In our home we often say humans are not rational creatures, we are rationalizing creatures. That is to say, we spend more time thinking about why we do what we do, explaining and justifying our actions, as well as those of others, than we do thinking through what we are about to do and planning ahead. There is a lot of research into why this is, but it boils down to:
- most behaviour is driven by instincts and thus most processes begin before we start thinking
- we are often stressed, which lets instincts run wild
- we don’t actually think of our future selves as “us”
- we want to feel good about things we have already done
- we want to feel good about the people “in our tribe”
This is why your average person will see chocolate cake, feel hungry, eat it distractedly, feel briefly bad about it, then excuse it and seek validation from others for the excuses, even though it is not in their long-term interests to eat the cake. Quite simply, instincts and now won out over reason and the future. It is also why depressive cycles can be so strong, why we enjoy disassociative drugs, or why people with personality disorders often feel the best about themselves.
But there are ways to improve our ability to be rational, that is, to think about our actions in general, our future, and what we do… before we do it.
1. List your instincts and their intensity.
We all have three base instincts that give rise to other instinctive behaviours. Think of which apply to you, as you might find one or two do not, and think about how easy you find it to resist them.
- hide from danger
- have sex
- create safety
- locate resources
3: Find worth.
- work at something you enjoy
- feel pride
- feel belonging
So, for example, I would say my drive to eat is very strong, whereas I can resist the need to drink or sleep for a while. I would also say my drive for sex is strong, but still far weaker than my drive to partner, and that my drive to partner comes before my drive to avoid danger or feel group belonging. This means I am very centered around what I eat and around Jon, and not easily swayed by groups or fear.
2. Consider the biological reasons for your instincts.
There is a biological reason for every instinct. Those you feel intensely are probably there for two reasons:
- They are hardwired in almost every human.
- They were reinforced during your childhood.
For instance, a childhood lacking much parental security, group solidarity and physical resources has made me very prone to disordered eating and eager to attach to one person very intensely. Both are at their core instinctive, but they were reinforced later on.
Likewise, your instincts will have a purpose.
3. List your life goals and how instinct may interfere with them.
But not all instinct is good nowadays. We have an instinctive urge to get fat, because at times of scarcity, we never got too fat, just about fat enough to keep us through a famine. But today there are no famines and the instinct doesn’t work. Likewise for every instinct. Fear becomes paranoia, sexual need becomes single motherhood or multiple child benefit claims, desire for pride becomes arrogance, desire to belong becomes dependence. They can all become dysfunctional when let run wild.
4. Whenever you feel an urge, ask if it is instinct.
Now you know what they are, when you feel a pull towards something, ask yourself what instinct it could be based on. The urge to buy the latest smartphone may be a need to belong, or a need for a partner, or a need for sex. The urge to eat the chocolate cake may be a need for food, or for drink, or for safety. The urge to slap someone may be a need for belonging, or a sense of fear, or a spike of pride. Every self-destructive knee-jerk is your instincts screaming in confusion at the modern world.
5. Whenever you identify an instinctive drive, think long term.
You won’t catch every instinct, but you need to think long term as soon as you spot one. Think about your bank, or future purchases, or the group you belong to before buying the smartphone. Think about your weight, your health, or bad habit cycles before eating the cake. Think about social and legal repercussions, loss of friendship or the risk of physical harm before slapping someone. Ask yourself where your actions will take you, and whether you really want to be there.
1: Know yourself.
2: Know your body.
3: Know your priorities.
4: Identify your problems.
5: Plan ahead.
Because it may be easier to rationalize, but it does nothing to help you better yourself.
TTFN and Happy Hunting!