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On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits [Hardcover]

Wray Herbert
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 14, 2010
Our lives are composed of millions of choices, ranging from trivial to life-changing and momentous. Luckily, our brains have evolved a number of mental shortcuts, biases, and tricks that allow us to quickly negotiate this endless array of decisions. We don’t want to rationally deliberate every choice we make, and thanks to these cognitive rules of thumb, we don’t need to. 
Yet these hard-wired shortcuts, mental wonders though they may be, can also be perilous.   They can distort our thinking in ways that are often invisible to us, leading us to make poor decisions, to be easy targets for manipulators…and they can even cost us our lives. 
The truth is, despite all the buzz about the power of gut-instinct decision-making in recent years, sometimes it’s better to stop and say, “On second thought . . .”  
The trick, of course, lies in knowing when to trust that instant response, and when to question it.  In On Second Thought, acclaimed science writer Wray Herbert provides the first guide to achieving that balance.  Drawing on real-world examples and cutting-edge research, he takes us on a fascinating, wide-ranging journey through our innate cognitive traps and tools, exposing the hidden dangers lurking in familiarity and consistency; the obstacles that keep us from accurately evaluating risk and value; the delusions that make it hard for us to accurately predict the future; the perils of the human yearning for order and simplicity; the ways our fears can color our very perceptions . . . and much more. 
Along the way, Herbert reveals the often-bizarre cross-connections these shortcuts have secretly ingrained in our brains, answering such questions as why jury decisions may be shaped by our ancient need for cleanliness; what the state of your desk has to do with your political preferences; why loneliness can literally make us shiver; how drawing two dots on a piece of paper can desensitize us to violence… and how the very typeface on this page is affecting your decision about whether or not to buy this book.   
Ultimately, On Second Thought is both a captivating exploration of the workings of the mind and an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to learn how to make smarter, better judgments every day. 

Editorial Reviews


"Eminently "Gladwellian"...Herbert clearly shows the effects of various daily mental maneuvers and peppers the text with explanations of how the human mind has evolved." Washington Post
"Brings a twist [to the psychology shelf]...could keep us from making mistakes whose consequences range from dying in an avalanche to failing to follow directions because we don't like the font they're written in." —Sharon Begley, Newsweek
"Think twice before you trust your gut...Herbert uses real-world examples and cutting-edge research to show how heuristics--hardwired mental shortcuts we think of as intuition--can both help and hinder the decisions we make every day." US News & World Report

“Counters the argument set forth in titles like Malcom Gladwell's Blink… successfully shows readers how ancient shortcuts can impact our modern living and how to use this knowledge to make better decisions.” Library Journal

“Wray Herbert displays his gifts as a science writer par excellence…On Second Thought goes a long way toward leveling the mental playing field by outing the hidden power of our unconscious mental models.” —Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
"There is one way to be rational, and many ways of being irrational. With stories, anecdotes, and studies, Wray Herbert takes us through a guided tour of our many irrational tendencies, holding our hand, and helping us to see the mistakes we all make every day."—Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational
“A wonderful book that should be read by the public and experts alike…the most complete statement currently available on the foibles manifest in everyday decision-making and surely one of the most interesting books that I have had the pleasure of reading." —Ellen Langer, author of Mindfulness
“Wray Herbert is one of our finest writers of psychological science…here he blends the most fascinating findings from cognitive psychology with his own experiences into a seamless story of the mental biases and quirks that help us navigate through life—and occasionally get us stuck in brambles. On second thought . . . I’d say the same thing.”
—Carol Tavris, coauthor of Mistakes Were Made

“A fascinating and important book that reveals the invisible errors we make time and again… don’t tackle any big adventures or major undertakings until you’ve read On Second Thought.  It could save your nest egg, your relationship, and even your life.  No kidding!”—Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big Life

“From ‘looming maladaptive style’ to the ‘cooties heuristic,’ Wray Herbert takes us on a journey through the styles of thought we usually take for granted.  In clear and lively prose, he describes psych experiments and real-life quandaries that reveal how our cognitive habits get in our way – or, occasionally, save our skins.  It all adds up to a fascinating book that is altogether a treat. —Robin Marantz Henig, author of Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution

About the Author

WRAY HERBERT has been writing about psychology and human behavior for more than 25 years, including regular columns for Newsweek and Scientific American Mind.  He has also been science and health editor at US News & World Report, psychology editor for Science News, and editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. He currently serves as director for science communication at the Association for Psychological Science, where he writes a popular blog about the latest in psychological research. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (September 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307461637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307461636
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #745,927 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I grew up on the Jersey shore, and besides loving all things that taste and smell of saltwater, I developed an early curiosity for life sciences. In fact, I was originally a pre-med major before my 60's-style search for meaning and my love of all things bookish drew me into more literary pursuits. I loved school so much that I kept going until I could no longer afford it. Then, in the mid-70s, I moved to Washington, DC, to try my hand at journalism--which I've been doing ever since.

Passions, circumstances and opportunity intersected to shape my journalism career, but I have always had a strong focus on human behavior and health. I started out writing for the National Institute of Mental Health, where I was immersed in cutting-edge work on the brain and neuroscience. My subsequent jobs included: psychology editor at Science News; editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, health and science editor at US News & World Report; columnist for Newsweek, Scientific American Mind and, most recently, the Huffington Post. I now write two popular psychology blogs--"We're Only Human" and "Full Frontal Psychology." Each of these jobs has reinforced my belief that every story, whether it is about war, or love, or crime, or economics, is at its heart about human psychology--how each of us uses our brain and mind to interpret the world, make choices, and learn from our experience.

The area of cognitive psychology described in On Second Thought will continue to evolve as talented and curious psychologists study human behavior both inside and outside of the lab. Great literature, current events, pop culture and my own life experiences--all these provide lenses for examining human behavior both old and new. I hope you will join me in an ongoing discussion as I continue to blog about the science (on http://www.wrayherbert.com/), what it means (and doesn't mean) and how you and I can use it in our lives every day.

I live and make decisions, choices and judgements, both good and bad, with my wife Susie and dog Zooey in Washington, DC.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
113 of 122 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Covers famiiliar ground....less well than others October 10, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are a number of books out that discuss our cognitive blind spots, and the heuristics that we (apparently) use--sometimes at our peril--to make decisions.

This one is the least nuanced, most bluntly reductionist, most under-argued, and least successful of the ones I have read. I'd recommend THE ART OF CHOOSING, THE INVISIBLE GORILLA, THE HIDDEN BRAIN, PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL, or MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME) as much better explained, more carefully argued, and better written.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Really interesting read. I just couldn't put it down. September 18, 2010
By Peter
This is a great book. The author transforms complex psychology studies into some very interesting ideas about decision making and human nature. I'm not the academic type that reads recent psychology studies, and this book does a great job of taking all of the statistics, testing and other tedium out, leaving just the interesting discoveries about the human mind.

We're all vaguely familiar with concepts like procrastination, stubbornness, irrationality, hasty decision-making, etc. This book brings a lot of clarity to those thinking patterns and describes their origins and their consequences in a very eloquent way. I came across several thinking patterns that I had been doing unknowingly for years, which was really interesting at a personal level.

I found the book interesting, informative and very helpful from a practical, decision-making standpoint. I've got a better grasp on how the human mind (including my own) works.

It's a great book; I'd recommend it highly.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Breaking New Ground - No, Very Good Book - Yes November 23, 2010
Though much of the book does not break new ground on our basic cognitive blind spots, it is nevertheless a very good book. The author does provide more than a few unique insights in different ways on the subject then other authors to date that more than makes for the lack of breaking new ground. If you have not been introduced to some of our hardwired tendencies previously, then this book is as good as any place to start and worthy of the purchase. I enjoyed the author's writing style for this genre and it was an enjoyable read.

If you are interested in this genre of cognitive psychology, then a few of may other favorites on the subject include:

Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by Michael J. Mauboussin
The Little Book of Behavioral Investing: How not to be your own worst enemy by James Montier
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich
Mean Markets and Lizard Brains: How to Profit from the New Science of Irrationality by Terry Burnham
The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (McGraw-Hill Series in Social Psychology) by Scott Plous
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'On Second Thought' March 26, 2011
Wray Herbert's engaging On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits has three main messages:

1. Evolved Brains: Our minds (which drive our thoughts, actions, and reactions), are evolved organs, constructed by adaptation over long periods of time to our environments.

2. Brain / Modern-Environment Mismatch: Unfortunately, our brains evolved in very different environments in which we now find ourselves. This leads to our reactions, biases, and thoughts to be too often mismatched and maladapted to circumstances in a 21st century world.

3. Choice with Knowledge: However, if we understand where our immediate reactions and thoughts come from, we can overcome irrational action and make choices that benefit our long-term goals.

Herbert is a journalist, reporting on the academic work of behavioral economists and experimental psychologists. The strength of On Second Thought is the breadth in which psychological and behavioral theory and experimental results are examined. If you are interested in the academic literature on the limits of rational behavior (as I am), then On Second Thought is both an excellent primer and synthesizer.

Dan Ariely covers much of the same ground in Predictably Irrational and the The Upside of Irrationality, but did so in a much more nuanced, intimate, curious and personal manner. On Second Thought would have been a better book if Herbert had some questions he wanted to answer, or things he wanted to figure out about himself, and was able to weave the research on decision making into a more compelling narrative.

Despite these quibbles, On Second Thought is a worthy addition to our "dumb us" and "getting our minds around our brains" bookshelves.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars To Decide Or Not to Decide... January 29, 2011
Wray Herbert's book On Second Thought, is one of those books that deserves a second reading,or at least one of those epistles you want to keep on a bookshelf for an occasional chapter review. The book is broken down into 20 chapters, each one exploring the various heuristics, those intuitive blind faith reasonings, that often determine our views and actions without our even realizing it. The trick, as Herbert explains, is knowing when to go with that gut feeling or seemingly thoughtless action/reaction and when to apply the brakes and let reason guide the way. This is a fascinating book, and one that I will keep handy for further reading.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fascinating read
Published 1 month ago by Joan B. Baker
2.0 out of 5 stars Slogging my way through it.
While there is some interesting research cited in this book, it is presented in a way that is hard to engage with. Read more
Published 13 months ago by lightvision
3.0 out of 5 stars Contents are OK but the writing fails to engage
The contents of the book are OK but the writing is dry and scattering and boring. It lacks the flow offered by reading some other books like "Predictable irrational" etc.
Published 20 months ago by Tommy
2.0 out of 5 stars Dry
The points made in this book are compelling and the evidence is strong. The dry, boring writing style is what lost me. Read more
Published on April 25, 2012 by RingProudly
5.0 out of 5 stars Great first psychology book
I had never taken a psychology class or read a single psychology book before I picked up "On Second Thought". Read more
Published on March 9, 2012 by Derek
5.0 out of 5 stars perfect for montessori kids/teachers.
this book changed my life. i already navigate a long and rocky course of self examination and this book is a worthy companion on what i hope to be a long long journey. Read more
Published on September 15, 2011 by lisa murphy
3.0 out of 5 stars They forgot the heuristic of heuristics
I just got through the audio book version and I agree with most of the reviews, it is well written, informative and interesting. Read more
Published on September 8, 2011 by Docknock
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Good Compilation of Cognitive Shortcuts
This book is not written by a masterful storyteller such as Malcolm Gladwell, but it covers the topic much more thoroughly and I believe more accurately. Read more
Published on May 15, 2011 by Book Fanatic
4.0 out of 5 stars Here's My Thought, "On Second Thought"
My review is for the audio book version. I found this book to be engaging as well as interesting. One reviewer had noted the similarities between Malcolm Gladwell books and this... Read more
Published on May 9, 2011 by Glenn Simon Inc
5.0 out of 5 stars loved it - by Terri Jo Lorz
Thought the book doesn't provide a lot in the way of how to change the way you think and make decisions - it is great in terms of understanding how our brain sorts through... Read more
Published on March 26, 2011 by T. Lorz
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