What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite

Zadius Sky

The Living Force
While looking for Samuel Barondes' Making Sense of People: Decoding the Mysteries of Personality at the local bookstore the other day, I also found a book by the title of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite by David DiSalvo (2011). This is his first book. I would have passed on this book if it wasn't for a "short review" on its back cover by Philip Zimbardo:

"This book is a well-researched and effectively argued guide to uncovering the reasons why we so often think and act in ways that undermine our best interests, and it's also full of knowledge about why humans manipulate each other. If you want to know more about why you do what you do, and how to avoid becoming the victim of someone else's manipulation tactics, I encourage you to read this book."

So, I got the two books and I am now half-way through DiSalvo's book and finding it interesting to read and it is loaded with examples as similar to other cognitive books (and/or topics) being discussed here on this board.

Here's the introduction:

pages 15 to 25 said:

Hacking the Cognitive Compass

"What a peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call 'thought.'"
- David Hume, Dialgues Concerning Natural Religion

"There is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."
- H.L. Mencken, The Divine Afflatus

Our Brains Are Prediction- and Pattern-Detection Machines That Desire Stability, Clarity, and Consistency - Which Is Terrific, Except When It's Not

You enter the office on your first day of work. Nervous energy tingles through every limb, and you are as alert as a deer sipping from an alligator pond. This is not your "first" first day of work; you're started other jobs before, and these sensations aren't entirely new to you. But still, this job is new, and you're nearly as anxious about it as you were before your very first job years ago. There is, however, a major difference, though it isn't explicitly clear to you as you stroll down the central hallway of the office suite for the first time. But step by step, as you start looking into the offices you pass and absorb the surroundings, something begins happening that triggers a nascent thought: I'm going to be fine.

Why does this thought break through the electric jitter swarm and announce itself? What is changing as you make your way down the hall and begin ingesting the sights and sounds around you? While it's hardly obvious, your brain is doing some heavy lifting on your behalf. Everything you see, smell, touch, and hear is being processed, analyzed, and decoded. Your brain is doing what it has evolved to do, and it's doing it exceptionally well; so well, in fact, that you are starting to experience an emotional response that counteracts your nervous response. Your brain is determining that you have been here before. Not literally, of course, but your brain is structured to make sense of stimuli and patterns in any environment you step into, and it's finding patterns in this new environment that overlay well with others you have experienced. Your brain is arriving at a determination that these patterns are familiar enough that you will be able to make reliable predictions about what is coming next in this environment. As you begin meeting people in the office, more stimuli are processed, more patterns are detected, more is added to the webs of information your brain creates about everything you experience. The more the day goes on, the more at ease you become about most things in this new environment, and those things that have put you on guard have been flagged as potentially dangerous and requiring elevated attention. During the course of one day, your brain has mapped out a new microworld that you will inhibit for as long as you have this job. It will be added to and subtracted from, shifted, adjusted, and contorted - but all these movements will occur within a framework derived from recurring patterns that your brain has identified, coded, and categorized.

Years of neuroscience research have led to the current understanding of the brain as a prediction machine - an amazingly complex organ that processes information to determine what's coming next. Specifically, the brain specializes in pattern detection and recognition, anticipation of threats, and narrative (storytelling). The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival - which is, in effect, our survival.

The problem is that our brains' evolved capacity for avoiding and defending against these threats - a capacity that has allowed our species to survive and thrive - has slew of by-products, all tightly woven into our day-to-day thinking and behavior. This book will discuss several of them, each of which, ironically, trip and ensnare us while making our threat-anticipating brains "happy." The pages ahead include explorations as to why:
  • We crave certainty and the feeling of being right.
  • We rely on memory to buttress that feeling.
  • We're prone to assigning meaning to coincidence, and making causal links with scant information.
  • We want to feel in control.
  • We try to avoid loss.
  • We regulate our moral behavior to feel "balanced."
  • We attempt to circumnavigate regret.
  • We generalize when specificity would be more beneficial.
If we could live our lives without bias, distortions, and delusions involved, the world would be truly idyllic. But we can't, though we're largely ignorant of this fact. We function much of the time with an air of mystification about why we do what we do, and why we think as we think - not because we are dull-witted. Must the opposite: only a brain advanced enough to engage in complex thought and self-reflection is susceptible to the fuzzy mystification that obscures from view how our minds really work.

Before we go much further, though, let's take a couple steps back and discuss where we have been, cognitively speaking, and where we are going.

Hacking the Misunderstandings of Mind

For any analysis of mind to be useful, it must defer to what we know about how our brain function. Admittedly, this knowledge is limited, but it has grown enormously in the last few decades, providing an understanding that few thought possible a century ago. If you had, for example, told an early twentieth-century neurologist that technology would develop in the next one hundred years that allows paraplegics to control robotic arms with their minds, you'd probably get a sneer, if not a snicker. Science fiction novels and comic books featured similar technology, but serious scientists wouldn't have staked their careers on such things being possible. We now know they are more than possible - they are happening. Likewise, we have learned enough about the brain to know that the mind-body dualism of old is an outmoded explanation. It's still tempting for many to yank the workings of mind from their biological moorings, chiefly because the complexity of thought seems too large an enigma for our brains to contain. As one biology professor at my alma mater put it, "How can billions of on-off switches result in something as complex as the mind?"

Cognitive science has not exhaustively answered those sorts of questions, but in the course of diving into the brain's mysteries it has discovered that the questions themselves were never really on target. The "on-off switch" analogy, for instance, is the result of a category error. By starting with the belief that the brain is essentially a fleshy and compact electrical device - albeit a complicated one - it's impossible to arrive at an explanation for mind that passes anyone's laugh test.

Cognitive science challenges our categories by breaking down the mental silos we build to make sense of things. Consider the temptation to pinpoint thoughts and emotions in well-defined parts of the brain. It's neater to believe that anger, for instance, launches from one central place than to accept that it doesn't "live" in any single place in the brain but is rather the result of multiple brain regions cross-activating in less-than-tidy ways.

This is an especially hard realization to accept when it comes to memory. Where does the memory of riding a roller coaster at Six Flags when you were ten years old reside? Because our recollection of the event seems more or less complete, we want to believe that it must exist that way on a bookshelf in our heads. When we want to revisit the memory, we pull the book from the shelf and turn to the right page. We now know that memory doesn't work that way, and, in fact, your memory of the hairpin curve and corkscrew loop doesn't really reside in any single place in your brain, nor is it in any way complete.

These understandings are all quite messy, and the science underlying them doesn't satisfy our hunger for airtight answers. We jump back into categories to fill the voids because not having answers is unnerving, and so it should be. Since the very organ that defies explanation evolved to make sense of our environment, it's perfectly understandable that we'd become frustrated by the brain's silence about its own inner workings. And yet, the reality is that you and I can carry on this discussion precisely because the amazing organ in our heads yields this thing we've come to call mind. Or we could more accurately say that mind is not something produced by the brain, but that which the brain does. Said still another way, the brain's activity - and, indeed, the activity of our nervous system in total - is our mind. To quote neuroscientist Simon LeVay, "The mind is just the brain doing its job."

For the better part of a century, we have steadily moved away from the idea that the body (including the brain) and mind are separate entities - a belief popularized by what the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes labeled the mind-body problem, or "dualism." Where dualism went wrong, to paraphrase the contemporary philosopher John Searle, was "to start counting in the first place." But the reason for the "counting" - the bifurcating of brain and mind - is easy enough to see: for as long as humans have been able to think about it, we haven't liked the alternatives. If mind is what the brain does, then it can be reduced to biological processes. And no matter how complex these processes are, they are still the workings of flesh, blood, cellulose, and sinew. How can we - the magnificent, above-common-nature creatures we believe ourselves to be - be tethered so crudely to nothing more than what some neuroscientists call wetware (the biological corollary to computer hardware)? That's the challenge to our self-understanding that cognitive science research presents us with, and it will only become stouter as more revelations about how the brain works come to light.

Hacking for Better Answers

With dualism behind us, what's in front of us? The comfort of locating the mind apart from the wetware we carry around in our skulls is gone, so what, exactly, should replace it? The answer is central to the argument I'll be making throughout this book. We have entered a period of self-understanding only vaguely imaginable before the new wave of neuroscience and cognitive psychology research opened the door and began pushing us through. We are only at the beginning of this period, and caution is warranted about drawing hasty conclusions from a body of research still in its infancy. But we are definitely on a new path to self-understanding, and there is no returning to the backwater refuge of dualism. In this new period, when we speak of thought, we are speaking of the currency of mind - the very stuff of the brain's relentless activity. The dualistic division, figment though it was, has collapsed, and with it died a thousand misconceptions of mind.

What this all points to is a fantastic opportunity - an opportunity to credibly figure out why we do what we do, and, just as important, decipher how we can alter thought and behavior inconsistent with our best interests. If that statement strikes you as having an air of "self-helpness" about it, let me correct the perception in advance: I believe that the new wave of cognitive research actually undercuts a great deal of self-help advice, and will continue to do so in the years ahead by showing just how vacuous, groundless, and fraudulent much of that advice really is. The fog of misunderstandings about the brain and mind has allowed self-help snake oil to flow with impunity for decades, fueled by billions of dollars from well-intentioned consumers looking for answers. Cognitive science cannot provide a complement of concrete answers to replace those of the self-help industry, nor should the disciplines within psychology attempt to do so. What neuroscience and psychology can do, however, is make us smarter evaluators of our thought and behavior by shedding much-needed light on difficult questions. By using sound research as a basis for rethinking our behavior, we will be on steadier ground than much of the self-help industry could provide. We do not need more self-help - we need more science-help.

Hacking with Hunches

I'm a pragmatist. I have a penchant for what works and tend to critically scrutinize assertions that lean on a hunch. But I also understand and appreciate that sometimes a hunch is all we have, and though it's not the complete answer, it might eventually guide us to one. Research does not operate outside the world of hunches. The best researchers I have met are world-class hunch makers who sometimes craft the most creative and compelling research approaches from a hunch they had while eating breakfast. From a mere hunch, they sometimes arrive at a new understanding that a volume of previous research on the same topic somehow missed. My tour of such research leading up to this book has demonstrated to me that, at times, it pays to have faith in hunches.

Along with that faith, however, it doubly pays to check one's naïveté more often than one might think necessary. Part of what animates the self-help juggernaut and, more recently, the burgeoning industry built on hasty conclusions about neuroscience research, is a naïve approach to solving problems. We want answers. We want to listen to people who claim to have answers. We want problems solved and settled so that we can feel good about the resolution. It hurts to realize that more often than not, we can't have what we want, or at least not as we envision it. But naïveté is a formidable force with the power to trump healthy skepticism about what we are being told is "the answer." If we are not careful, a sincere desire to figure things out can lead to a naïve acceptance of well-heeded nonsense.

As an example, we must be extremely careful about drawing ironclad conclusions from brain imaging studies. The neuroscience community is far from united about what the activation of various brain regions means in all cases. A deep well of issues must still be addressed before the images can speak to us with clear answers. For instance, why, from one study to the next, do different regions activate under the same testing conditions? That the brain is such an effective foil of study replication is a true problem for researchers, and so far as to argue that we should use brain imaging in the courtroom as proof of guilt or innocence - a truly frightening prospect for a technology that is far from perfect. Many other issues could be mentioned, but suffice it to say that the business of science is not to provide us with settled answers that we can comfortably rest our heads upon at night. Indeed, we are wise to expect more new questions than answers from any research campaign worth discussing.

Having said that, the very process of scientific investigation - one study building on the next with confirmation or challenge - is hope-inspiring. What differentiates scientific assertions from the droves of poorly grounded self-help and pseudoscience assertions is this process. It demands far more of its executors because the process is, in a sense, bent on self-destruction. It doesn't trumpet the perfection of its outcome; it calls out for challenges that could very well undermine the outcomes and start the process anew.

That, in short, is where this book begins. Science is a tool - but it is the best tool we have to address hard issues about ourselves and our world. And I believe it is also the finest tool available to understand what is catalyzing our thoughts and motivating our behavior. If we are to credibly claim knowledge of why we think as we think, and do as we do, then we must engage these questions at their core, and accept the limitations inherent in this process of discovery.

Hacking Ahead

A few upfront disclosures are in order. First, throughout this book, I will use an intentionally oversimplified metaphor of a "happy brain." Brains, of course, cannot strictly speaking be happy or sad or angry, nor can they want, desire, claim, or commit. In the words of New York City-based clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Todd Essig:

Brains don't want, any more than lungs sing or knees set long-jump records. Brains are part of what makes people want and how we want. There is always a situated, contextualized, enculturated person between the brain and wanting.

What I wish to communicate with the metaphor of a happy brain is simply that under various conditions, our brains will tend toward a default position that places greatest value on avoiding loss, lessening risk, and averting harm. Our brains have evolved to do exactly that, and much of the time we can be thankful they did. However, these same protective tendencies (what I am calling the tendencies of a "happy brain") can go too far and become obstacles instead of virtues. Our challenge is to know when to think and act contrary to our brain's native leanings.

Second, this is not a book about psychological pathologies. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist and have no interest in playing virtual therapist via a book or any other medium. I am also not a neuroscientist and would not claim to possess a grasp of neural dynamics that only a full investment in the discipline can provide. I am a science writer especially interested in how our brains work, and I am driven by a passion to communicate what I learn to a broader audience. I am also a public education specialist who has spent years devising and implementing strategies to boost awareness and catalyze behavioral change among particular target audiences - some narrow, some massive. I am closely familiar with the gap between knowing and applying. Most of us can grasp the substance of a problem and even be provided with a means for overcoming it, yet we often still fail. It is this gap between awareness and action that set me on a path to write this book. I wanted to know why humans so often do things not in our best interest. More specifically, I wanted to understand what attributes of our brains underlie the self-undermining thoughts and actions that plague every person born on this planet.

When I started this trek more than three years ago, I expected to focus mainly on cognitive bias - the well-documented throng of mental errors that so often cause us to stumble. But after working through reams of research studies and discussions with experts in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, I discovered an even more essential piece of the cognitive puzzle, and it has everything to do with what makes our brain "happy."

My investigation also led to a further conclusion: Simply knowing how our brains flop is not very useful. Most books about brain errors never get beyond this point. But what good is knowing, if we fall short of doing anything about it? We may know that we should take action to avoid temptation (for example), but applying that knowledge is a different matter entirely - and that, too, is part of our neural reality. This is the "gap" between awareness and action, and as a practical matter it's just as crucial as figuring out what makes our brains tick.

Finally, what you will find in the following chapters is a broad survey of topics. I have intentionally not dropped too low into the weeds with technical minutia, but rather have focused on what I believe are the larger issues relevant to the discussion. My goal is for this book to be informative, but also useful. I hope you will find it to be both as we continue our discussion in the pages ahead.


FOTCM Member
Sounds like another good one, though his Darwinian bias is rather strong from the get-go.


The Living Force
The reason I haven't picked this one up? That's what I do when a situation or person or project (yes, including the recent one on psychopathy) feels too 'right' or 'good' or it appears to fit in too well with what I want to do.....I stop...wait...think it through...watch a while, then decide what to do.

Often that means walking away from the person, project, group, for good. In rare cases, if observation over time shows otherwise, I join up.

And yeah, I did that here too. I left for a while and watched, only coming back after seeing consistency over time. Mistakes are human, that's a plus, not a negative.

Its not fool proof, because I'm an enterprising kind of idiot and learn new ways to screw up despite the best intentions. :rolleyes:

It has kept me from being burnt the last few years. I may check the book out on amazon and see what its like first though. ;D

Thomas Alan

The Living Force
Sounds, interesting. I'll add it to my reading list.

How little we really know about our bodies and minds, even after much study. Life remains a great mystery. For a period of time, years ago, I was into "self-help". Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey etc. They were inspiring to me at the time, but really produced little in behavior changes. On reflection I see that these people greatly over-simplified our beings and place in reality. Much feel good, think positive, take action stuff.

In a sense, learning reveals to us how little of our knowledge is founded in truth.



The Living Force
I also came across this one when looking to get McRaney's "You Are Not So Smart" and finding a comment comparing the two. (DiSalvo's book was noted to have a different style and to go further into practical suggestions)

Ultimately I got "You Are Not So Smart" for the time, the presentation of which (as I already knew from reading excerpts) does make its contents hit home. I might get WMYBHAWYSDTO once I'm through the books I already have - and "Thinking, Fast and Slow" which I've just ordered.

Funny feelings: Part of me really wanted to get this other book instead - and still would like to have it - though another part of me was ultimately put off this "want" by its "feel" - the mind wandering and straying and returning to picturing the book and the impression it (and the preview I read) made. While I can't trust the thoughts I had about it, the impression I got at the time was that if I'd get engrossed in this book, it might - judging by how the mind reacted to it - serve to lull me somewhat to sleep. Whereas what I chose at the time instead - "You Are Not So Smart" - has given some mild shocks that shake up mental habits and conceptions. These thoughts might however simply be subjective nonsense.

Zadius Sky

The Living Force
The introduction, admittedly, was a turn-off for me and the same goes for the title. But, the coming chapters are filled with interesting examples of confirmation bias, certainty bias, framing bias, intentional stance, hyperbolic discounting, obsessive rumination, counter-factual thinking, so on. If you had read You Are Not So Smart, you can recognize some of the studies.

Let me bring you a couple examples from this book:

page 29 to 32 said:
Mind Full of Sharks

On October 9, 1997, observers from the Point Reyes Bird Observatory witnessed a killer whale clashing with a great shark near Farallon Island, twenty-six miles off the coast of San Francisco. The sight made for salacious nature news. Speculation about what would happen if these apex predators met has always piqued curiosity, but until that day no one really knew for sure. Someone on the ship caught the confrontation on video, which later made its way onto the Internet and became an instant draw for millions of eyeballs worldwide.

Turns out, it wasn't much of a fight. The orca had little trouble dispatching menacing opponent, and then proceeded to dine on its liver, leaving the carcass for seagulls to pick clean. This outcome may have disappointed many who expected a bloody, jaw-to-jaw battle between these titans of the deep, but it tickled the fancy of academics to the point of giddiness.

The reason for their interest had to do with why the two clashed in the first place and exactly how the orca defeated the shark. Ordinarily, apex predators are happy to avoid each other, for the simple reason that fighting a beast in your weight and ferocity class will probably result in injury. Injury means impaired ability to hunt, and that means game over.

Knowing this, scientists were eager to know why two of the most successful predators on the planet would risk confrontation in the open seas. The answer shocked everyone. This was no chance street brawl: The orca was actually hunting the shark.

To understand why, we have to take a step back to examine how killer whales learn their namesake trade. Like humans, orcas have culture. But unlike most human cultures, orca cultures revolve around one thing: hunting behavior. Some orca hunt herring, others seal, others stingrays, and others - sharks. The observers on the ship had witnessed an orca conducting the business of its shark-hunting culture.

The next discovery was how the orca so handily defeated the shark. In every orca culture, a hunting technique is learned through demonstration and imitation. That's a big part of what makes orcas such efficient predators - they learn the best, tried-and-true hunting techniques from each other. When orca tries a killing method that works well, others take notice and copy it.

Scientists speculate that at some point, an orca discovered that if it rammed a shark hard enough from the side, the shark would flip over and become motionless, unable to defend itself and inflict injury. In effect, that pioneering orca induced "tonic immobility" in its adversary - a temporary state of paralysis many species of sharks fall into when turned on their backs. The human discovery of tonic immobility in sharks is relatively recent, making the orca's behavior all the more remarkable.

This deadly shark-hunting technique, capable of rendering a great white shark powerless, is the orca equivalent of human "meme" - a unit of cultural ideas and practices transmitted from one mind to another. Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, puts a finer point on it by defining a meme simply as "that which is imitated." The biological corollary to a meme is, of course, a gene, a unit of heredity transmitted from an organism to its offspring. Killer whales are, as a matter of heredity, powerful hunters, but we now know that their cultures strongly influence how they use their native abilities. An orca from a herring-hunting culture is not likely to tackle a great white, just as an orca from a whale-hunting culture would have no reason to start hunting stingrays.

The key point is that orca cultures pass along memes that benefit their members via learning and perfecting crucial skills necessary for survival. The ocra brain is advanced enough to make this meme transfer effective beyond what any other creature in the ocean is capable of achieving. In other words, just about anything might end up on the menu.

The human brain, in contrast, is the undisputed learning master on the planet. Our cultures are infinitely more complex than ocra cultures, because the sheer volume and depth of memes we exchange is orders of magnitude greater. The flip side of this reality is that our big brains, advanced as they are, come with an array of complex shortcomings and are also expert at transmitting these shortcomings.

One of the most perilous gene-meme double whammies that humans possess is the notion of certainty. Our natures and our learned biases lead us to believe that we are right whether or not we really are. This is the orca equivalent of learning the wrong way to hunt a great white shark - not a mistake any smart orca would copy. If ocra cultures passed along memes that imperiled their members, they wouldn't be long for this world. Humans, on the other hand, pass on problematic memes like the notion of certainty on a daily basis. Rarely does this go well, but rarely does that stop us.

The reason for our stubbornness goes deeper than we think. Neuroscience research is revealing that the state of not being certain is an extremely uncomfortable place for our brains to live: The greater the uncertainty, the worse the discomfort. A 2005 study conducted by psychologist Ming Hsu and his team found that even a small amount of ambiguity triggers increased activity in the amygdalae - two deep brain structures that plays a major role in our response to threats. Each amygdala is a cluster of nerve cells that sits under a corresponding temporal lobe on either side of the brain. Information pours into the amygdalae from multiple sources; the amygdalae filter through the information to determine its threat-level significance and mobilizes a response. At the same time, the brain shows less activity in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain involved in our response to rewards (we would expect to see increased activity in the ventral striatum when we are anticipating a pay raise, or vacation, or even a kiss, for instance). As the level of ambiguity increases, amygdalae activity continues to increase, and ventral striatum activity continues to decrease.

What this tells us is that the brain doesn't merely prefer certainty over ambiguity - it craves it. Our need to be right is actually a need to "feel" right. Neurologist Robert Burton coined the term "certainty bias" to describe this feeling and how it skews our thinking.

The truth for us all is that when we feel right about a decision or a belief - whether big or small - our brains are happy. Since our brains like being happy, we like feeling right. In our everyday lives, though, feeling right translates into being right (because if we could admit that we only "feel" right, then we might not really be right, and from our brains' point of view that's just not alright).

Our fierce mammalian cousins in the oceans are not strapped with the existential baggage of craving certainty. Their needs are far more straightforward, and their brains evolved to facilitated learning specific to meeting those needs. As one unfortunate great white found out, orca brains are very good at what they do.

Our brains are also very good at what they do, but as a consequence of their expansive abilities, our paths to surviving and thriving are not nearly so clear-cut. Our intense desire for feeling right is but one example of this uniquely human reality, and what this chapter is all about.

pages 70 to 72 said:
Future Uncertain

When presented with distant commitments, we stumble on the difficulty our brains have placing us in the future with any degree of accuracy. Because our brains evolved to make determinations about our existing environments and predict immediate threats and rewards, it's a stretch to gain perspective even a few weeks into the future. As important, our brains are always quite happy to capitalize on an immediate reward. When combined, the challenge to gain future perspective and the desire for immediate rewards sets us up for a range of problems. Economists call this tendency hyperbolic discounting.

People selling high-ticket items leverage these tendencies all the time to sell cars, houses, time-share units, and the like. When you are haggling with a car salesperson, take note that the figure she or he will focus on is the monthly payment. If you attempt to move the conversation away from the monthly payment, note that the salesperson will try to pull it back to the point. The reason is that if the more immediate issue - what you will pay every month - becomes palatable, the long-term issue - what you will be paying (including interest) years from now - will be overshadowed. So if you really can't afford a particular car, the salesperson's goal is to "put you into it" via other means; namely, by finagling the monthly cost over time to make you feel good about the purchase.

Note, also, that the financing of the car is handled in another room, by another salesperson. That person's job - adjunct to the first salesperson - is to maximize the car dealership's stake in your purchase while keeping you hooked. So, again, if you really can't afford the car, perhaps instead of a five-year loan, you'll be placed on a six-year loan. Whether you agree to five or six years doesn't seem like a very big difference from where you are standing right now. That you will be paying a full twelve more months of interest - potentially thousands of dollars - doesn't outweigh the immediate reward of driving off the lot with a brand new car. The second salesperson's job is also to plug as many "products" (such as warranties) as possible into your sale and stretch them out accordingly to keep you focused on what you want in the short term. And above all else, the salesperson must keep you there to make the sale that day - for the simple reason that taking additional time to consider the long-term commitment will darken the rosy hue of the short-term reward. Selling is a game of momentum that leverages your brain's penchant for immediacy to close the deal, whether or not it was truly in your best interest.

Perhaps the most salient example of this tendency in action is something that frequently happens among friends and family members, and, unfortunately, often injures those relationships. Someone asks a friend or family member for help - let's say moving from one city to another. The move won't take place for several months, but it will require at least two full days of nonstop work to complete. In the moment the request is made, the person being asked for help likely wants to please the other, or perhaps feels obligated to say yes. In either case, the brain of the person being asked is seizing upon an immediate reward: gratification from satisfying the other person's need for help, or gratification from escaping the friction of evading a sense of obligation (this is an important point, because we usually think of a reward as "getting" something, but it can also be derived from avoiding something unpleasant).

The issue, of course, is not that the person being asked to help shouldn't want to help, but that it's very easy to overcommit oneself in the moment, and the consequences of overcommitment may be far worse than saying no up front. When the commitment eventually becomes a present reality, we're often left wondering how we could have committed ourselves when we have so many other competing commitments vying for our time and attention.

Evolution isn't directed by the interpersonal concerns of humans. Unlike our primate cousins, whose world is respectably complex but much more straightforward than ours, we have the added challenge of tailoring our responses to our expansive and complicated social environment. We place value on honoring our commitments, and failing to do so is viewed as a debit against one's character. What made our brains happy at the front end of a commitment tunnel may very well be what hurts us, and others, at the other end. All the more reason that we exercise a sort of cerebral restraint before satisfying the initial urge to collect our reward, in whatever form it takes.


Jedi Master
I bought this today and am reading through it, seems interesting so far, just looking at common human thinking weaknesses, I do think a lot of his examples are a bit weak to his points though.


FOTCM Member
Franco said:
I bought this today and am reading through it, seems interesting so far, just looking at common human thinking weaknesses, I do think a lot of his examples are a bit weak to his points though.

I am also reading it currently, and have thought a few times " is this the best example you can come up with?" Either he lacks understanding of the implications of the studies he mentions, or he wrote it too fast, without giving it the required attention.

I am enjoying the reading however. I am half way through, and every page I read is a reminder why " I should not do what IT wants to do" and why, from a brain wiring/biology perspective.


The Living Force
Some time back, I went against my intuition and bought the book - at an earlier point, doing so would have made my brain happy, which also made me doubt the decision ;) - but not at the time I got it.

Having read the other threads, Strangers to Ourselves, a bit over half of You Are Not So Smart, the initial part of Redirect describing the writing excersize and its merits, and a bit of Thinking, Fast and Slow, I find the main value of this book is in tying things together and adding to the whole - in great part because of the reflection it prompts. It helps me see how I'm presently tripping myself up - and have in the past - in practical terms.

My main Aim at this time is to become responsible in my life, and so - for this - it is useful.
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