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Two Minds

To explain why people act counter to their own interests, Freud proposed a Psyche motivated by Conscious and Unconscious forces. A model proposed more recently by Epstein is used below to help make sense of the perverse tendency to knowingly act counter to self-interest.

According to this model, all animals have an Experiential Processing System by which they learn which responses under which conditions produce pleasure and pain. But unlike other forms of life, humans have access to higher cognitive faculties that enable them to better predict the costs and benefits of certain behaviors.

The attributes of the two processing systems are contrasted below:

Experiential Processing System
Rational Processing System
Pleasure-pain oriented: What feels best now Rationally oriented: What yields the greatest net benefits
Connections determined by the principals of classical conditioning Connections determined by the principals of logic
Has a long evolutionary history and operates in animals as well as humans Has a brief evolutionary history, operates through language
Holistic Analytic
Encodes reality in concrete images, metaphors and narratives Encodes reality in abstract symbols, words and numbers
Rapid processing: Oriented toward immediate action Slower processing: Oriented toward future action
Slow to change: Change requires repetitive or intense experience Rapid to change: Changes with the speed of thought
Experienced passively, outside of conscious awareness [one is seized by one's emotions] Experienced actively and consciously [one intentionally follows the rules of inductive and deductive reasoning]
Certainty is self-evident [seeing is believing] Certainty requires justification via logic and evidence
Perception, motivation, and behavior are state dependent The rules of inductive and deductive reasoning are independent of local state

Rational processing is a gift, but it is important to appreciate when it is available, and what it can and cannot do:

  • Rational processing can produce rapid change (e.g., “I used to believe in the tooth fairy, but then I realized that it was my mother and since then have never relapsed to the earlier view.”) This is contrasted with the many repetitions required to change a habit.
  • Rational processing can influence future behavior through a variety of means including: pre-commitment, rehearsal of desired performance, or modification of environments.
  • Rational processing is only possible when there is a surplus of cognitive resources. It is not available when cognitive resources are otherwise occupied by complex cognitive demands, strong emotional states, or diminished by fatigue or intoxication.
  • Rational processing is too slow to influence behavior in real-time. Performance, to be smooth and responsive to a changing world, requires a rapid, holistic processing. Typically when you try to consciously control ongoing behavior, you disrupt it.

The Relapse Riddle:

Why have you continued to use the incentive when you have known for some time that it has its costs are greater than its benefits? Appreciating the limitations of rational processing is one part of the solution.

It requires sufficient time and a surplus of cognitive resources to think things through and intentionally guide one's reactions to the stressors and temptations that life presents. When you do not have the luxury of time to think things through or the cognitive resources to act mindfully, behavior unfolds along the path of least resistance. People act counter to their interests because the Rational Processing System is asleep at the wheel. At the critical moment, the creature follows the path of least resistance to relapse..

Another aspect of the Relapse Riddle has to do with the nature of illusions: even though we appreciate how illusions work, we are continually taken in by them.