I’ve written several articles on linear thinking versus systems thinking and one of the things I say is that human thinking is flawed. We tend to miss the full system and instead we look to understand the whole by only seeing a small part.
In How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, the author explores this idea further. The brain expert examines how we make decisions and why we decide what we decide.
He says, “The evolution of the human brain changed everything. For the first time, there was an animal that could think about how it thought. We humans contemplate our emotions and use words to dissect the world, parsing reality into neat chains of causation. We could accumulate knowledge and logically analyze problems. We could tell elaborate lies and make plans for the future.”
But this higher level of thinking isn’t without flaws. Lehrer goes on to say, “These new talents were incredibly useful. But they were also incredibly new. As a result, the parts of the human brain that make them possible – the ones that the driver of the chariot controls – suffer from the same problem that afflicts any new technology: they have lots of design flaws and software bugs.”
This is a very interesting perspective. Relying on evolution to explain our higher-level thinking makes sense, but it also gives insight into why we have flaws in our thinking and why we don’t always follow what our brain tells us we should do.
We all have probably given in to the chocolate chip cookie that we know is loaded with calories and sugar. We have sat on the couch and watched TV instead of exercising. We have caved in to the beer or wine with a friend when we know we should really catch up on our sleep.
Just because we can rationalize, doesn’t mean we always follow rational thought. One of the biggest reasons is that we tend to follow emotions and habits. They drive our behavior and have been refined through evolution over time. Humans aren’t the first animals with the ability to react to stimuli. Habits, instincts, fear, etc. has been around and fine-tuned through evolution over millions of years. It is the rational mind that is new and hasn’t been fine-tuned.
But how can we use this information to help us reach our goals? First we have to realize the limitation to rationalizing. We can’t just think enough to get what we truly want. We have to do something to work towards our goals. We also have to understand how our emotions and our habits influence what we do.
I remember about 15 years ago stepping on a scale and seeing the number higher than ever before. I remember getting a jolt of fear and shock. But then I thought I could just think my way through. So I started to think of all the things I needed to change.
But then it stopped. The jolt faded away and I went back to my old habits. I had a plan but execution on that plan was nonexistent.
After going through this cycle many times, I finally got fed up. Instead of feeling the jolt and telling myself I am going to workout for four hours a day until I’m back in shape, I told myself that I just have to do something, even if it is small.
So I came up with a very easy way to start exercising. I made sure I didn’t expect instant results and didn’t try to do too much. I realized that this made it much easier to keep going. I didn’t see instant results but I realized that I could keep going.
Over time this turned into a series of positive habits. I would keep adding new positive habits and replace bad habits around exercise and nutrition. Over time all of these little changes started to add up and that is when I finally started to see an improvement in my health.
What we have to realize is that the emotional, instinctual, habitual part of us is very powerful. Even though we can rationalize what to do it doesn’t mean that the other parts buy into our rationalizations. So we have to look to improve in the part of the brain that impacts emotions and habits first. Starting there can give us a leg up.
In systems thinking this represents a leverage point. A leverage point is where you can exert force and get the most out of the force you exert. It allows you to gain more than you input. In this case we are leveraging time to mold our habits into something that we no longer have to think much about, these habits just drive our behavior in the right direction without constant thought or analysis.
This doesn’t mean we fix the design flaw in the human brain. It just means we understand the capabilities and limitations of our brain in a clearer way and then use that insight to improve. We find ways to succeed by seeing the full system, rather than a few small parts of the system.