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Before we know it...

Updated: Feb 23, 2023



I just reread John Bargh's book, Before You Know It (2017). The book focuses on research about what is happening behind the scenes in our brains. The importance of the book's information relative to this blog entry is that although we might not be able to develop "awareness" of the details of what is going on outside our consciousness, we can become mindful of the fact that it is going on. Simply being aware that what we are thinking and how we are behaving is heavily influenced by factors we don't see can make a difference. An interesting example from the book that could apply to our daily lives is that holding a cold drink (no insulation around the cup) influences our opinions of others as well as our levels of trust and generosity, that it, we see the other as being "cold" and we are less trusting and generous. Holding a hot drink has the opposite effect. The temperature of the drink primes our thinking. How many other "primers" are in our daily lives?


There has been a lot of interesting stuff on what goes on "behind the scenes" in our brains over the past 10+ years. Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational, from 2009 is full of interesting research about the irrational decisions made by our "rational" brains. An example from his work: if a colonoscopy, generally uncomfortable/painful, becomes more comfortable medical procedure for a few minutes at the end, people remember the procedure as not so bad. If, on the other hand, the same procedure with the same discomfort terminates without the comfort at the end, it is remembered as not so good. This seems to support the idea of the "compliment sandwich" for giving feedback. You start with a compliment about the person's behavior followed by a statement of concern about their behavior. That is then followed by another compliment. Future feedback sessions are then anticipated with less distress.


The more we invest in a relationship or an object, the more attention we pay to it and the more we work to enhance it. When we are in a relationship or have a job but have "1 foot out the door," that is, we are not fully committed as we keep our options open, we do not invest as much of ourselves. It wouldn't make sense to put much investment into something that we might abandon. But from a return on investment perspective, if we invest little-to-nothing, we usually gain just that - little-to-nothing. The impact of our lack of commitment is generally lost to us. There are so many other things in play at the same time. When we lose the relationship or the job, we often blame the context rather than see that it was our failure. We often make what is called a "fundamental attribution error" where when something bad happens to us we generally blame the world around us, the context. When that same something bad happens to someone else, we generally see it as their fault.


In Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), Daniel Kahneman talks about two systems that generally govern our decisions and behaviors. He details what he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 runs automatically and behind the scenes. It is critical for decisions that require immediate response likeThe decision-making process is effortless, but is often wrong. System 2 is conscious and requires effort. Kahneman offers numerous examples of how System 1 rules the roost, but needs System 2 to balance things out. Oversimplifying things, the point of his book is that we are unwitting victims of the decisions made by System 1, but think that we are actually making conscious choices


Robert Sapolsky's book, Behave, in 2017 goes into great detail in describing the neurology and neurochemistry of the brain and it comes out in our behavior. An example from his book cites the study that demonstrated that the harshness of a judge's parole decision was related to how recently he had eaten. People who were hungry were less generous with money and more likely to opt for X reward now as opposed to a 2X reward in the future.


Fortunately, we have a brain that can automate complex tasks like understanding and speaking a language effortlessly, playing a musical instrument, dribbling a basketball, recognize threatening facial expressions, etc. Without this capacity, we would certainly be moving much more slowly in our lives. There is, however, a price that comes with that effortlessness... error. This is especially true when our automatic (and thoughtless) solutions to challenges do not take into account critical information. We all experience this. Someone asks about what you should do about something and a solution pops into your brain. There is no way that the idea that appeared to you could have been "considered" competently. Often the idea was good enough and things work out...but not always. And that is the rub. Dismantling that automation, however, would cost even more. Some of those quick decisions are critical to our survival.


What can we do about this? We can work to create a level of mindfulness that can offer a buffer between the thought that appears to us and the action we might decide to take. We can develop a habit of taking a moment to consider our potential words or deeds BEFORE we act...especially in those important things.


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