Part 2 - You, and the Other You(s)
The devil and angel on your shoulders we see in cartoons are more accurate than you realize!
So far I've said we are constantly making decisions by predicting the future based on the outcomes we've seen in the past. We pick the choice that gives us the best future.
- We can pick near or far outcomes
- We don't often think too hard about this so we can be influenced quite easily by others
As I said, when I came up with that chart I was quite happy, but in practice something seemed off. If didn't account for when we make decisions we know aren't very good. The most obvious example is when we procrastinate, when we say we are feeling 'lazy'. It's kind of covered in the model so far. It accounts for short term outlook vs long term outlook, and I thought 'lazy doesn't exist'. I thought if you don't do something it's just not that important to you. This isn't wrong, and I do still suggest people take 'lazy' out of their vocabulary and replace it with the statement like 'because it's not important enough for me to do it right now'. Example: I'm not going to mow the lawn now because I'm feeling lazy changes too, I'm not going to mow the lawn because it's not important enough for me to do it right now. You can then assess if that is true or not. If it is, great, you're off the hook. If it's not, then get up and mow :)
Then I read The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do To Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal. This covers exactly what the title says and it shed new light on the 'laziness' issue for me. Laziness can come on for a number of reasons but there's more to it than the importance you associate with the task. We actually have two conflicting & complementary parts of our brains, one looking out for immediate dangers, and one thinking long term. Complementary because you need both, but obviously conflicting because they are opposites. You need to balance when you use them in order to succeed both right now, and in the future.
Before we get into those, let's take a step back to look at what our brains need to process. I read somewhere we've got something like 40 million sensory receptors just in our eyes feeding information to our brains. Maybe it's 40 million for our whole body, but it doesn't really matter aside from the fact that it is a huge number compared to the number of thoughts we can think of at one time. I think in the book Your Brain at Work, by David Rock he says we max out around 40 thoughts at a time, so our brain/body is assessing and filtering out at least 1 million times as many things we don't need to worry about. Some info that it is dealt with, without us having any control over, are things like adjusting our eyes for the brightness of the room (bodily functions), and things we are more aware of like dodging a ball that is about to hit us (instinct or reflex). I think everyone agrees there are at least three levels of activity going on in the brain. In Jonathan Haidt's Book The Happiness Hypothesis he says some people like to use the analogy of a stage coach with the horse, the driver and the passenger as the three parts of our mind, but he prefers to simplify it to a rider and an elephant. I personally agree with Jonathan and use this image of a rider and an elephant, but there are many to choose from.
- devil and angel on our shoulders, or the devil made me do it (the devil being the elephant)
- lizard brain (body) , Mouse Brain (reactions), Monkey Brain (connections) - all three are the elephant link
- Doer and Planner (in Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith)
- Monitor and Operator (in The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal)
- The man behind the curtain (reference to The Wizard of Oz, see the book Strangers to Ourselves)
- your spidey senses, your gut, or your instinct are all ways people have described the pull from the subconscious
- Pilot and Autopilot
- etc ...
The one I'll use for the most part will be autopilot and pilot. I'll also use the elephant and the rider in some instances where I feel it works better.
So what is up with this autopilot or elephant?
Similar to part 1 the autopilot or elephant has been getting programed by trial and error over the course of your life but it has been doing it with a million times more information, so there are millions and millions more rules in our brains than we realize. And the goal of these rules will be to ensure survival, i.e. immediate reward.
This autopilot can do things like
- fill in holes in our vision (we have a blind spot that it fills in constantly, try out the test in the wikipedia post)
- read/listen ahead and make sense of jumbled text so you know how to interpret it. ( Article 1 & 2)
- identify complicated patterns without you realizing. (Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson)
- fills in reasons for why we do things when we're asked, even if it's not based on reality. This is very sneaky and it's hard to notice. (Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson)
There is an interesting TED Talk by Donald Hoffman that suggests it is likely that the reality we see isn't only filtered but also distorted because in computer simulations, a species with good mental shortcuts and altered reality to highlight some things over others lives longer than a species getting a 100% accurate view of the world. One term for mental shortcuts is Cognitive Bias. There are plenty of common ones listed on Wikipedia, and a select few highlighted in this lifehacker article.
The bottom line here is there are at least two distinct you's within your mind, pulling you in opposite directions most of the time. This is not something to worry about or find strange, it is an obvious requirement for the situation we are in, a lot of information is coming at us really fast so we need one system to be able to handle all that info and make quick decisions to stay alive in the present. And in order to extend our lives we also need a system that looks at the big picture and can think further out. Our goal in order to be the best us we can be is to balance the two. What we commonly call willpower or self control should really be thought of as shifting priorities from autopilot to pilot. We can do it in two ways, 1) retrain the autopilot and 2) learn it's tricks and try to avoid situations where it will win.
One really important takeaway form 'The Willpower Instinct' is that the autopilot is the default mode, and the low energy mode, so we revert to short term decisions when we're low on energy or in a fight or flight mode. So, hungry, tired, threatened or even aroused, you have almost no chance in making a good long term decision.
For now I'll tell you the easiest way Kelly McGonigal suggests to 'steer' your elephant (to quickly boost your willpower). Simply slow your breathing to 4-6 breaths per minute. I do this by counting to 5-10 on my inhale and exhale, and do it for 5-10 breaths. Works great! Just like we've been told for years, take a few deep breaths, but now science is backing it up.
Another thing so important to realize is, since your default mode is autopilot, your long term goals, your diets, your plans to save money, or whatever it is, they are constantly being sabotaged by your autopilot. If you're making progress or not it will have a reason for you to give up no matter what. Doing good? It'll tell you to ease up, take a break, cheat a little, you deserve it. Doing bad? It will tell you to give up, it's too hard, not worth it, and that you can't. So, Kelly's trick. Don't focus on your specific progress, and don't ask friends how their goals are going. Focus and ask about the level of commitment. So how's the diet going, how committed are you feeling? This will trigger a different part of the brain, a part the autopilot can't talk you out of. It will remind you why you're doing it, and it will strengthen your powers :)
Part 3 is a more detailed explanation of this autopilot, but for 'how to train your elephant' read The Willpower Instinct.