Table of Contents


Implications of the Model

Now let’s look at some of the ramifications of this Thinking Stack model, in which four parts—Reflex, Habit, Morality, and Judgment—each has its own responsibilities and strengths.

Sports Thinking

Mastering a Sport

Playing a sport is almost by definition a high performance activity, particularly if it’s a competitive sport. Both the mind and the body must be tuned to the activity as you master a sport. Let’s talk about what thinking changes occur.

As a beginner, neither your brain nor your body are really sure what to do. Since it’s a novel situation, your Judgment level is going to be very busy.

It says to the brain, “Do it this way …” and proceeds to do a very slow, clumsy imitation of what should be done. After Judgment does this a few times, the other layers, Morality, Habit, and Reflex, start to say, “Yeah … yeah … I get the idea … let me try!” and you start to get better.

Then comes the long and tedious part of mastering a sport: The practice, practice, practice. You continue getting the Morality, Habit, and Reflex levels to handle tasks and their elements more efficiently. A lot of experimenting must go on, and there’s a lot that the lower levels have to learn. But once you master a sport, your Judgment level can virtually get out of the picture and play “heads up ball”, dealing only with problems like, “For this batter do I throw a fast ball or a curve?” or “Who do I pass to?” It analyzes what’s happening around you while Reflex, Habit, and Morality take care of routine matters such as body position, ball control, which club to use, and where to move next.

This integrated arrangement is what I call Sports thinking.


Choking in sports is an example of a bad choice in thinking processes. It happens when a person is playing pretty well, using Sports thinking, until a big moment comes and … Judgment loses its nerve! It says, “You Morality and Habit guys aren’t good enough for this, we haven’t practiced long enough, get out of the way, I’m going to handle this!” And it does, so for the critical instant the player gets Judgment level slow and clumsy again.

When you choke, all your teammates and/or fans groan in despair. They know you can do better, and so do you! With experience and yet more practice, practice, practice, your Judgment layer gets smarter and stays out of the way even at tense moments.

Panic Thinking

Dealing with a Difficult Situation

Panic thinking happens when the brain is faced with a difficult tradeoff situation: One that is novel but must be reacted to fast. Judgment handles novel thinking, but when it is functioning normally it is slow and clumsy.

So when Judgment senses an emergency it switches to Panic thinking mode, in which it does its best to imitate Morality thinking’s speed by shutting much of itself down. It swiftly focuses on one goal that must be accomplished—just one—and ignores all sensory input that isn’t recognized as directly related.

A frightening example of the crazy things we do in Panic mode is the story of a mother who, once out of a burning house and feeling a bit safe, yelled “My baby!” and ran back in. Which might have been noble and heroic if her baby hadn’t been crying in her husband’s arms beside her!

Her Panic thinking, focused on getting the baby out of the fire, had shut down the sensory input that should have told her that that goal had been accomplished.

Short-Term and Long-Term Panics

Panic mode thinking comes in two flavors, short-term and long-term. The short-term mode is attached to the adrenaline rush that comes with an immediate crisis, such as dealing with a nearby vicious animal. The long-term mode comes with a continuing threat situation requiring fast decisions without an adrenaline surge but perhaps with other brain-chemical changes. This can happen if you’re in a war zone or dealing with long-term economic crisis, especially if you’re not prepared for the situation.

Each kind of Panic focuses Judgment down so it is ready to make snap decisions and is comfortable getting them implemented in a hurry. And in both conditions, the choices made during the Panic often look very silly and very expensive when the Panic subsides, but they feel like very right choices at the time.

Real Life Personal Examples

The Burning Apartment

Examples of Panic thinking don’t come up often in real life, but when they do they are usually vivid. Here’s one from my own life.

When I was attending Dixie College in St. George, Utah, I lived on the second floor of a rambling two-story apartment building in the center of town. One Friday a first-floor tenant left for a weekend trip, after having let a lit cigarette fall between the cushions of their couch. For a day and a half, the couch smoldered undiscovered. I had been in and out of the apartment building several times during that period and I remember thinking, “My, the windows in this hallway are sure dirty” and “Boy! Someone in here is smoking pretty hard!” But the thought that there was a fire in one of the apartments never crossed my mind.

Saturday evening I was home studying when the smell of smoke in my room rose sharply. Then I thought “Fire?” and started getting scared. I opened the door to the hall, found it filled with smoke, and shut the door. “Fire!” I thought, “What do I do now!?!” The adrenaline surged through me.

“OK, I’m leaving. What goes with me?” And I hurriedly ran through my mind what I would take: Clothes … no; stereo … no; wallet … have it; cat … YES! And I looked for the cat. I gave myself one search pass through the apartment for the cat, then I’d leave. I knew where the emergency exit was, and it was four feet from my apartment door, so I didn’t think getting lost in the smoke would be a problem.

I found the cat, and I was very, very careful to approach it calmly, so it wouldn’t run off and hide. I got it, and I was very, very careful not to crush it with my adrenaline-surcharged grip.

I walked into the smoke-filled hall, turned left, took two steps, and opened the door that led onto a large porch, the roof for part of the first floor. This was my emergency exit. Good, the door opened easily! Surprise, there was a screen door! I started to open it … the door was stuck … I rattled it … just rattled it, mind you … it came off at the hinges! Yes, I was adrenaline-surcharged, all right! (I was also young, tall, and strong.) I walked outside to the safety of the porch, carrying a black kitten in one hand and a screen door in the other. I was a sight! But Task A was complete: I and the cat were out of the apartment and in relative safety. My Judgment layer would now let me define a Task B, if needed.

I put the cat and the door down—no need to risk more adrenaline-related damage—and walked to the edge of the porch to see where I would jump down, if I had to.

The apartment landlord was in the parking lot, and so was a fire truck. Good! I didn’t have to worry about telling someone about the fire. The landlord was shouting at me, “Don’t jump! Don’t jump!”

At the time that seemed like a most curious thing for the landlord to be telling me to do. I would decide if jumping was necessary, not he.

The landlord and I talked a little bit—he in the parking lot, I on the porch/roof. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I determined that the fire was in only one room, I was not at risk, I would not have to leave the building that night, and I wouldn’t have to jump. Not quite immediately, I stopped looking for the best spot for jumping down to.

I was relieved … and I quickly got the shakes. I had been really, really scared. My First Response Therapy for that scary experience was to find my camera in the apartment, and start shooting pictures of the event. I shot pictures of the firefighters, and the burned room, and I felt better.

That was my most vivid experience dealing with an acute Panic situation. I got scared, I got an adrenaline rush, I focused on getting out with my cat, I succeeded, and I determined that that was all I had to do. As the Panic subsided, I helped it subside faster by doing something very familiar to me: Shooting pictures of things I was interested in—in this case, the cause of my Panic.

Vietnam and After

In 1968 I was told I’d be spending a year in Vietnam … an all-expenses-paid trip, courtesy of the US Army. This was a Panic situation I was headed into, in that it was both novel and dangerous. When you have to make quick choices in a place and a situation that is strange to you, it’s Panic thinking time. Army training added a lot to what Morality could handle, but this was still a strange and frightening situation. (To be clear, this analysis is retrospective. I wasn’t examining thinking modes at that time, any more than the Army was. I was just trying to survive.)

Ninety percent of war is pretty routine and boring. What is different from civilian life is the potential for a lot of trouble that when it comes, comes quickly! I remember one time when our outfit went to the shooting range to do our routine shooting practice. Next to us was an Aussie outfit, doing their routine practice in tossing hand grenades into a big pit, built into the earthen berm that was also the backstop for our shooting range.

They were doing their thing, looking bored, and we were doing our thing, looking bored, until one of their people said something like, “I missed!” and another shouted, “Loose grenade!” In less than a second—less than a second!—everyone in both groups was on the ground with their heads covered. Everyone! Even though this was a somewhat novel situation, a loose grenade at a rifle shooting range, no one stayed standing. No one said anything like, “Where?” or “What should I do?” Our Morality and Habit layers knew what to do near a loose grenade, and where it had happened didn’t matter.

The grenade went off, and everyone got up, dusted themselves off a bit, then continued doing what they had been doing … looking not quite so bored, but definitely not spooked, either. That’s the aftermath of Sports thinking, not of Panic thinking.

That was life in Vietnam. I spent a year there, so by the end of my tour combat thinking had become my standard Sports thinking process. When I returned from there, I had to practice letting peacetime thinking become my standard Sports thinking. It took some time.

Two or three years later, I was driving a small sports car on the New Jersey Turnpike coming out of New York City, surrounded by huge, rumbling semi-trucks. One of them blew a tire. At the sound of that explosion, I immediately ducked deep below the dashboard. Not the safest of responses, to put it mildly! But I hastily raised back up and survived without further incident from that Reflex relic of Vietnam … other than scaring myself. And I learned. I experienced subsequent blow-outs without ducking.

Community Panic Thinking

Like individuals, whole communities can Panic. The flying of jet planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, was novel and dangerous for the people of New York City and the people of the Bush administration. It is not surprising that the administration focused down on solving just one problem, stopping terrorists, and it is not surprising that a lot of the American public supported them as they did so.

It is not surprising, but it is disappointing. They were textbook community Panic actions that felt quite reasonable and decisive at the time, but in retrospect look like silly, hugely expensive mistakes. This transformation by hindsight is the main hallmark of something I will talk a lot more about in Book Two: Panic thinking and the Blunders it causes.

Avoiding Panic Thinking

What can a person do to avoid Panic thinking? The same thing that armed forces do for their troops, that fire and police departments do for their personnel: Practice responses to unusual but foreseeable events so that when they come, they’re not entirely novel. As I noted above, this is also the reason schoolchildren do fire drills, so that if a real fire comes along, students and teachers can use Sports thinking to get themselves out of a building quickly, rather than having to rely on unpredictable Panic thinking.

Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, offers another example in his autobiography. Before he flew a new plane he always read up on it. He studied the manuals, particularly those that described features and emergency procedures. In so doing he was building up his Morality library so that Judgment could call on Morality more, and he could do more Sports thinking in any emergency.

In 2010 the first living recipient since Vietnam of the Medal of Honor, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, told interviewers that he’s a mediocre soldier, that in the situation that won him the Medal, he just did what any soldier would have done. He’s wrong, but only by a crucial bit. Giunta deserves the country’s acclaim because he used Sports thinking to do what any soldier should have done, without letting little things like fear for his own life or questions of what to do next get in the way. He was able to use his well-developed Sports thinking to let his Judgment play heads-up ball in a novel situation.

Too Novel Situations

Can an experience be just too novel, too strange, for a brain to deal with immediately? I believe so. Here are two examples from dogs I have owned.

Once when I was a teenager, my parents complained to no one in particular that our dog begged too much—she moved around after dinner looking sad at people, hoping that someone would give her food.

I thought, “Hmm … maybe I can fix that. Maybe if I feed the dog something bad-tasting instead of good-tasting, she’ll give up on begging.”

The bad-tasting treat I prepared for my dog was a morsel of hot sauce–covered meat. When she came begging, I gave her the meat. She clearly didn’t like it, but to my amazement she continued to beg. I gave her another piece, which she didn’t like any better, and one more after that. Then I stopped. I was getting kind of spooked, because even after the third piece, my dog was ready to take yet another! How could this be?

A week later she was begging again, so I fixed up another piece of hot-sauced meat. This time, all I had to do was offer it, and she ran away! Ah hah! She had learned … but it had taken time.

Years later, a different dog of mine had a comic first encounter with a skunk. When the skunk sprayed him with stink the first time, he acted like he didn’t have a clue what was happening. He stood his ground and barked at it! The skunk obligingly sprayed him again. That blinded him, so he finally gave up, and came running to me for solace! “Whoa! Stay away!” I laughed. I spent the rest of the morning cleaning stink off my dog and me.

My dog hadn’t learned that day, but when two months later a skunk we never saw left its stink near the house, he got visibly nervous. He had learned … but it had taken time.

In the first case, my dog had never experienced me, her trusted master, giving her tainted food. In the second, my dog had never experienced what a skunk can do. In both cases Judgment was as clueless about the correct action to take as the rest of the brain was, so Habit kept acting without change: The second and third treats were accepted, the small animal was again noisily confronted as Instinct suggested. But with time, Judgment used Memory to figure the situation out and adjust the canine Thinking Stack.

I think there’s a similar phenomenon when humans who have watched events highly novel to them, such as robberies or car accidents, are unreliable in telling what they saw. The event is just too novel and unexpected for their brains to record well at the time. But many NASCAR fans can tell you the exact sequence of events after a crash happens in a race; they’ve seen crashes before, and aren’t astonished when they see another one.

Likewise, when people mock President Bush for sitting around for seven minutes doing nothing much when he heard about the second jet hitting the World Trade Center, they’re forgetting that those were the first suicide plane hijackings the world had ever witnessed. There had been nothing like that ever before in history. The whole disaster was simply too novel for comprehension at the time … by anyone.

Hypocrisy and Delusion

Hypocrisy and Delusion are two other common human thinking patterns that can be powerful tools to help in human survival. But like any other tool, when misapplied they can be damaging.


Delusional thinking is the dark side of adaptive thinking.

Every day we experience the world around us. As we do, we learn what is consistent about our world, which can be very different depending on where and when we live. We adapt our thinking to the facts. For instance, if a person living in a tropical environment goes outside for a walk on the beach on a winter night, that person will experience something quite different from what another person walking a night-time winter beach in the arctic experiences. What these two people know about going out at night is quite different, but both are correct.

With time we take our environment for granted; we take it as a given and spend no more thought on it. Adaptive thinking is fast and comfortable thinking. This works well as long as the environment doesn’t change.

Delusional thinking occurs when the environment has changed, but we don’t recognize that it has. In most such cases harsh reality will quickly correct it. If I step shirtless onto the moonlit balcony of my hotel room to enjoy the cool Hawaiian breezes, but I’ve forgotten that today’s speaking engagement was in snowy Alaska, my Delusional belief will evaporate as rapidly as my breath freezes.

The most noticeable and pernicious cases where Delusional thinking persists occur when the deluded person is powerful, and is kept disconnected from reality by those around him or her, even when they know better. This is common enough that there are various words for those who insincerely protect the powerful one: Yes-men, sycophants, toadies, and bootlickers, not to mention terms that offer more disgusting images.

Not surprisingly, Delusion leading to tragedy is a theme of countless tales, King Lear being just one example.

Curiously, Delusional thinking turning out beneficial is also one of the stock stories of the human experience. Christopher Columbus was enthusiastically convinced that the world was much smaller than contemporary European scientists calculated it to be. His enthusiasm resulted in Queen Isabella of newly unified Spain funding Columbus’s expedition to India. His skeptical contemporaries were right and he never made it there, but he got lucky: Instead of starving to death crossing a combined Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, he discovered an unexpected continent.


Hypocrisy occurs when a person states one thing but believes something else. While most people claim not to like hypocrites, Hypocrisy is a routinely successful strategy for some people who make their living leading others.

Is there a relation between Hypocrisy and Delusion? I believe so. Most obviously, hypocritical leaders gain followers by telling them what they want to hear, not what the leader believes or the way the real world is. This works for a while.

But I also believe that Hypocrisy is an uncomfortable state of mind—few people wake up in the morning looking forward to spending their day bald-faced lying. So over time Hypocrisy will be transformed into Delusion, a more comfortable state of mind. The problem comes when the Delusion leads to tragedy. The leader has a lot of enthusiastic followers and they become his or her sycophants and protect the leader from harsh reality, and in so doing protect themselves, until it is too late. Harsh reality then intrudes in a very expensive way.


The body has a Thinking Stack because this improves the performance of the thinking process. The fastest and simplest thinking is Reflex, next comes Habit, then comes Morality, and finally, the most complex, slowest, and clumsiest kind of thinking, Judgment. But despite Judgment thinking’s disadvantages, it’s the only kind of thinking that can deal with new circumstances.

Judgment thinking is assisted by perceptions, Memories, and Instincts. Memories are what we learn from experience. Instincts are suggestions that come to Judgment without any previous experience.

When a person gets into a situation that is both novel and requires quick thinking, Judgment handles it by trying to imitate Morality’s speed, which forces it into Panic thinking mode.

Panic thinking can be triggered either by quick situations, such as needing to get out of a burning building, or by longer-term events, such as going to war or being part of a terrifying disaster. It can happen to an individual or a whole community.

Panic thinking often produces some really ugly results, so whenever possible Sports thinking, Practiced thinking, should be used instead.