What You See May Not Be What You Get


Wray Herbert is the author of Think Twice; Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, a very readable book about a fascinating subject. He’s been a science and health editor at U.S. News and World Report and editor in chief of Psychology Today,  and has been writing about psychology for over 25 years. Think Twice is about how your lizard brain works. I’ve written about your lizard brain before; it’s part of what Herbert calls the “dual-processor” brain. The brain, he writes, has two very different operating systems. “One is logical, slow deliberate and cautious. The other is much older and more primitive – fast and impressionistic, sometimes irrational.” The technical term for this brain is the heuristic mind.

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The term heuristic, which Wikipedia says comes from the Greek word for find’ or ‘discover,’ “refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery. Where an exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution.” We call heuristic approaches “intuition” and “guessing” as well. We all use this part of the brain – imagine how hard it would be to have to think about every choice we make, to reason through every decision. Our brains would be overloaded. So nature allows us to use heuristics for many common tasks.

That’s the good news. The “momentum” heuristic is what allows us to catch a ball. If an outfielder had to perform the calculus required to position himself under a fly ball, he’d never be able to do it. But his brain (and any 10-year-old’s) allows him to simply move, judging speed, distance and force by instinct. The same thing goes for avoiding an object in the road or getting a fork to your mouth. If we had to think about how to do it, the world would be a very different place (and it is for people with stroke or brain damage.)

But the heuristic mind is not rational. It “reasons” by instinct and visual metaphor. Herbert writes that most of our longstanding metaphors are based on heuristics. Feeling extreme cold is not a healthy thing for humans, so we learn to huddle and hug each other for warmth from infancy. Our metaphors for loneliness and rejection actually are based on cold (give someone the cold shoulder, for instance.) The metaphor and heuristic are so intertwined that when we feel cold, we feel lonely, and when test subjects were made to feel lonely (through an exercise that made them feel rejected by others) they actually estimated the temperature of the room they were in to be five degrees cooler than it actually was.

Think about that for a moment. Your lizard brain perceives reality based on what you’re feeling. Herbert goes on to talk about the “visionary heuristic.” Studies have shown that people with a fear of heights “see” the ground at a distance of about five feet further away than people who don’t fear heights. We perceive hills to be much steeper when we’re tired. People perceive the holes in a golf course as much smaller after playing a bad game than after playing well. In other words, what you see may not be what really is.

How does that change the way you approach your job search? I have often said that the world is a different place for some people, and I was closer to the truth than I realized. We know that things seem more difficult when we’re tired and worn down. You may literally see the world as a colder, steeper, harder place. So rule one, is to get some sleep before tackling a tough project. Rule two is to bring in a second opinion when you can. Our brains are not always reliable because we don’t always know when our lizard brain is doing the thinking.

Sales people have known this for centuries. They have managed to position products in a way that helps our lizard brain make buying decisions (“for just pennies a day, you can have an alarm system in your home.”) Our heuristic brain makes the decision, but when your spouse asks about it later, it’s your rational brain that makes up reasons. Trust me –  we do this all the time. We pick the red one or the one on the left, and then make up reasons why that one was better.

Next time you’re dreading a task or making a decision, ask yourself: which brain of mine is doing the talking here?

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One thought on “What You See May Not Be What You Get

  1. Pingback: Make Yourself Rejection-Proof | @work: a career blog

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