Breaking a Barrier: On Doing the Impossible

Breaking through barriers: we humans love it! Not necessarily putting ourselves at risk, but living vicariously through someone else, especially if we can do it far out of harm’s way.

Not so long ago, it was said that running a sub four-minute mile was impossible. After all, human endurance had its limits. The lungs and heart could only produce so much blood-rich oxygen, and the muscles could only metabolize what the lungs and heart could deliver.

For many years, a good number of athletes had tried to defy the presumed laws of human mechanics and squeak out a mile in less than 240 seconds. The net result was always the same: failure. Which is why nobody’s name comes to mind when we think of the almost four-minute mile crowd.

Then on May 6th, 1954, a tall unassuming lad from Great Britain named Roger Bannister came along and blew the impossible goal away with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. It made international news. He became an overnight sensation.

But here’s what’s interesting: although runners had tried and failed to clock that time for years, within 46 days Bannister’s feat had been duplicated, and then with fair regularity the mile record came down after that—two more times in the 1950’s alone.

So what happened? Why was there a rash of sub four-minute milers after Bannister, when for years no one seemed capable of either starting or joining this elite 239 second club?

Athletes in 1954 did not undergo some fundamental physical transformation. It’s now clear that many people actually had the raw ingredients necessary to break the four-minute mile record. What these four-minute wannabes lacked was the ability to see the mile record as truly obtainable. The barrier was mental.

This gulf between our capabilities and our mental assessment is one of the most profound disconnects in the human experience. When someone achieves beyond what we thought possible, we tend to elevate them above the rest of us, wondering what special quality allowed them to break those boundaries. We don’t always wonder what caused us to believe in those boundaries in the first place, or how real they ever were.

Bannister saw the goal as obtainable. His combination of preparation and perspiration is a basic winning formula for skill acquisition across a wide variety of enterprises, from math to music to athletic endeavors and beyond.

But those that followed in Bannister’s running steps are in some ways the real heroes. These athletes continue to push at the barriers for themselves—and for the rest of us.

“If they can do it, so can I,” is a mantra that has driven everything from learning to bake a cake to some of the most amazing technological advancements in human history.

“Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes,” as the medieval saying goes. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s much easier to see the possibilities of what lies ahead by capitalizing on the previous work of others.

When enough people do that, a barrier breaks under its own weight. The current mile record is held by Moroccan two-time Olympic gold medalist and “King of the Mile” Hicham El Guerrouj, at 3 minutes 34.13 seconds. El Guerrouj has held the honor since 1999, but if history is any predictor, it’s only a matter of time until the king is dethroned and the record is broken again—and again.

The Happiness Epidemic: Catching a Habit

What do behavioral traits and infectious diseases have in common? According to researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, quite a bit.  Let’s suppose that in your thirties, you become obese. We might assume that your jelly donuts and lack of exercise has finally caught up with you. Fair enough.

What might surprise you is the contagious effect your new weight is having on your peer group.

Your friends are 57% more likely to gain weight as a result of hanging out with you.  Not only that, but their friends, the ones not in your immediate circle, are 20% more likely to gain weight as well.

The same contagious effect seems to be true about smoking. According to Massimo Pigliucci in Answers for Aristotle, quitting smoking means “your friends have a 67% chance of quitting too, and their friends a 36% chance; this is also true of alcoholism, depression, and the effect is even present for happiness (meaning subjective well-being) itself!”

‘Wait a minute,’ your rational brain might already be protesting, ‘there’s no cause and effect here, but mere correlation. After all, aren’t my friends probably living in a similar socio-economic bracket, therefore frequenting Dunkin Donuts too, essentially living my lifestyle?’

From that perspective, it would stand to reason that you’d see similar tendencies in your friends across the board. Yet Fowler and Christakis were able to document that the patterns of change aren’t simultaneous. They happen over time, like the spreading of a disease.

And if habits broke down purely on socio-economic lines, then your address would be one of the best indicators of your behavior. Surely if any collection of people could be expected to act the same, it would be those with access to the same grocery stores, gyms, bars, and restaurants. However, the behavior of your friends is a much better predictor, even if your friends live across town.

Why? Mimicry is an essential aspect of our lives. The association and comfort of being part of a group is well documented. And what is a group if not individuals brought together by shared experiences, held together by commonality?

As Fowler and Christakis discuss, these commonalities go beyond a nicotine habit or a number on a scale. One of the traits that seems the most influenced by who you spend time with? Happiness. Seventies acoustic troubadour Cat Stevens once sang, “If you want to live high, live high, and if you want to live low, live low” but these studies suggest you might first want to seek out other pals who are living how you want to live.

If Fowler and Christakis are correct and behavioral traits can spread like the common cold, the idea of frequent hand washing, and general accountability for one’s disposition, take on a whole new significance.

Mind Wandering, or Getting Your Einstein On

Does your mind tend to wander? Most people believe that their minds wander about 10% of the time. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara put that figure at more like 30%.  When engaged in well-rehearsed tasks like driving a car on a wide-open highway, it’s estimated that mind wandering can be as high as 70%.

In her book How to Get People to Do Stuff, behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk makes the important distinction between mind wandering and daydreaming.

According to Weinschenk, daydreaming involves an aspect of fantasy, like imagining you’ve been asked to star in the next Hunger Games flick opposite Jennifer Lawrence, or you’ve just won the lottery.

Mind wandering occurs when your subconscious brain is engaged in a habituated activity, like driving, and at the same time you’re thinking about some other task or wrestling with some other problem.

Doing one thing while your brain focuses on something else might sound an awful lot like multi-tasking. However, the key to multitasking is performing multiple simultaneous conscious activities. In fact, scientists haven’t definitively proven true multitasking even exists. Humans seem to lack the cognitive firepower to pull off multiple independent-thinking operations at the same time.

What feels like multitasking is actually the brain flipping back and forth between separate mental processes, but because of the speed of the flipping, you have the illusion of synchronicity. Psychologists call this “task switching.” It helps to explain a common downside to this behavior, what’s sometimes called the 50/50 rule: when you try to do two things at once, both tasks tend to take 50% longer and involve 50% more mistakes.

So mind wandering is not multitasking or daydreaming. Mind wandering, according to researchers at UC Santa Barbara, is tied to creativity.  Weinschenk notes that the ability to perform a rote task while mind wandering and, more specifically, to switch on this mental meandering at will is “the hallmark of the most creative people.”

There are numerous stories of great thinkers like Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein’s daydreaming or “thought experiments” helping to fuel some of the greatest achievements of modern time. Weinschenk would probably be quick to point out that these geniuses were not mere daydreamers, but accomplished mind wanderers.

I suppose that’s a blow to all of us daydreamers who up until now could take solace in our former moony-eyed patron saints, Tesla and Einstein. I, for one, vow to pay more attention to my own mind wandering in the future.

Anyway, I’ll get right on that after I finish winning the lottery…

Jonesing for a Soda? Here’s Why

When we think of addiction, we might think of the heroin junkie lying on a dirty mattress with a needle in his arm, or a sweaty rockstar snorting a line of coke right after some mega concert.

We are probably less likely to think about ourselves. But when it comes to hijacking the brain’s reward system, none of us are entirely clean.

In an article from Experience Life entitled “This is Your Body on Soda: the effects of drinking one of America’s most cherished refreshments”, a 12 ounce can of soda takes on an ominous tone.  The average soft drink packs about 10 teaspoons of sugar per can. Stack this up against the American Heart Association’s daily guidelines: 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men.

The effects of pop on your system go something like this: about twenty minutes after you chugged that can, a blood-sugar spike overwhelms your liver’s ability to process the glucose load. What your liver can’t process is converted into fat. And as the article points out, “There’s practically no limit to how much fat your body can store.”

At the thirty-minute mark, the soda’s caffeine has kicked in, dilating your pupils and driving up your blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure sends a signal to your beleaguered liver to release even more sugar into your bloodstream. That aftershock means another little fat storage opportunity for your body.

Forty minutes after the soda washed over your lips, the levels of dopamine in your brain’s nucleus accumbens (essentially, the pleasure center) go wild. Since dopamine is a feel-good chemical, designed to reward beneficial behavior, the result is a kind of ‘high’.

As with a heroin user, your system has no way of knowing it’s been hijacked, that it’s been manipulated into rewarding you for something that is actively hurting you.

Now fifty minutes have passed and you’ve suddenly got the urge to urinate, thanks to the diuretic quality of the caffeine. You’re not just losing fluids, though; soda contains phosphoric acid, which binds to calcium, magnesium, and zinc. So as the article notes, “you’ll soon be flushing those vital nutrients down the toilet.”

One hour after you knocked back the soda, you sugar crash big-time, and then begin to go into withdrawal. You’re irritable, your energy levels flag—and you’re thirsty.  Your solution? Another can of soda.

If you’re watching calories and your drink of choice is diet soda, does the above still apply? Yes. In fact, it applies more. Artificial sweeteners in diet soda have an even greater impact on your brain than regular soda.

The net result? You’ve just completed a lap in the addiction cycle. If you do enough of these laps, which is to say you’ve been drinking soda regularly for at least two months, your brain has wired itself for the soda addiction.

Over time, as a natural course for reaching equilibrium and control, your brain’s dopamine levels begin to drop.  You are no longer impacted as much by your soda intake. This means you find yourself drinking more and more to get the same high you felt before.

According to government statistics, nearly 23 million Americans are addicted to something, and one in ten is addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is because hustling our evolutionary reward system is not that difficult. Our culture has developed numerous keys that fit the lock in the brain’s nucleus accumbens.

When it comes to addiction, mega concerts and dirty mattresses are optional.

The Reptile Brain Fights Back: Extinction Bursts

Let’s suppose that you’ve got a habit you want to break. You’ve followed the following five habit-breaking rules:

1. Tell a friend you’re going to break a habit to help put pressure on yourself to actually follow through

2. Be persistent; whether making or breaking a habit, it’s generally believed you need about 60 days of reinforced behavior to cement a change

3. Enlist a friend for moral support when you find your will weakening

4. Plan out a meaningful reward to give yourself once the habit is eradicated

5. Keep track of your daily progress towards breaking the habit to reinforce positive habit-breaking behavior

Everything’s going smoothly, and then just when you think you’ve rewired your brain, you’re blindsided by a sneak attack from within.

Once you understand that your rational brain is up against an internal conspirator, you might not be surprised to discover the nemesis is your emotional brain, sometimes known as your reptilian brain, which has some habit maintenance shenanigans up its proverbial sleeve.

The shenanigan in question is known as extinction burst. And your reptilian brain cleverly waits to spring the trap only after you’ve essentially overcome your bad habit, and you are literally in the very final stage of habit change, with a given habit all but eradicated.

An extinction burst is much like a Hail Mary play in football, where desperation drives an all-or-nothing strategy for success. Your reptilian brain makes a final push to reestablish your old habit.

Take healthy eating, for example. Suppose you’ve managed to avoid dessert for weeks and you’ve seen your hard-earned reduction in sugar intake showing in a positive way on the bathroom scale. It’s that big piece of chocolate cake that up until now you’ve been able to walk past that seems to reach out and grab at you, taunting you like the sirens in the Odyssey.

You can thank your reptilian brain for ramping up the chocolate cake craving to almost unbearable level. This might explain why dieters succumb to binging behavior after they’ve been so diligent in their efforts to kick their sugar addiction.

One theory for why your emotional brain might initiate a final extinction burst is that the wiring for a longtime habit is so deeply ingrained that the habit could be misidentified by part of your brain as something vital to survival. In much the same way that your body’s immune system can misidentify a food source as allergen.

Extinction bursts are extremely dangerous, largely because they are part of a process that originates from inside your brain. Unfortunately, there is no well established playbook for fending off an extinction burst.

Odysseus solved his problem and fear of succumbing to the siren song of temptation by having his shipmates lash him to the mast of his ship. That might have worked for the famous Greek, but ship masts aren’t always easy to find, especially when it comes to the dessert isle of your grocery store.

Straws, Steps, and the Importance of Thinking Small

There is a famous Arabic proverb where a camel loaded beyond capacity collapses after a single straw too many, hence, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ The idea is a basic one: a small, seemingly inconsequential, event ends up having profound effects.

Exactly one hundred Fridays ago, I began posting on this blog. In my writing and research, I have been struck by one reoccurring theme: the simplicity and elegance of the single increment, the power of potentiality unleashed through a minute action.

“A journey of a 1000 miles must begin with the first step.” This quote is sometimes attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, but the concept also resonates in Daniel Coyle’s talent code, Anders Ericson’s 10,000 hours rule, and JB Foot’s tiny habit.

It’s the compounding effect of building on a single decision, and that crucial first step overcomes inertia for creating a new habit.

The process is understood: practice builds repetition, which in turn builds habit. Habit is really nothing more than mylenated neural code put into action. But, of course, knowing is not the same as doing.

Our lives are a complex dance of experience, interpreted through the lens of emotion, and it’s difficult in the moment to comprehend the swirl around us. Even when our goals and aspirations are clearly defined, actually getting there proves difficult.

It’s not the knowing; for the most part, we know what we should do or want to do. In some way, it is the very simplicity of that initial step that lures us away from it, as though somehow there has to be more to it than that.

And yet, maybe there isn’t. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. At 211 degrees, all you have is really hot water. Raise the temperature one degree and steam is generated, and steam has the power to run a city’s electrical grid.

Someone had to lay that first stone at the pyramid of Giza, Itzak Perlman had to run his bow across a violin string for the first time, Michael Jordan had to shoot his first layup, and Mark Twain had to write the first word in Huckleberry Finn.

As the process plays out, tiny steps build into something much greater than merely the sum of incremental parts. Nothing illustrates this better than a bird’s nest. Bits of debris, twigs and straw, when woven together, create an amazingly resilient and viable structure that has served our feathered friends for millions of years.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is a parable of warning (I suspect that’s how the camel understands it), but it can also be reframed as the awesome power contained in a single straw.

The last hundred weeks have been an interesting and rewarding journey. Thank you for taking a step down that road with me.

My sincere appreciation to my editor extraordinaire, Jessica. (Editor’s note: aw, thanks!)

See you next week.

Robb Best

Six Strategies for Avoiding the Truth

Are you lying to yourself every day?

Depends: are you a “Bayesian Updater?” Hopefully you are. The term is named after Reverend Thomas Bayes. Around 1763, Bayes proposed a probability theory which stated that when you’re confronted with facts contradicting your current beliefs, you change or update your beliefs.

In his new book, Answers for Aristotle, University of Chicago’s Massimo Pigliuuci suggests that if humans are rational, then the Bayesian principle should be our default. Of course, modern science has done a great deal to de-emphasize the role of logic in decision-making. Even the great philosopher Aristotle, upon closer reading, suggests we are more rationalizers than rational.

So if people aren’t Bayesian Updaters, what are they? In their study of cognitive dissonance, Northwestern University professor Monica Prasad and her research team have identified six alternative strategies. Their work shines on light on just how intelligent and well informed individuals can cling to a belief even in the face of all available proof to the contrary.

Her findings are based on a study about Republicans who failed to change their stance on the Iraq War, even after being confronted with hard evidence that Sadam Hussein was not connected to 9/11, as Bush had initially argued.

Here are the six most common responses Prasad identified in her study:

1. Attitude Bolstering (33%): When told Sadam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, this group simply shifted to other justifications for the Iraq War. For example, “There is no doubt in my mind that if we did not deal with Saddam Hussein when we did, it was just a matter of time when we would have to deal with him.”

2. Disputing Rationality (16%): Having trouble justifying your reasoning? Here’s one option: don’t even try. As one subject put it, “Well, I bet they say that the Commission didn’t have any proof of it but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.”

3. Inferred Justification (16%): Some respondents worked backwards, suggesting that even if they couldn’t find a reason, surely one had to exist, because why else would we be in Iraq? “…I believe that [the death of innocent people is wrong] also, but there must be a reason why we’re still over there or we wouldn’t be over there still.”

4. Denial of belief in the link (14%): These subjects used a “slippery slope” defense, subtly reinterpreting the original linkage between Hussein and 9/11 to be about Afghanistan and 9/11, as if the malleability of the facts was not a problem.

5. Counter-arguing (12%) Another common strategy was simply refuting the information. These people responded with their own arguments connecting Sadam and the 9/11 attacks. For example, “I believe he was definitely involved with in it because he was definitely pumping money into the terrorist organizations every way he could. And he would even send $25,000 to somebody who committed suicide to kill another person, to their family.”

6. Selective Exposure (6%) Instead of changing their mind, this group simply disengaged from the issue altogether, saying things like, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about . . . where and what we’re going after.” and “I’m gonna pass on this one, for now.”
Interestingly, even after the subjects were shown a quote where George Bush acknowledged that there was no linkage between 9/11 and Sadam Hussein, only 2% of those surveyed changed their minds.

It should be pointed out that this study is not a condemnation of Republicans. No personal background or political affiliation makes you immune to these fallacies. It’s not an issue of party lines, it’s an issue of being human.

So what drives our cognitive dissonance? One answer might be heuristics. These are the shortcuts, or rule of thumb processes our emotional brains use to make quick decisions. This primitive thinking system (what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1) is alive and well today. We use it on a daily basis. Heuristics are a handy way to solve a problem when time and/or energy are in short supply. The problem starts when we take the shortcut without even knowing it.

Kudos to the Reverend Bayes who, back in the 18th century, gave us the benefit of the doubt when it came to rationality. Today, we have some rather more unflattering facts to face.

That is, if we want to.

Robbing a bank with your wristwatch

As you stand in the check-out line, you may find yourself wondering why two minutes in a loud, crowded store can feel like an hour, or why an hour of relaxing with a good book can flit by in what feels like seconds. Why are we so bad as a species at tracking lengths of time?

In neuroscience, the prevailing strategy for understanding the “why” of any brain behavior is to think of it in terms of evolutionary advantage. What was life like back when humans were just starting to become humans? A lot of seemingly negative or unhelpful traits make sense in this context. There is a school of thought that the species might have benefited from some members of the tribe having ADHD, for instance. A dose of extra alertness or hyperactivity might hobble a desk worker, but it can be a godsend if you’re hunting antelope.

So why are our internal clocks so terrible? To a people consumed by foraging, hunting, and gathering, the passing of 90 seconds or an hour was just not that important. Most of human history has not been counted in minutes. Luckily, the Swiss came along to help us out.

December 18, 2013 marks the 91st anniversary of the Denver Mint robbery. To be precise, it marks the robbing of a bank truck fresh from the Mint. From end to end, the crime took just 90 seconds, which, even in today’s fast-paced world of modern bank robbing, is still impressive.

Who was the mastermind? Herman “the Baron” Lamm, a German immigrant and former Prussian soldier who was kicked out of the Army for cheating at cards. He is also often credited as the father of modern bank robbery. In 1917, Lamm was rotting away in the Utah State Penitentiary for a failed bank robbery attempt. The Baron could have used this time to contemplate “going straight.” Instead, he did something remarkable: he went pro.

Lamm spent his incarceration engineering a whole new kind of bank robbery: multiple getaway routes, specialized roles (point man, lookout, vault man, driver, backup driver), and meticulous planning. He would case a perspective bank for hours, detailing the comings and goings of bank employees and deliveries. (Later, John Dillinger, public enemy #1, would cite Lamm as his inspiration.)

After he got out of the Utah Pen, he carefully recruited a crack team of experts, and they practiced various scenarios, sometimes using a mock-up bank they constructed in an abandoned warehouse. They practiced until their operation ran with the precision of a Swiss watch—or a Prussian military exercise.

Lamm’s rule was simple: 90 seconds was the absolute maximum length of time they could spend on any caper. No matter what stage the robbery was in, when a minute and a half ticked by, his team exited the bank. Their success or failure was determined by Lamm’s wristwatch.

This served him well in the Denver Mint robbery and a string of other robberies across the US. Lamm finally met his demise following a bank heist in Indiana, where no amount of rehearsal could prepare his team for their run of slapstick-level bad luck.

First, the high-powered getaway car blew a tire when their driver cut a U-turn dodging an armed vigilante. So Lamm’s crew seized another automobile, put the pedal to the metal—and discovered that this particular car had been rigged to go no faster than 35 miles an hour. (The owner had been worried about his elderly father’s reckless driving.)

The solution was simple: steal another vehicle. So they nabbed a truck. When the truck turned out to have a hole in the radiator, they were forced to abandon it in favor of stealing a third car. Unfortunately, this car was filled with killer bees.

Just kidding: it was simply more or less out of gas.

Lamm and his team sputtered to a standstill near Sidell, Illinois, surrounded by 200 Indiana state police officers and vigilantes. What happened next is a matter of controversy. The police swore that Lamm, rather than face more prison time, took his own life. Needless to say, the autopsy reportedly showed the Baron’s body riddled with bullets, making his “suicide” all the more spectacular.

A dead bank robber might not seem like the most natural role model. But after an hour of holiday shopping drags into an afternoon, many of us can appreciate the bare-bones efficiency of Lamm’s 90 second rule.

Still, how much good did it do Lamm in the end? Maybe our ancestors were onto something, feeling no need to parse time into such finite increments. Has our desire to control and measure every second of our modern day lives really improved our situation?

The Swiss gave us watches and chocolate. At least one of those was a great invention.

Einstein, Allie Brosh, and the Secret to Procrastinating With Style

When you contemplate your life, wondering what it means to be alive, it’s unlikely the first thing that came to mind was ‘office work.’

And yet arguably the life you lead at your desk inhabits a great deal of mental real estate. The sheer number of hours typically spent at work guarantees that the office and all it entails is fundamental in understanding and explaining the big picture of your life.

Work may or not bring out the best of us, depending on our tasks and whether we are able to get into flow as defined by Czekmentchiayli. But observation suggests there is one constant in human behavior you can expect to see wherever you find a shantytown of office cubicles.

The idea was coined by Allie Brosh, of Hyperbole and a Half fame. In a recent interview with Terry Gross, Brosh explained how she started her now-famous internet comic when she was supposed to be studying for finals: “I’m laterally productive. I will do productive things, but never the thing that I’m supposed to be doing.”

The elegance of lateral productivity is it allows you to put off tasks indefinitely without guilt. After all, you aren’t loafing around accomplishing nothing. You’re working hard! You don’t have time to file those reports.

It’s Einstein’s theory writ small: two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. In this case, two tasks can’t occupy the same brain space, since the human brain is notoriously poor at multi-tasking.

Lateral productivity allows you to play the hero to your self-imposed task villain. You find yourself in a kind of self-perpetuating state of activity, trapped in some Escheresque landscape where you’re diligently drawing the next set of stairs right before you ascend or descend said stairway. Technically, you’re moving, but there’s no forward progress to be had.

This art form is practiced by workers and managers alike. Lateral productivity can go by many other aliases, including “special side project”. The naming lends a measure of credibility. Throw in some metrics, build some color graphs, wrap it up in a Power Point presentation and you’ve got the makings of an entirely new task, which at some point lateral productivity will force you to abandon for something else.

Perhaps the best spokesman for lateral productivity was the great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. Driving around one day, unsure of his location or the route to his destination, he reported, “We may be lost, but we’re making great time.”

The Robert Frost Quandary, or How Irrational Thinking Might Save Your Life

You stumble out of the wilderness, having had no contact with humans for at least ten days. You’re weak from hunger and fatigue and you find yourself at a crossroads, power lines stretching out along each of the separate roadways. It’s decision time. You think about Robert Frost’s poem, and wonder if his advice to take the road less traveled might not just lead to your demise. What do you do, or more importantly, which brain system should you use to make this crucial decision?

Daniel Kahneman, famed psychologist, winner of the Nobel prize for prospect theory and author of Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow might be the one guy to call, assuming your existential crossroads gets cellphone reception.

Kahneman explains that we have two systems for making decisions. He refers to them simply as System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is reflexive, automatic, and impulsive. It takes a constant reading of your surroundings and generates short-term predictions, all operating on a level beneath your everyday notice. When Freud talked about subconscious associations, he was discussing a function of System 1.

System 2, by contrast, is what allows you to focus on boring tasks, search your memory to identify something unusual, monitor the appropriateness of your behavior, and so on. You can think of it as the rational mind if you’d like, although it can be lazy to intervene on System 1’s shenanigans.

Your gut might tell you to take the road on the right. This is System 1 at work, unaware that being right-handed has over the years biased you to feel more comfortable moving in that direction. Studies show that whether entering a building or looking at products on a lineup, we tend to gravitate toward the side of our dominant hand.

On the other hand (so to speak), if you force your System 2 in play, you survey the situation and launch into analytical mode. Rejecting hunches or easy answers, you look for wear in the roads. Perhaps even the litter along the grass might give up clues as to what lies ahead or behind you. This might be a matter of life and death, so extreme deliberation is called for.

Your analytical brain might even recognize your own System 1 bias towards your dominant-hand side, so you are especially determined not to be led down that rabbit hole without a fight. Despite your hunger and thirst, you will use whatever information you can glean from your surroundings to make the most informed decision possible.

But as Kahneman points out, when we’re hungry and tired, our rational thinking and personal willpower begin to suffer mightily. The erstwhile fighter Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In Tyson’s case, the insight was probably quite literal. Taken in a broader context, it tells the story of the brain’s limited ability to stay on task when confronted with a degradation of food, sleep or energy.

System 1 and System 2, which is believed to be the newer, shinier system, both have unique characteristics and given a particular situation work amazingly well.

System 1 can get a bad rap. It’s irrational, and it gets us into trouble sometimes. It weighs some pieces of information over others and it loves shortcuts. (Flaws in your System 1 thinking are why you can be fooled by optical illusions.) It also has a huge bias towards noticing and avoiding danger. While this generates plenty of false alarms and irrational fears (System 1 reacts emotionally to even seeing the word ‘crime’), sometimes you want to jump to conclusions.

As you were pondering your two roads dilemma, if a semi truck happened to come roaring around the corner from out of nowhere, you’d hope it wouldn’t take much analysis to dive out of the way. You could thank System 1 for letting you make that leap without waiting to find out the make and model of the truck as it bore down on you.

Luckily, the scenario I describe is theoretical. Besides, you would have never hiked out into the wilderness without GPS, an adequate food supply, and a backup power supply for your smartphone. Planning and preparation are what the boy scouts and System 2 share in common.

But let’s face it, System 1 is probably the real hero of the story. Without your impulses, emotions, and warm memories of the smell of pine, what’s the chance you’d actually martial the energy to go out in the wilderness hiking in the first place?

The beauty of System 1 is that it’s there to remind you just how lazy you truly are. And as it’s done for countless generations before you, it’s there primarily to keep you alive.