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Mental Traps: A Field Guide to the Stupid Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Life

by André Kukla

There are typically two ways to incite change in people: by exploring the underlying issues influencing their actions, thereby giving them an understanding of the psychological factors at work, or by focusing on the surface of a particular issue, thereby providing them with tools to effect immediate change. Those familiar with the laborious psychoanalytic process know that the former method doesn’t always provide practical solutions. Sometimes the recipe for change is much simpler.

Enter Kukla, a University of Toronto professor emeritus in psychology, and his book Mental Traps. His thesis is straightforward: mental traps are habitual ways of thinking that become so automatic we assume their accuracy and allow them a disproportionate amount of influence over our decisions.

Case in point: I enjoy watching TV, yet I repeatedly tell myself that it’s a waste of time. So when I am watching it, I’m also berating myself and lamenting not having spent the time engaged in something more productive. Kukla’s proposal is that if watching television is valued (maybe it relaxes me, or maybe I enjoy making fun of Ben Mulroney’s hairline), I should enjoy it and move on. Feeling guilty merely guarantees time wasted.

Though this might seem simplistic, the idea is nothing short of inspiring. This book attempts to give people what psychiatry has always tried to: awareness of what we actually want as distinct from what we think we want or feel we should want. Some might find Kukla’s advice a trifle superficial, but that may be its greatest strength. Mental Traps is accessible and helpful and understands that one can’t heal a soul fixated on self-punishment.