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The Overthinker's Guide to a Happier Life

Written by Andre KuklaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andre Kukla


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 15, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37498-1
Published by : Anchor Canada Doubleday CAN Titles
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Mental Traps is André Kukla’s immensely enjoyable and down-to-earth catalogue of the everyday blunders we make in our thinking habits, how these traps can affect our entire lives, and what we can do about it.

Ever find yourself putting off even relatively minor tasks because of the many other little jobs that you’d have to tackle first? Or spending far too much time worrying about things you can’t change? Or living for the future, not for today? Truth is, we all do — and we all recognize that sometimes our ways of thinking just aren’t productive. When it comes to our daily lives, we often laugh off habits like procrastination as being human nature and just resolve to approach things differently next time. Or, when the issues facing us are enormous or traumatic, we might recognize that we’re dwelling on our problems, or otherwise spending our time on fruitless thinking, but have no idea how to get out of that miserable rut. Either way, it takes up a lot of our mental energy.

But as André Kukla makes clear in Mental Traps, what we don’t recognize — or at least admit to ourselves! — is how thinking unproductively about even the smallest elements of everyday life can mount up and keep us from being happy, from living life to the fullest. For what appear to be minor lapses are actually “habitual modes of thinking that disturb our ease, waste enormous amounts of our time, and deplete our energy without accomplishing anything of value for us or anyone else.” So whether we’re dealing with how to attain our major career goals or deciding when to serve the salad course at dinnertime, the end results can be much the same: readily identifiable patterns of wasteful thinking. These, in Kukla’s view, are the mental traps.

In his introduction, Kukla compares his method to that of naturalist’s guides, which take a very matter-of-fact approach to providing practical information. He then outlines eleven common mental traps, such as persistence, fixation, acceleration, procrastination and regulation. Devoting a chapter to each, he provides simple examples to help us to identify mental traps in our own thinking — and to recognize why it would be beneficial to change our ways. Our anxiety, our dissatisfaction, our disappointment — these are often the consequences of thinking about the world the wrong way. And it’s in the parallels he draws between the major and minor events of our lives that he truly brings his point home: How is refusing to eat olives like toiling at a job that has long ago lost all satisfaction? How is arriving at the airport too early a symptom of a life never fully lived? Again, what can seem to be a very inconsequential habit can actually signal bigger, more detrimental problems in our ways of thinking.

Kukla’s goal — one that we should share, in the end — is to help us realize how much more enjoyable our lives would be if we were a little more attentive to our thought processes. Just as Buddhism, from which the author has drawn many of his ideas, teaches that we should perform all of our acts mindfully, Kukla suggests that we make a conscious effort to step back, clear our minds, and simply observe how our thoughts develop. By doing so, we will begin to recognize unproductive patterns in our own thinking, and then we can try to avoid them. Ultimately, Kukla hopes that Mental Traps will help readers move towards what he calls a “liberated consciousness” — a state in which we no longer allow mental traps to inhibit our experiences. From having more energy to being able to act impulsively, we’d realize the benefits of living in the moment and feel truly free.

From the Hardcover edition.


Mental traps are ­habitual modes of thinking that disturb our ease, take up enormous amounts of our time, and deplete our energy, without accomplishing anything of value for us or for anyone else in return.

The word “value” here, and throughout this book, refers to whatever seems worthwhile to us. This book is not a moral tract. It doesn’t take the side of useful work against recreation, or social involvement against self-indulgence. If we’re content to watch television all day, then this activity will not be counted here as a waste of time. Watch­ing television has value for us.

The fact remains that we often exhaust ourselves in troublesome pursuits that don’t in any way further the actualization of our very own values, whatever they may happen to be. These useless pursuits are the mental traps. Mental traps keep us from enjoying television as readily as they keep us from serious work. They are absolute wastes of time.

Mental traps are identified not by the content of our ideas but by their form. Any aspect of daily life – household chores, weekend recreation, careers, relationships – may be thought about either productively or unproductively. We fall into the same traps when we wash the dishes as when we contemplate marriage or divorce. It’s not the subject of our thinking, but how we deal with the subject, that makes the difference. When we rid ourselves of any one trap, we find that our problems in every department of life are simultaneously eased.

We build unproductive structures of thought on every conceivable timescale. One and the same mental trap may hold us in its sway for a fleeting moment or for a lifetime. And the momentary traps are just as pernicious as the life­long traps. Because of their brevity, the mere moments of wasted time and energy are especially difficult to grasp and correct. They’re over and done with before we’re aware of what we’re doing. The result is that they’re fallen into with monumental ­frequency. It’s doubtful that the average twenty-first-century urban adult is altogether free of them for more than a few minutes at a time. By the end of the day, the cumulative effect of these brief episodes may be an entirely unaccountable exhaustion.

The basic idea underlying mental traps was concisely expressed a few thousand years ago:

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven.

When we deviate from this profound advice – when we begin at the wrong time, proceed at the wrong pace, quit too soon or too late – we fall short of what we might otherwise accomplish.

Again, there’s no attempt here to prescribe the content of our activities. To everything there is a season. Both the enjoyment of good food and the scramble up the ladder of success may be legitimate parts of our life. But if we try to advance our career while we’re eating dinner, we ruin our digestion–and we can’t really do good work as we pass the salt and slurp the soup. Neither of our values is well­ served. Given the same values, we could make far better use of our time and resources.

Our lapses from doing the best thing at the best time and in the best way fall into recurrent and readily identi­fiable patterns. These are the mental traps.

If mental traps are injurious to us, why do we fall into them? Why don’t we simply quit? There are three reasons. First, we’re often unaware of what we’re thinking. Second, even when we are aware of our thoughts, we often don’t recognize their injurious nature. Third, even when we recognize their injurious nature, we often can’t quit because of the force of habit.

If the thinking that goes on when we’re trapped remains below the level of consciousness, we can’t even begin to change it. We can’t choose to stop doing what we’re not aware of doing in the first place. If we didn’t know that we wore clothes, it would never occur to us to take them off, even if we felt too hot. By the same token, when we don’t know that we’re thinking unproductive thoughts, the option of stopping ­doesn’t present itself.

The idea that we can be unaware of our own thoughts may strike us as paradoxical, for we tend to equate consciousness with thinking itself. But the two are by no means identical processes. We may be exquisitely conscious of the taste of an exotic fruit or the feel of an orgasm without having a thought in our head. And we may be filled to overflowing with an unbroken stream of ideas without noticing a single one. The following mental experiment will convince us of this important point.

When we aren’t occupied with any definite business or pleasure, our thoughts often wander from one topic to another on the basis of the flimsiest associations. This experiment can be conducted only when we happen to catch ourselves in the midst of such wanderings. For those who don’t fall asleep quickly, the time spent lying awake in bed is espec­ially rich in this material. As soon as we catch ourselves wandering, we can begin a backward reconstruction of the sequence of ideas that led us to where we are. If we were thinking about the beauty of Paris, we may recall that this was preceded by a thought about a friend who has just returned from there. The idea of the friend’s return may have come from the recollection that this person owes us money, which may in turn have come from ruminations about our financial difficulties, which may have been elicited by the idea that we would like to buy a new car.

From the Hardcover edition.
Andre Kukla|Author Q&A

About Andre Kukla

Andre Kukla - Mental Traps
André Kukla is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, in both the Departments of Psychology and of Philosophy. He has published numerous philosophical and psychological articles and books, including books by the Oxford and MIT Presses. Mental Traps is his first foray into writing for the general public.

Author Q&A

You’ve previously published books on philosophy and psychology aimed at an academic readership. Can you tell us why you decided to write for the general public?

I didn’t start with a decision to write for the general public. I decided to write about certain ideas that I had developed about the mind. Having made that decision, I discovered that the friends and relatives who were shown excerpts of the work in progress found these ideas as interesting and as useful as I did. All I had to do to make the book widely accessible was to avoid using professional jargon.

In some ways, writing for non-specialists has resulted in a more authentic work – it’s enabled me to give free rein to literary values that I've always had to compromise in my academic writing. I've allowed myself to speak in my own voice, express a range of attitudes from the ironic to the reverential, and dispense with ugly footnotes!

What inspired you to write about this topic? Is there a story about the writing of Mental Traps that begs to be told?

The content of the book is based on my engagement with Buddhist literature, as well as with living teachers. To sum up its message in a single phrase: Buddhism teaches that we should perform all of our acts mindfully. In the course of attempting to live by this precept, I noticed that lapses from mindfulness fall into recurring and readily identifiable types. These types of unmindfulness are the mental traps. Having tags available for the identification of mental traps made it much easier to catch myself when I fell into one. It also enabled me to see more clearly how these modes of thinking and acting depleted my energy without giving me anything in return.

What is your favourite aspect of this book, and why?

Despite the Buddhist origin of its guiding ideas, the book makes no use of Asian or New Age terminology–it’s cast entirely in the language of everyday life in the West. It’s also as clear a presentation of its topic as a card-carrying philosopher can make it. Mental Traps contains no appeal to exotic or facile solutions to life’s problems, no hand-waving, no deliberate mystification, no empty promises. The first chapter tells you what you’re going to get, and the remaining chapters give it to you.

As far as I know, Mental Traps is the only book ever written from the first-person plural point of view. I made this stylistic choice to emphasize the fact that I don’t aspire to be anybody’s guru or therapist. If I did, I would write about their mental traps, and my book would consist mainly of case histories of spiritual or clinical successes (“Joan R., a 37-year-old manager of a fast-foods franchise, suffered from chronic amplification since the age of 12 …”) But I learned about mental traps by self-observation – I'm the guy with the problems. What I learned from these introspective exercises has greatly improved the quality of my life. Maybe it’ll do the same for you. Maybe it won’t. We – you and I and Joan R. – are all on a voyage of discovery together, and nobody is captain.

Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of Mental Traps?

Don’t be in too much of a rush to get rid of mental traps. Enjoy the game of learning to identify them in the activities of daily life. This descriptive knowledge is already an increment of wisdom. And when you see the traps with total clarity, they fall away by themselves.

What question are you never asked about your work but wish you were?

If I could think of a question that I want to be asked, I wouldn’t wait to be asked–I would raise the question and supply my answer in the book itself.

Which authors and thinkers have been most influential to your own writing?

In matters of content, the Buddha (of course), Lao Tse, Meister Eckhard, Gurdjieff, Jung, and Krishnamurti. All of these have made major contributions to the art of living. In matters of style, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Jerry Fodor, and Lao Tse (again). Russell has been my model for translucent prose that states neither more nor less than what the author wants to say. Huxley showed me how to reconcile the sometimes incompatible claims of intellectual and literary values, i.e., of the True versus the Beautiful. Fodor did the same for the True versus the Funny. Lao Tse’s lesson, which I have not yet learned, is how to use silence to express the inexpressible.

If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?

I’m strongly attracted to stand-up comedy, particularly the funny-idea style of stand-up exemplified by George Carlin and Steve Reich. But that’s not another passion in addition to philosophical writing–it’s the same passion in the service of different goals (the True versus the Funny again). In the end, both the philosopher and the stand-up comic are people who love to tinker with concepts.

I do have another passion that’s as strong as my attraction to conceptual mechanics: music. If I could live three lives in parallel, one of them would be my actual philosophical life, another would be lived as a standup comic, and my third life would be spent sitting on a barrel in front of a country store, playing soulful blues harmonica. I have a recurrent fantasy of being asked an intricate question at a scholarly conference, whipping out my blues harp, and saying (as Brownie McGee said to Sonny Terry on Sail Away): “Well, I don’t know much about that–I’m just gonna let my harmonica do the talking for me.”

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?

The Tao Te Ching. In Chinese.

From the Hardcover edition.



“I always suspected I had few bad habits of mind. Thanks to André Kukla, I am now certain I have many. If that makes reading Mental Traps sound like a dispiriting experience, it shouldn’t. Kukla has a light touch with weighty ideas. Readers will be enlightened and entertained, as well as improved.”
— Jamie Whyte, author of  Crimes Against Logic

“While it may be unlikely that any single person will have fallen into all mental traps so cunningly described by André Kukla in this exhilarating book, it is absolutely certain that every person will have fallen into some of them. That’s why it will ring loud bells and switch on bright lights in the minds of all who read it. Which means, of course, that everyone ought to.”
— Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh, author of Godless Morality

“Ever looked TWICE for your lost keys in an EMPTY bowl? Returned more than once to check you’d locked the door? Ever spoiled a moment by niggling with your partner over trivia? Ever been unable to get yourself to do something you really know you should? EVER LOST OUT because you couldn’t decide between two great lovers, or two great investments? OF COURSE YOU HAVE! André Kukla shows us how to think about these Mental Traps. If you want out of the big sandtraps and onto the green, read his book. KUKLA IS RIGHT! We could all be bopping along much more comfortably towards our goals. His nice, clear, straightforward examples steer us past the trap horizons. He helps us out of dark mental ditches into which we have fallen. His stories give us insights we need to talk about to those who know us INTIMATELY — or over the watercooler, in the coffeehouse, or at our bookclub.”
— John M. Kennedy, FRSC

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. In Mental Traps, Kukla has tackled the workings of the human mind without using philosophical jargon; his illustrative examples are taken from daily life, everything from walking to the mailbox to forcing ourselves to watch awful TV shows to the end. How has this style affected your reading, and/or the weight you give his theories? Do you often read works of philosophy? Why or why not?

2. While laying out the negative qualities of mental traps, Kukla is also careful to point out that every thought process discussed here — from persistence to formulation — can also have its time and place. Do you find this distinction difficult to imagine or to put into place? Can you think of times when anticipation or procrastination (or any of the modes of thought here) would be useful?

3. In the resistance chapter, Kukla suggests that even seemingly contradictory traps, like anticipation and resistance, can co-exist due to our “fear of the unexpected.” How hard is it to give up the feeling of being in control? Do you agree that surprises, whether positive or negative, are integral to leading a full life?

4. Do you think that we are all equally able to fall into mental traps? Are there people who manage to avoid them better than others? Why or why not? Would the theory laid out in this book apply equally to people with seemingly complex or simple lives? What about young people?

5. Though Kukla cautions us against being in a hurry to banish mental traps, it’s clear that they are unproductive uses of our time and energy. After reading this book, do you feel that being able to understand mental traps will help you to avoid them, or no? In what ways would doing so improve your day-to-day life?

6. In his concluding chapter, Kukla contrasts traditional consciousness — how people thought in simpler times, or do today when adhering absolutely to external authorities like religions or social theories — with modern consciousness, which describes how most of us live today: letting ourselves operate in prescriptive mode all the time (having no one to do it for us), so that we can “stay on top of things.” Do you agree that mental traps are primarily a modern problem? What aspects of your work or home life would support this?

7. Is this modern consciousness a positive or a negative development?

8. Is it possible to escape the sorts of mental traps Kukla describes in a world that seems bent on ingraining them in your approach to living? Think of the ways that outside forces (the media? workplace dynamics? spouses?) can derail your efforts in even the most everyday thinking.

9. Kukla has commented that the ideas in this book have a lot of basis in Buddhist literature. What parallels can you see between Buddhist teachings and the theories and suggestions here?

10. Of the mental traps outlined in the book, were any surprising to you? For instance, in the chapter on anticipation, Kukla writes of four cardinal errors we commit — “Whatever we undertake, we may do either too much or too little, and we may do it too late or too soon” — and suggests that our culture usually only identifies “too little” and “too late” as errors, with anticipation passing “for a virtue.” Do you agree?

11. Have you tried thought-watching, or adopted it as a regular activity (or rather, non-activity)? What have been the biggest difficulties? What benefits have you noticed?

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