I’ve spent the last 7 years studying psychology, (my undergrad degree was in cognitive psychology and the obsession persists). This year I’ve been reading the best-selling books on habit change and I’ve discovered some fundamental flaws in my understanding of the mind. Here I want to share the four most fundamental misunderstandings I had about the mind, because you may have these too, and how we can use this new understanding to improve our lives.

My fundamental misunderstandings were;

  • Reason was the king of cognition.
  • With enough reason, I could understand everything.
  • I was a highly rational individual making rational choices
  • My reasoning was unbiased and objective

(Hahaha, As you can see, I was insufferable a couple years ago.)

#1) We’re Rarely Rational 

Have you heard of Dual Process Theory? Gladwell’s Blink, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings, introduced me to this theory of the mind. Essentially, we think in two ways; one is fast, unconscious, and intuitive, and the other is slow, conscious, and deliberate. The fast, unconscious thinking is called System 1, and the slow, conscious thinking is called System 2.

Most people, myself included, drastically overestimate the control and importance of System 2.

A metaphor deployed first by Buddha, but later by social psychologist Dr. Haidt that crystallizes this understanding of the mind is; our minds are like a rider atop an elephant. The elephant is System 1. It is the primary mover, it reacts instinctively based on biological shortcuts natural selection has molded for over millions of years. The rider (System 2) is along for the ride. She sincerely thinks she is controlling the elephant. She confabulates excuses for the elephant’s actions that convince her that she is in control.

The key to understanding why we behave the way we do hinges on understanding how our elephant thinks and feels.

#2) The Elephant Thinks and Feels in Predictable (and Trickable) Patterns. 

System 1 is the same biological circuitry that has allowed animals to flourish for millennia without needing linguistic reasoning. The elephant is our intuition and our intuition has been molded by natural selection. Our brains have an intrinsic preference to save energy and effort. It wants to turn effortful action into unconscious habits.

This need to habitualize behavior coupled with natural selection has produced dozens and dozens and dozens of mental shortcuts our elephant takes when navigating the world. These shortcuts are called heuristics, and they give rise to what scientists call “gut feelings.” Gut Feelings propel our elephant.

Researchers have currently identified over 166 of these mental shortcuts. (I want to understand my elephant, so I feel I need to understand these biases, so I’m entertaining whether or not to embark on the long journey of writing a blog post about every bias.)

Here are a few to give you a taste;

Availability Heuristic – “The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be.”

aka, if it’s first to mind, we think it’s right.

Halo Effect – “The tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one personality area to another in others’ perceptions of them”

aka. if they are attractive, we trust them more, think they are better leaders, and smarter.

Irrational Escalation (Sunken-Cost Fallacy) – “The phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong. Also known as the sunk cost fallacy.”

aka. he has cheated on me twice but we’ve dated for three years. I can’t just end it.

(A part of my brain fucking loves learning about these. I think the brain intrinsically likes to learn about itself.)

#3) Our Elephant Makes Most of Our Choices

This is a simple point.

“Researchers estimate that roughly half of our daily lives are spent executing habits and other intuitive behaviors, and not consciously thinking about what we are doing.” ( see Wood et al. 2002; Dean 2013.) -Stephen Wendel

This isn’t bad news, our minds have to work like this. We would be overwhelmed if we had to consciously reevaluate every action we take every day. But this is illuminating. Most of our day is spent carrying out unconscious habits. If we don’t have a metahabit of evaluating and tweaking our habits, we can stumble through life on sheer momentum and find that we did not spend the last ten years the way we wanted to.

The two ways to engage System 2 (The Rider), is to expose ourselves to novelty, and to exercise “intentionally directed attention.”

#4) The Rider Confabulates Reasons Why The Elephant Acts 

Dr. Haidt’s The Righteous Mind has radically altered the way I approach discussing religion and politics. He spends a solid 200 pages explaining the science showing that we all intuitively feel a reaction to some stimulus, and after this blazingly fast gut feeling, we began generating reasons to justify our feeling. This doesn’t mean our intuitions are wrong (they are normally very accurate), but it’s an insight that fundamentally changes how you should attempt to talk with people (and understand your own beliefs.)

Most people’s beliefs, the articulations they share when asked about religious or political ideas, are being generated by their elephant first, then articulated by the rider. Most of us (I have been guilty of this for a long time), attempt debating or discussing ideas by engaging the rider only. But really, the rider’s proclamations are like a dog’s wagging tail. The tail wags to show you how the dog feels. You don’t manually shake the dog’s tail to make him happy. The reasons we generate are hints into how we intuitively feel about something.

Use what people say to understand how they feel, then engage their elephant. Dr. Haidt et al, have identified 6 fundamental moral “tastes” all humans share. Use these to understand what the elephant is reacting to;

Care/Harm
Trust/Cheating
Liberty/Oppression
Loyalty/Betrayal
Authority/Subversion
Sanctity/Degradation

If this interests you, I highly recommend reading his book.

Summary 

Most people misunderstand the power and influence reason has on our behavior. Our minds are divided into two systems; an unconscious intuition, and a slow, deliberate consciousness. We can understand these two systems by thinking of them like a rider atop an elephant. The elephant is doing most of the work, most of the time. The rider can guide the elephant a little if the environment is right, but most of the time the rider is creating a story that he sincerely believes, about how he is the one controlling the elephant.

Habit change is possible when we understand the power of the elephant.

Practicing Mindfulness and Cognitive Therapy techniques are the most effective ways I have found to begin understanding and coexisting with my elephant.

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Thank you to those who have made it this far. I wish you safe and enlightening explorations. Namasteezy.