16 May

Why Do you Do what you Do Do?

Why do you do what you do?

Why do you do what you do?Ours is not to reason why, Ours is but to do or die[note]Contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with the US Marines, Iwo Jima or the Battle of Ypres. The original quote, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”, comes from the poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson, and translates to: “damn, what idiots”.[/note].

What a load of bullshit.

The ability to reason why is central to human experience. It is what drives us to purposeful action and what separates us from the animals – experiments have shown animals to be able to reason (horses, for example, can do arithmetic on the level of a 4-year-old), be optimistic or pessimistic (shown in both birds and mammals using colored coded learning/unlearning models), and learn to read and write (dolphins can learn a symbolic language and use it to communicate with humans, as do chimps). However, no experiment has managed to show that animals have the ability to self-analysis.

Humans do. And it’s one of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to productivity.

You Rarely Do What You Want

Here’s an interesting fact: people have two, interlinked, thought systems[note]This is stolen directly from Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking: Fast and Slow.”[/note]. There’s the associative/memory based system and the deductive/reasoning based system. When we think we first use our associative system (it’s fast and usually correct) and then, if need be, our deductive (it’s slower, and requires mental effort).

So a typical thought pattern would be: What’s that (trigger)? Oh, a cupcake (the fast system going into action by recognizing a cupcake). Let’s eat it (once again the fast system gives a typical action in response to a cupcake: it tastes great, put in in your mouth).

Then, if you’re on your toes, you might engage your deductive system: Hold on, I’m on a diet, that cupcake’s been standing there since last Wednesday, and I’m not really hungry.

Unfortunately, the deductive system is lazy. It’s more likely to simply affirming the associative system (Sure, let’s eat it) than to question it. In fact, numerous studies show that once your associative system has been inoculated with a particular idea, your deductive system will invent reasons that this idea is valid.

The “How Tall is a Tree” Fallacy

Here’s a typical experiment: subjects were asked whether Gandhi was older or younger than a particular age when he died. The ages were completely off the charts: either 9 years old or 140 years old. Then they were asked how old they thought he was when he died – and it turns out that just mentioning a number, no matter how absurd, was enough to anchor their associative system – subjects shown the lower age guessed that Gandhi was 34% younger when he died than those shown the higher number.[note]This is from an experiment by Kahneman and Tversky.[/note]

[bctt tweet=”Our brain just isn’t that smart.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

The same has been done with the question “Was the world’s tallest Redwood tree taller or shorter than 1 200 feet” (that’s 400 meters tall, for us metrics). Saying the absurdly high number was enough to increase the average estimate in a follow-up question (how tall is the world’s tallest tree?) by over 300 feet (100 meters) to over 600 feet. The world’s tallest tree is 380 feet (115 meters), just a tad longer than the induced error margin.

Error of Motivation

So let’s accept that our brain just isn’t that smart. Or rather that it’s very smart when it comes to answering questions like “Is that there lion able to run me down before I climb this here tree?” and that it may not be this particular way of thinking that we need in order to live happy, healthy and productive lives in the modern world.

So what do we do?

We need to figure out what we actually want.

[bctt tweet=”We need to figure out what we actually want.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

And here’s where people fail. We simply don’t know what we want, and we don’t know how to figure it out. Yeah, sure, everyone wants more money, more time, more pleasure and more recognition. Except that this isn’t true.

Take a look at yourself. Would you say no to more money? If you’re anything like me, you wouldn’t. I know I wouldn’t. But let’s say there’s a string attached. Yes, I can have more money, but I need to put in two more hours at work. Ok, I’d do that. So here’s even more money, just put in two more hours. And then two more, and two more, and two more. And suddenly I’ve got all this money and I’m very, very unhappy (been there, done that). Money isn’t what motivates me.

Same with recognition. Would you like to be a star? Sure you would. I would. Except I wouldn’t like to be recognized on the street, or stared at, or have random strangers walk up to me and touch me[note]Hey, there’s a reason stars have bodyguards, and it’s not all about people trying to kill them – being stampeded to death by your fans isn’t fun at all.[/note]. And I’d like more time, but if you’d give me more time and I had to spend it sitting in a barren room I’d go bananas. Well, more bananas than I am right now at least.

So what is it we want?

I don’t know what you want. As for me, I’ve noticed that I often act contrary to what I think I want.

I want to look great. Slim, toned body. Pecs that can dance the can-can. You know, the type of body that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous[note]OK, Arnie’s in his 70’s, and I’m jealous of his body.[/note]. And yet here I am, eating that cupcake. Something’s definitely wrong.

What controls our behavior

So, we don’t know what we want – why do we do what we do?

Because we’ve got habits that we follow. The associative brain (Kahneman’s fast thinking) is great at reacting to triggers. Which means that if you do something one way, you’re more likely to do it the same way the next time. “Pick up toothbrush” leads to “apply toothpaste” which leads to “brush”. We don’t need to think about it. Which makes us effective.

Unfortunately, it makes us very inefficient as well. So even if we want money, or fame, or a book with our name on the cover, we have a very hard time getting there unless we develop the habits needed.

[bctt tweet=”Our habits, not our wills, decide what we do.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

Because it’s habits that decide what we do. If you look at the amount of triggers that meet you every day you can count them into the thousands. To be able to react with our reasoning brain to each and every one would be impossible.

Instead, we follow our habits. And if we want to accomplish anything, then we need to change those habits.

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