Human Nature

Shut Up and Choose

Why you make better decisions without thinking.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on Olympic doping, remote-controlled killing, and male sadism, click here.)

Insurers are offering reward programs for healthy living. One company offers discounts on hotels, plane fares, movies, and electronics if you exercise, quit smoking, keep your weight down, or get a flu shot. You get points for every gym workout, and if you go 24 times a year, the membership is free. Other companies are following suit. Upbeat view: People who help us save money should share the benefits. Cynical view: The companies aren’t changing behavior; they’re skimming the healthiest people and dumping the rest on the government. (WSJ link requires subscription.) Moderate view: Since the personal costs of unhealthy living often don’t materialize for decades, this is a way to reward good decisions quickly. (For Human Nature’s update on health-insurance surcharges for smokers, click here.)

You can make better buying decisions by not thinking about them. In a study, people made simple decisions more wisely when they consciously compared the options. But when the choices were more complex, people who were deliberately distracted with an anagram game made better decisions than those who focused on the purchase options. The study also found that the longer you think about each complex buying decision, the less happy you are with the result. Theories: 1) Your unconscious brain can do complex reasoning. 2) It can handle more information than your conscious brain can. 3) Because it’s less mesmerized by a few factors, it’s more able to consider others.

The new alternative energy source is dog poop. Nearly 4 percent of residential waste in pet-friendly San Francisco is dog feces. The city, which recycles most of its garbage anyway, will have dog poop collected from a local park and dumped into a methane digester—”a tank in which bacteria feed on feces for weeks to create methane gas.” The methane can be piped to stoves and other gas-based appliances or machines. Experts’ warnings: 1) Don’t try this in your own home, since “animal waste contains disease-causing germs.” 2) It won’t catch on till regular gas and electricity get more expensive. Layman’s reaction: If it does catch on, I’m buying an electric stove. (For Human Nature’s previous update on fueling sewage plants with cooking grease, click here. For other unorthodox uses of dogs, click here and here.)

Medicare will cover more weight-loss surgery. Previous rules covered only gastric bypass; the new rules also cover constriction of the stomach with a gastric band. To qualify, you have to 1) be overweight, 2) be old or disabled, 3) have a fat-related disease such as diabetes or hypertension, and 4) try and fail to lose weight through milder measures. Experts predict the new rules will push private insurers to cover the surgery, too. (For Human Nature’s previous update on weight-loss surgeries, click here.)

Space travel is becoming affordable if you die first. The ashes of James “Beam me up, Scottie” Doohan headline a rocket launch next month that will send the remains of 186 people into space. The cost is $995 to $5,300 per family, far less than the projected $25,000 to $250,000 cost of visiting space while alive. At the low end, you can have hair or nail clippings launched for $34.95. The catch: The capsule containing your ashes eventually falls back into the atmosphere, incinerating you again. Ash-launchers’ spin: We’re giving “more people access to space,” making space travel “affordable for all.” Cynics’ reaction: Talk about giving up leg room. (For Human Nature’s previous update on space tourism, click here. For the latest news on buying first-class space travel, click here and here.)

Car-navigation systems are distracting drivers from the road. A survey of nearly 2,000 people shows 17 percent of drivers who used a map lost concentration, compared to 19 percent of those who used a nav system. Most nav-system drivers who neglected to program their routes “admitted they had then had to take their eyes off the road to input the details whilst driving,” and “Nearly one in eight [drivers] did not even bother to check out a route they were unfamiliar with and simply relied on the technology to get them to their destination.” (For an update on cell phones and driver distraction, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The nonsense of Olympic doping rules. 2) The temptation of remote-controlled killing. 3) Men, women, and the joy of punishment. 4) Teachers who have sex withboys. 5) Our creepy genetic experiment on dogs. 6) The pope’s anti-gay tendencies. 7) Does Alito treat women like girls? 8) Bill Bennett’s racial determinism. 9) The mainstreaming of anal sex. (Click here to return to top of page.)