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Why The Hardest Substance on Earth is Human Behaviour

In short, I think there are five reasons why making the right choices (and knowing what the right choices are in the first place) is really, really hard.

Firstly, the MOST important priority of the brain and body is that it wants to survive (survival). When you have to choose between a chocolate and a lion chasing you, you will run away. This process is governed by your fight-or flight response in your limbic system. As Cacioppo puts it in his book Loneliness, “Because the emotional system that governs human self-preservation was built for a primitive environment and simple, direct dangers, it can be extremely naïve. It is impressionable and prefers shallow, social, and anecdotal information to abstract data. But the same irrational processes that can bring us down can also be the foundation of our finest qualities as human beings.” The limbic system is the wedged between the most primitive brain, known as the reptilian brain, and the cortex, the outer, most advanced part of the brain.

You naturally want to believe that you are valuable and that the choices you make, matter.

A second, related, concept that I will refer to elsewhere is the ‘brain – mind – body’s need to protect your self-esteem. You naturally want to believe that you are valuable and that the choices you make, matter. Focusing on information that confirms what you believe and behaving in ways that are consistent with your beliefs, you tend to ignore the other side of the coin.

Thirdly, the context we find ourselves in today has changed significantly over the last 2 million years with the neocortex a mere 100 000 years old. As an example, consider investment bankers in an economic crisis who endure huge amounts of stress throughout their (often short) career. Insulin, which role it is normally to draw glucose out of the blood for storage has been inhibited for moths. As a result, bad cholesterol and glucose continue to circulate through the bloodstream. As John Coates puts it further in his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, “Muscles get broken down for their nutrients and the resulting amino acids and glucose circulate needlessly in the blood looking for an outlet in demanding physical struggle.” However, the stress traders, and society in general endure, is mostly psychological and social. We deal with the stress in sedentary positions on a chair that provides no way for the body’s reactions for physical struggle to dissipate outside the body. As a result, the unused glucose ends up as fat around the waist as fat. At the extreme, this elevated levels of glucose and insulin causes obesity and first insulin resistance, then often diabetes. Recently, doctors started to realize that the endocrine system is more linked than they previously thought. Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are all part of the same condition. We went from a context of where we needed to exert physical effort to protect ourselves from vicious animals to protecting our wealth in a position that is nowhere near as physical as it used to be.

Complexity in the environment increased many times what we are effectively capable of handling, never mind the plethora of choices we are faced with today. In the process, life has become complex by orders of magnitude. The context has changed in so drastically, that knowledge about how the brain developed and evolved is crucial for making the best decisions.

The brain simply has limited processing power. It cannot multitask and can only pay attention to a small amount of data at once. When people do what they call multitasking, errors inevitably slip in and tasks take far longer than when done in sequence. We have been conditioned to believe that we can multitask simply because the brain switches between tasks at high speeds. But, perception is reality. And so, when we believe that we can multitask, we think we pay more attention than what we really pay attention to. Complexity in the environment increased many times what we are effectively capable of handling, never mind the plethora of choices we are faced with today. And therefore, our bodies and brains will not ‘by default’ always lead us to make the perfect decision. By perfect decision I mean seeing things that we, at a specific moment might want to look at, to listen to, perceive in its entirety, and remember and all the other things that will be necessary for us to make a decision. I say ‘brains and bodies’ because, as we will see later, decisions is a whole-body experience. As I also describe, a concept known as mental accounting is used by the brain precisely because it has limited processing power to make faster decisions.

The point I want to make is that the brain has various ‘hidden agendas’ that drastically influences how we think about things and hence, the actions we take. For this reason, often the choices that you think you will takes the full picture of factors into account that can sway you to make sub-optimal decisions, make will be of optimal utility, will not cause you harm (short/long-term) whatsoever and always make decisions based on logic. As the intellectual Walter Lipmann put it, “there are unintended negative consequences when we change our environment more quickly that we know how to change ourselves”.

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Werner van Zyl
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