Q&A: How to Use Quirks of the Mind to Change Behavior

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How can we motivate ourselves to do what we really want to do? By better understanding the brain’s unconscious tendencies and tactics, argues journalist Wray Herbert — or, in other words, tricking ourselves into doing it.

In his new book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Brain’s Hard-Wired Habits, Herbert, who has been writing about psychology for more than three decades, offers insight into how to use the quirks of the mind to change behavior.

Why did you decide to write this book?

The problem with writing about psychology is that everybody [thinks they] understand it. But there’s a whole level of complexity below what we know that’s worth knowing.

Secondly, the lives we lead are much more automatic than we ever believed. That’s not always a good thing. In order to [explain both of these things], I take you through 20 chapters devoted to what are known as heuristics.

Heuristics — are they just rules of thumb used by the brain to make sense of the world?

They are basically “if x, then y” rules that are somehow wired into the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain. There aren’t really good synonyms for heuristic. The other ones you hear are “biases” or “shortcuts.”

The problem with “shortcuts” [is that it sounds like you are cutting corners]. The problem with “biases” is that it suggests that they are always bad. The position that I stake out is that they are neither good nor bad, just necessary to get through our lives. But if we are not aware of them, it can lead to poor judgments and choices and flawed thinking.

O.K., so what’s the “visceral” heuristic?

The area of psychology [covered here] is called embodied emotion or cognition. What it means is that we have all these sensations all of the time that are associated with certain emotions.

When you think about it, [so much our thinking is] metaphorical. So everything up is good; everything forward is good. It’s called cognitive scaffolding. You start with the basic perception and layer on experiences. [And people apply these ideas from one sense or experience to another all the time.]

Some people would say that metaphor actually comes from this close entwining of physical senses and emotion. That’s why there are all these metaphors around the idea that filth is immoral and cold is lonely. What’s interesting is when things go way beyond making sense.

(More on Time.com: How Things You Touch Influence the Way You Think)

There are studies about sneezing during flu outbreaks. When people see someone sneeze, they are immediately more concerned about the flu. But they are also more concerned about heart attacks and more supportive of health care reform, just because they watched someone sneeze. It doesn’t really make sense.

What’s the most unusual heuristic?

I like the momentum heuristic. When I give public talks, it gives me a chance to talk about Looney Tunes and Wil E. Coyote. We’re all familiar with him and the famous scene in which he runs off cliff, and only after he realizes it does gravity kick in.

Why physical comedy is funny is because we all have an intuitive sense of physics that we carry around. We know gravity, trajectory and momentum on some level so well that we know how to catch a ball heading to center field. It’s an amazing calculation if you had to make [it mathematically].

The problem occurs when we take this basic perceptual sense and start to use it in social and emotional realms. It is a physical force — it’s well documented that Newton was right — but is there momentum in social lives? All the evidence says no.

(More on Time.com: Why Getting “High” Increases Acts of Charity)

The whole idea of losing momentum has real life ramifications. It can make us give up. [Think about] having a deadline. You’ve been working on a cover story for a couple of months. It’s due Monday and you have the weekend to finish it but you also have a guest coming over so you have to clean up the apartment.

O.K., do you have momentum now? If you’re doing well at housecleaning, you can think you also have momentum for writing the piece — but that doesn’t make sense.

This can be harmful because you also think that you can get thrown off and lose momentum. Now, your mother calls and you pick up. You’ve lost momentum. It’s like you’re riding a bike up a hill and have to stop. If it makes you give up and you don’t get the story done, you could get fired or lose your job. Now, how do you make sense of that? One is that you can say it was inevitable and become fatalistic; that can lead to depression. Or, you can become regretful. If only… and then you live in regret.

So something that makes you laugh at cartoon physics can lead to fatalism and depression on the other end in the emotional realm.

But couldn’t it be helpful to believe that you have the wind at your back, so long as you just ignore the idea when it’s not useful? Like a kind of placebo effect?

There’s no evidence that such a thing as psychological momentum exists. I suppose that you can get placebo effects in the same way that superstitious baseball players, if they hit their feet twice with the bat, believe it helps them perform well — just believing that can give them a little confidence.

What’s the “grim reaper” heuristic?

That’s from cognitive psychology. It’s called terror management theory. What people have done is asked the question, “Why aren’t we all paralyzed by knowing we’re going to die?” It seems like it should be paralyzing, but it’s not. They’ve done all these experiments where they prime people to think about death [by imagining] or describing decomposing bodies and things like that. When they do that, they find paradoxically that the mind goes to a good place, becomes nostalgic and protectives and favors positive words like flowers over monsters. You have a built in sense that something out there is threatening but you have a cognitive method for dealing with it.

(More on Time.com: Why We’re Happier Facing Death)

[However] the same thing that protects us from being paralyzed by the prospect of death day to day makes us protective of our belief systems in general. Anything that threatens our values — whether about capitalism or democracy or religion or whatever — we see as threatening and fight against it. This can lead actually to religious wars on the extreme end.

So are all heuristics problematic?

They are not good or bad. They’re entertaining, but we should be aware of them because our thinking is not always as rational as we like think it is.

For example, there’s a chapter on the scarcity heuristic, which says that something that is rare is good. It’s interesting in relationship to addiction. First of all, [research has] shown that if you have a brush with death, it’s perceived as a scarcity of life, so you come to value life more by recognizing that fragility. That’s basically what hitting bottom is. That scarcity can get us into recovery.

[But then there’s the] idea of forbidden fruit. It’s a bit heretical in the rooms of AA to talk about keeping alcohol around [but if it’s not scarce, it can be seen as less valuable].

How can we use these ideas to improve our behavior — to actually start going to the gym, for example?

I go to the gym every day, but I didn’t always. I used make resolutions and so forth and then I listened to Woody Allen who said that 99% of life is just showing up. [So that is using the default heuristic, which means that it’s easier to keep doing what you’re already doing than it is to change and make a decision.]

Basically, I just started [literally going  to the gym]. I said to myself if I show up and don’t do anything, that’s fine. But I never went and did nothing. So just changing your default position puts you at the gym. Now the active decision is to go home. So it’s playing a little [game that makes you more likely to do what you really want to do.]

I also use the scarcity heuristic in my in spinning class. Sometimes, I’m tired and I don’t want to do it. I tell myself, “You’re going to be at your desk all day. This is the only 45 minutes that you get to move, this is gold,” and that actually works.

It’s cool that we can use these quirks to change ourselves…

It’s a way of thinking about our thinking that’s fairly novel to most people. The fact that you can think about thinking — that is very liberating. At least you can be aware [of these tendencies] and then work on what you can do. Take them seriously, but be aware that you may not think the same way tomorrow and that there may be some hidden motivations in the way you think that shape the way [you act].

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.