The Gist of the Matter

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

By Wray Herbert

I had a brief stint teaching writing and rhetoric to college freshmen, and I tried to pass on to my students a valued lesson a favorite professor had given me. Nuance is good; generalities are facile. Be wary of any thinker who thinks in black or white, insists on yes or no, or argues without gradation or grayness or subtlety. God is in the details.

I guess I still believe that. But I’ll have to say that the intervening years of parenting have given me an appreciation for some plain and absolute values: AIDS, bad. Seat belts, good. Heroin, bad. And so forth. I’m not really interested in discussing the subtleties of these positions. Am I getting more rigid as I get older?

Well, maybe I am, but that may not be an entirely bad thing. Recent psychological research suggests that our brains are like hybrid engines, switching back and forth between two very different kinds of thinking. Sometimes we crunch data and painstakingly calculate choices and positions, and sometimes we rapidly and automatically seize on the essence, the simple value, the gist of the matter. And how we think determines in large part the decisions we make. The trick is in knowing when to do which.

Teenagers are not very good at this, as it turns out, with sometimes tragic consequences. Consider this recent experiment by three Cornell University psychologists. Britain Mills, Valerie Reyna and Steven Estrada used a laboratory manipulation to trigger either precise, quantitative thinking or unnuanced “gist thinking” in a large sample of high school students. Then they studied their actual life choices, and their intentions for the near future. The topic was sex and its risks, including pregnancy and diseases like syphilis and AIDS.

Here’s an example of the triggers that the psychologists used. Sometimes they asked a specific question, like: “Are you likely to get pregnant or get someone pregnant in the next six months?” Other times they asked very general questions, like: “Overall, for you, which of the following best describes the risks of having sex: low, medium or high?” The idea here is that precise questions trigger precise memories—actual literal memories of past experiences—and that recalling these specific events jumpstarts the brain process devoted to fine-grain analysis: They start actually weighing risks and benefits, and when they do that, they often end up rationalizing “acceptable risk.” The global questions, by contrast, summon up simple values and qualitative thinking, like: “Risk, bad. Avoid risk.”

They also asked the teenagers to say yes or no to statements like these: “Less risk is better than more risk” and “No risk is better than some risk.” The idea was to sort out the absolute thinkers from the relativists, on the theory that any thinking about relative risk puts the brain into analytic mode, which in turn leads (paradoxically) to increased risk-taking.

And paradoxical or not, that is exactly what the scientists found. They subsequently asked all the students not only if they had had sex already, but also the specifics of what they were planning on: sex within the coming year, sex before age 20, and so forth. As reported in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, the teenagers who weighed the relative risks and benefits of sex were much more likely to actually have sex (or plan on it) than were those who thought in global ways about risk and peril. Put another way, simple absolute values were protective. Too much data crunching was not. Or to borrow a newer version of the old maxim: “The devil’s in the details.”

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:48 AM


At 9:36 PM , Blogger I'm Stranger than Fiction said...

I want to disagree with the generalities of risk here. Some risk is good. I understand the risks being discussed are generally bad risks, but not all risk is bad.