home in our mind. Cognitive fluency is crucial to learning at all stages of life. But the same quality that makes it so important for learning also makes it a potent tool for persuaders of every sort, from advertisers to propagandists. The trick is to package the information in such a way that it links up with existing knowledge structures in your brain.
37. Moral self-regulation is a seesaw performance.
Life is a balancing act, and so is our sense of morality. Research suggests that when we view ourselves as morally deficient in one part of our lives, we search for moral actions that will balance out the scale. Maybe you know you should be recycling but just never get around to gathering up your glass, paper, and plastics in time for the recycling truck. One day you happen to be walking through a hardware store and notice a rack of energy-efficient light bulbs, and you instantly decide to buy twenty of them and change out every bulb in your house. The moral deficiency (not recycling) is, in your view, balanced by a moral action (installing energy-efficient bulbs). The problem is that the seesaw can also tip the other way: If we believe we are doing enough, morally speaking, then there’s little reason to do more. The scale is already level.
38. To your brain, belief judgments look the same.
The brain evolved, as we’ve noted a few times throughout the website, to make sense of our environment and give us a better chance of surviving. Many of the applications of these broad adaptive skills seem to us very specific. But research indicates that the brain does not distinguish between many of the things that seem obviously distinct. The brain’s reward system does not distinguish between what we in moral parlance would call “good” and “bad” rewards—it responds to rewards the same way despite our moral positions. This is also true of belief judgments; whether belief in the results of basic arithmetic or belief in God, the brain engages the judgment the same way.4 Our day-to-day experience of the belief, of course, is much different depending on the subject—but that is a function of the meaning we assign to beliefs, not of the beliefs themselves.
39. Make peace with probability.
Whether we think someone has “good luck” or “bad luck,” in the end all so-called luck comes down to probability. It’s tempting to interpret the outcomes of probability in such a way that it seems something was “meant to happen,” but the truth is that winning the lottery or taking a direct hit from a hurricane are statistically explainable events regardless of how pleasant or horrific they are to experience. This is tough to accept, particularly for the human brain that craves certainty. Knowing that probability underlies everything we do does not necessarily make the outcomes any easier to swallow, but there is satisfaction in accepting the truth as it is without a veneer of mystification.
40. Avoid the conjunction fallacy.
Leah prepares meals and runs the kitchen at a high-end restaurant, and she also cares a great deal about women’s issues. Which of the following statement about Leah is truer: (1) Leah is a chef, or (2) Leah is a chef and a feminist? If you chose (2), ask yourself why. The reason is probably that someone who cares a great deal about women’s issues is likely a feminist. But the only thing we really know for sure about Leah is that she prepares meals and runs the kitchen at a high-end restaurant, which means she is a chef. Although it’s possible that she is also a feminist, we do not know that for certain. Therefore, the truer of the two options is (1). Option (2), which includes (1), is a “conjunct” of (1)—which simply means that it overlaps (1) (Leah is a chef in both answers). When we think that a conjunct of a statement is truer than the statement itself, logicians say that we have committed a “conjunction fallacy.” Logically speaking, a conjunct of a true statement can never be truer than the statement, even if it adds information that we think could potentially also be true.
41. Think twice before accepting nominal value.
Our brain is easily tricked into focusing on nominal value (or what we could call face value), and ignoring actual value. Nobel Award-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this susceptibility to focus on face value the money illusion5 If, for example, you are given a 2 percent raise in salary, but the rate of inflation has increased by 4 percent, you are actually in the hole by 2 percent. But that isn’t how most of us see it. Instead, we focus on the dollar equivalent of a 2 percent raise, not the fact that the dollar amount is significantly less than the increase in cost of living. While it may be difficult, or impossible, to change the amount of your raise, it’s a good idea to keep the face value versus real value lesson in mind whenever you are evaluating value, particularly when someone is trying to convince you that the face value tells the whole story.
42. Doubt your THOMAS.
The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System (THOMAS) is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown—even with strangers.6 Having a healthy THOMAS is good, because without it we would find it difficult to extend trust to others. But it’s also a handicap because the same system that enables trust makes us marks for con artists and criminals. Research indicates that about 2 percent of people are unconditional nonreciprocators: When trusted, they do not reciprocate with trustworthy actions (e.g., you trust someone enough to lend her money and she never returns it). What this means is that you will encounter people in your life who are good at engendering trust for the purpose of taking advantage of you. Your THOMAS isn’t always wrong, of course, but it is wise to exercise vigilance just in case.
43. You might lose your cool, but don’t lose perspective.
Loss aversion—or, simply, fear of loss—is a basic part of being human. To the brain, loss is a threat, and we naturally take measures to avoid it. We cannot, however, avoid it indefinitely. One way to face loss is with the perspective of a stock trader. Traders accept the possibility of loss as part of the game, not the end of the game. What guides this thinking is a “portfolio” approach; wins and losses will both happen, but it’s the overall portfolio of outcomes that matters most. When you embrace a portfolio approach, you will be less inclined to dwell on individual losses because you know that they are small parts of a much bigger picture.
44. Be on the lookout for regret manipulation.
We discussed how regret is sometimes used to manipulate decisions. If someone wants you to do A, but you are more inclined to do B, then his job is to make you believe that doing B instead of A will result in regret. It’s accurate to describe this argument as a manipulation of “preregret,” because you have not done anything yet to regret—the regret scenario is being painted for you as a worst possible outcome that you can avoid, if you choose, by making the “right” decision. At times, someone making you aware of impending regret is a good thing. If your friend is about to drive her car while drunk, you are doing her and others a great service by making her aware of what could happen and why the right decision is to give you the keys (and if she doesn’t anyway, please take them). But when a salesperson at an electronics store is trying to sell you a product insurance plan by telling you how much you’ll eventually regret not buying it—that’s a manipulation.
45. Remember how chimps and children overcome impulsivity.
Sometimes being impulsive is fine; other times it leads to trouble. Chimps and human kids use a similar technique for overcoming impulsivity in the interest of getting a bigger reward later. By distracting themselves with toys, they are able to delay gratification longer and enjoy more candy than they would get if they took the first opportunity to grab it. Simple as that sounds, it’s really a not-so-simple problem-solving strategy that human adults struggle with daily. But perhaps remembering that even a chimp can do it is inspiration enough to keep trying.
46. Words direct perception.
Here’s an experiment to try out: Find a black marker and two paper bags; on one bag, write the word Roses. On the other, write the words Chili Peppers. Now put rose petals into each of the bags and close them up. Find a few people willing to lend their sniffing power to your cause and ask them to sniff each bag (making sure that they can read the labels but not see the contents of the bags). Then ask them to report on what they smell in each bag. That’s a basic re-creation of a study that investigated whether the name of an object will affect what it smells like to the participant. In the study, most people mistook the rose petals in the second bag as chili peppers, even though the contents of the bags were identical.
47. Modeling is as human as breathing.
As discussed, each of us is a born imitator. Our brains are tuned to observe and re-create what we see in others, and this, like all habits of the happy brain, is both good and bad. On the upside, imitation plays a crucial role in learning. The downside is that imitation can spill over healthy boundaries and do us, and others, a world of harm. Two lessons come to mind. First, be careful about whose modeling is influencing you. Your brain has a difficult time distinguishing between good and bad lessons and will learn them with equal efficiency. Second, be careful about how you model for others. If you are a parent or guardian to young children, this lesson is especially important because kids’ aptitude for imitation is exceptionally strong. Even when you think they aren’t paying attention, you may be unknowingly modeling a behavior for them that you’ll later regret.
48. Loneliness and conflict are partners in the human brain.
As we discussed, neuroscience research has found a convincing neural correlation between the experience of loneliness and an attraction to human conflict. Loneliness, by this definition, has nothing to do with how many people are physically nearby, and everything to do with feeling socially isolated. This research lends credence to the saying “Misery loves company,” because people who feel socially isolated may be predisposed to seek out conflict. Everyone who has worked in an office with other people can relate to the finding.
49. Escapism is not magic.
While it is true that certain forms of escapism have an inherently compulsive quality, it’s also true that plenty of people play video games, role-playing games, and participate in an endless list of other diversions without ever dancing too close to the compulsion pathway. Escapist diversions do not wield addictive magic over their patrons any more than mindless television shows make their viewers stupid. Caution is warranted because we know that some people are more prone to compulsive behavior than others, and when they bring those tendencies to an immersive role-playing game, for instance, we shouldn’t be surprised when two weeks later they are spending ten hours a day playing it. The line between enjoyable diversion and compulsive behavior can be very thin and gray for some yet well-defined for others. We simply do not know how many people fall into the predisposed-to-compulsive-behavior category, so as we move into an ever-more-saturated era of intense, immersive e-media, it’s worth thinking about possible outcomes without veering into alarmism.
50. Work in layers.
If you must attempt to multitask, try at least to strategically layer your work such that you are not pairing two resource-intensive things at the same time. For example, trying to reply to an email on your smart phone while driving is an exceedingly bad idea. Both tasks require too much mental energy, and it is impossible to evenly parse attention between them. If you are speaking to someone on the phone (while not driving), it may be possible to do something at the same time like scan a magazine article, because in most cases these tasks will not overpower each other. If you are attempting to truly concentrate on an article or post, then the situation changes and you are again imbalanced. Better yet, avoid multitasking altogether and instead try shift-tasking, which means that you work through one task and then shift attention to another, and then shift back after a while, or to something else altogether—like a train switching tracks. Arguably, this is still not an especially efficient way to complete projects, but the pace of our lives seldom allows for blocks of uninterrupted time to get things done. Shifting between competing priorities may be the best we can manage until a rare windfall of time becomes available.