“On Second Thought” Takes a Second Look at Our Thinking Process

Regardless of industry, experience or pay-grade, all of our work ultimately consists of a long series of decisions. The thinking process behind them involves either careful, deliberate calculation or the use of instincts, impulses, and “following your gut.” In the workplace, terms like “Jack-of-all-trades,” “wearing many hats” and “thinking on your feet” bring to mind images of multitasking, prioritizing and decisive action.

Which leaves us with a dilemma: ideally, you would have unlimited time and energy to carefully ponder every daily decision. But, realistically speaking, you’ll never have the resources to approach every challenge this way. Would you honestly eliminate dozens of choices one-by-one to find the perfect pre-interview lunch? Can you imagine picking out the perfect business attire by weighing the pros and cons of each and every outfit in your wardrobe?

The truth is, we have neither the time nor the mental focus to ponder every decision with pros and cons or the process of elimination. To save brainpower, you might choose a “lucky lunch” that experience has shown always seems to get you a second interview or callback. Similarly, to pick your business attire, you might assemble an outfit much like one that impressed you at the last meeting. There’s no true calculation behind these decisions; they’re based on a tangled combination of instinct, experience, correlation, opinion and nuance.

On Second Thought

We’re forced by our busy lives to take these kinds of mental shortcuts in the form of heuristics — experience-based problem solving techniques. In the newly published book On Second Thought, psychology author Wray Herbert provides a guided tour through the complex, layered library of mental shortcuts, exploring their origins, their consequences and the latest discussions regarding the use of heuristics:

“One camp argues that heuristics are the best tools in our cognitive toolbox for many complex life decisions, precisely because they are so fleet and efficient. According to this view, it is simply impossible to calculate the best answers all the time, to use what’s called “balance sheet reasoning” with columns of plusses and minuses totaling up. The opposing camp views heuristics as traps and biases, outdated and maladaptive rules that cause bad choices more often than not in the modern world.”

Instead of picking a side in this heated heuristics debate, Wray stakes out a middle ground, contending that mental shortcuts are neither always effective nor always dangerous. The key is not embracing or abandoning mental shortcuts, but simply knowing when to employ a heuristic and when to make a more deliberate, calculated decision.

The use of heuristics has an obvious impact on personal productivity: If used wisely, they can conserve your time and precious mental energy for when they’re truly needed. On the other hand, using them poorly can leave you with a hasty, rash choice for a decision that should have gotten your full attention. You don’t always get to consciously choose your approach; you might unknowingly slip into heuristic thinking due to stress, fatigue or overambitious multitasking:

“If we are overtired, mentally depleted, our brain switches automatically to its less effortful [heuristic] mode; it’s just too difficult to crunch a lot of information and sort it intelligently if we – literally – lack the fuel for thinking. We also default to our heuristic brain if we are under stress or time pressure, or if we are trying to do too many things at one time. Indeed, multitasking is the perfect example of our brain toggling between rash and rational – and our tendency to make mistakes as we multitask is a good illustration of our limits in doing so.”

On Second Thought brings simple clarity to the complex science behind decision-making. With practical work and life examples, the book illustrates common heuristics that you may already be using without even knowing it. Below are just a few of the phenomena discussed in the book:

Optimizers and Satisficers

“Balance sheet reasoning” and heuristics are near opposites, and optimizers and “satisficers” show the same dichotomy. The author’s analogy involves the task of packing for the beach. An optimizer will lay all of the items out on the lawn and plan the positioning of each umbrella, beach bag and surfboard within the trunk of the car.

A “satisficer” (originally a Scottish colloquialism combining the words “satisfy” and “suffice”) will simply pile the items into the trunk, make sure it shuts and consider the job done. He has “satisfied” and “sufficed” the requirements of the task. You may think the satisficer has the most efficient and productive approach — at least until he realizes halfway through the trip that he’s buried the road trip snacks behind hundreds of pounds of beach gear.

Familiarity is Favored

Herbert highlights in several recent studies our strong cognitive bias toward the familiar. In controlled experiments, the results showed that companies with clear, easily pronounceable names were valued more highly by investors. Fictitious companies like “Barnings Incorporated” were held higher than the more difficult ones like “Aegeadux Incorporated” purely due to their names. Consider that when you’re picking the name of your next product or start-up.

Along similar lines, subjects in a different experiment found written copy to be more convincing and influential when displayed in a simple, clean font. When reading a difficult-to-read typeface, the subjects slowed down, read carefully and caught deliberately placed logical errors. When they read the same exact words with a cleaner font, they breezed through it and accepted everything they read. Is the font on this website making the written information more convincing?

Abstract Thinking

Often, an executive or a client can earn a reputation for being an “abstract thinker.” “Why?” is their favorite question. “Why open a new branch?” “Why increase our employee benefits?” Of course, this leaves the question of “How?” to far more practical thinkers.

Test results show abstract thinking to have a mixed effect on productivity. In some cases, abstract thinkers exhibited strong self-discipline. Focusing on “why” they are taking action is apparently more compelling than thinking of “how” they are doing it.

But, in other studies, abstract thinkers seemed prone to procrastinate. Those who weren’t “concrete thinkers” lacked urgency and delayed tasks to some distant, abstract date in the future.

On Second Thought

If you understand the inner-workings of the mind, and the heuristics developed within, you’ll not only get more productivity our of your limited time and energy, but you’ll always be using the right tool for the job, cognitively speaking. On Second Thought can give you a remarkable understanding of your work habits, your motivation and your decision-making patterns. Wray Herbert does a brilliant job of turning complex neurological concepts and meticulous psychology studies into interesting, pertinent, truly useful concepts that can help you get the very best out of your brain.

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Peter is Vice President of Digital Marketing at an investment holdings company in Washington DC and Co-Founder at True North.


  1. Chris Mower on the 23rd September

    This book sounds interesting. Good review.

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