Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

The Absurdity of Thinking We Know What is Happening in Another’s Mind

We make claims all the time about what other people are thinking and feeling and about the motivations, beliefs, and desires of others. We can maybe be right about some large things and the study of psychology has given us insight into a lot of patterns of the brain, but to think that we could ever really understand what is happening in the mind of another person is beyond nonsense.

 

This fallacy starts with our misunderstandings of our own brain and our own consciousness. We like to think that there is a single actor in our brain, observing the universe, directing our actions, and making sense of the world in an objective and rational manner. What everything seems to indicate, however, is that this experience of our consciousness does not align with reality. People often fail to act in a way that is in their rational best interest. We are driven by the stories that we tell ourselves, giving rise to prejudices and allowing us to be swayed by our self-interests. When meditating we see just how hard it is to focus on a single thought, even if we try our best to make our conscious mind think about our breath and not the candy jar on our co-workers desk. In all of these situations, our thoughts seem to be a bit beyond our control, a bit random, and heavily influenced by factors that we perceive or imagine even if they don’t exist.

 

When we look inward at our own mind we begin to see just how jumbled our own thoughts and consciousness can be. When we truly work to improve our mind, we can build our self-awareness, look at the world more objectively, and start to recognize patterns of our own thoughts and behaviors, but this is hard work and reveals a confusing set of contradictions within ourselves. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, “If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation.”

 

To know our mind is to recognize the times when our mind is not what we think or imagine it to be. And if we cannot even know our own mind without constant study and evaluation of what we are thinking and believing, then how can we ever claim to understand another person’s mind, even for a second? We can hide things from ourselves, fail to recognize the reality of the world around us and of ourselves, and we can develop false beliefs in our thinking. This is true for each one of us, and for everyone else around us. When we think of other people, of their desires, habits, actions, fears, and their general mindset in any given situation, we must remember that they are as complicated as we are, and that we cannot possibly understand what is happening in their mind.

 

When I think of this, when I read Hanh’s quote about self-awareness and how difficult it is to know ourselves, I remember to judge people less harshly, to slow my thinking down, and to first interrogate my own mind before assuming something about the mental state of another person. This is not easy to do, and it undoubtedly leads to a place where I think to myself, “well the world is hard and this person is influenced by many things and feels many fears and pressures, so their actions and behaviors can to some extent be deemed understandable.” This works well when I am confronted by a grumpy person in line at the bank or a jerk driving next to me on the freeway, but it is less that satisfying when thinking about people who commit serious crime (an area I don’t have solid thoughts on right now), or people who seem to antagonistically oppose beliefs that I find important and noble. What I can say is that remembering how challenging it is to know myself helps me be more empathetic with others and view what they say or do in a less attacking and critical light. In personal relationships and in the office this is a great skill to cultivate, because it stops me from assuming I know what is happening in another person’s mind, and reminds me that they may not even have their own thoughts fully understood.

Testing Our Assumptions

As I have worked on self awareness and worked to be a more understanding person capable of seeing the world from multiple perspectives, I have become more aware of my first impressions and snap judgments of other people. An important first step in becoming a more integrated person is recognizing the impulse thoughts we have about others and understanding where those thoughts come from.  Colin Wright in his book Considerations addresses this idea and drives it to an even deeper level. He examines the structure of the brain and out thoughts to understand why we have developed these impulse thoughts, and he challenges everyone to recognize and push back against these often times hidden beliefs (emphasis mine):

 

“Testing our assumptions is an excellent way to see the potential in things and people we wouldn’t otherwise stop to notice.  A person with a black plastic trash bag could be a lot of things, and it’s worth considering more than just your first impression if you intend to be an active participant in your environment, rather than just a passive experiencer.”

 

When I first started working on mindfulness and recognizing my thoughts about others, including my immediate reactions, I constantly felt discouraged by my negative reaction to people of other races or who appeared to be homeless or in poverty.  I would scold myself for having a negative initial judgement, and then worry that my initial thoughts bled over to my outward attitude and behavior.  What Wright explains in his book is that these types of instant reactions are evolutionary left overs from a time when we needed to make assumptions about our environment and react quickly to avoid wild animals that could kill and eat us.  Our quick reactions, memory, and pattern recognition saved our ancestors, but now those same traits get in our way.  The best approach to improve our behavior is to recognize these thoughts and accept that we make poor initial judgments. Once we identify our behavior we can work to challenge and change our reactions.

 

I am particularly struck by the last part of Wright’s quote.  It shows that in order to be fully integrated with our environment and to find real meaning through our impact in the world we must challenge our beliefs to push ourselves to grow and have stronger interactions and relationships with everyone in society. The more we challenge our knee-jerk reactions and the more we push ourselves to be involved with those who we normally would not interact with, the more we will be able to connect with the world. Those new connections will shape us and push us to a point where we no longer need to worry about a negative emotion being noticed by people who are different from us.

The Power of Our Environment

While discussing the influence of small cues on our thought process, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds reflects on several studies that show how our environment can shape our thoughts and actions.  Wiseman explains the impact of small cues and the affect known as priming.  Priming involves triggers that lead to particular actions or thoughts becoming more prevalent or likely to occur.  A sneeze is a primer for someone to say bless you, the word hot is a primer for the word dog, and the Family Feud tv show is an experiment in priming with a cue or phrase priming responses from contestants.

 

Wiseman explains ways in which many situations in our lives can be impacted by primers, “Put people in front of a computer wallpaper showing dollar symbols, and they behave in a more selfish and unfriendly way, giving less money to charity and sitting farther away from others.  Give interviewers a cup of iced coffee, and unknowingly they rate interviewees as colder and less pleasant.  Add a faint smell of cleaning fluid to the air, and people tidy up more thoroughly.  Put a briefcase on a table during a meeting and people become more competitive.  The evidence points to a little counting for a lot.”

 

I find the idea of priming and our environment as very interesting since subtleties can have such a big impact on our actions.  I think most people can understand the situation where you are trying to cut back on sweets, yet in the office break room you see a pink box, and suddenly sugary foods are the only thing you can focus on.  These small cues seem to have a large impact on our behavior, and they seem to put decisions and actions beyond our control.
Changing our behavior is difficult, and the study by Wiseman shows that there are ways in which we can use priming for positive results. We can manipulate our environment to produce specific changes in our behavior, and help us act in ways we would like.  I am currently working through Dave Ramsey’s book on household money management and financial freedom, The Total Money Makeover, and one thing that Ramsey mentions is the myth that we only need a greater will power to change our actions and to achieve the goals we want.  What Ramsey explains, and what Wiseman’s research backs up, is that we are all motivated to make smart decisions (in this case financially) but we do not have systems in place to help us do so.  In the case of priming, we could say that our environment is set up to make it easy for us to go into debt and spend money, especially since our culture and environment lacks primers that lead us to save money and work on budgeting.

 

I think that it is worth the effort to study and practice simple priming methods that may help one create an environment that stimulates the desired lifestyle, actions, or thoughts that one is hoping to produce.  Understanding that small cues in our environment can have a big impact on our minds can help us feel better about ourselves when we have trouble reaching a goal, and can give us easy first steps to reach the goals we set out for.