Two Minds

Good judgment is the result of experience. . .Experience is the result of bad judgment

- Fred Brooks

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, then criticising the self for doing so, and later repeating the same self-sabotaging sequence.

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 also have access to a Rational Processing System that enables them to better predict the costs and benefits of certain behaviors.

The fact that people sometimes use one or the other system to process their experience causes some people to think they are nuts: "Part of me wants to use the incentive and part of me wants never to use it again." In fact, this split is quite natural and is simply the consequence of having two different processing systems appraising the desirability of a lapse from different perspectives: The puppy wants immediate gratification; the puppy trainer, who is much smarter and more aware of consequences that are not immediately obvious than the puppy is, understands that the costs of a lapse will be far greater than its benefits.

The attributes of the two processing systems are contrasted below:

Experiential Processing System
Rational Processing System
Also known as the puppy
Also known as the puppy trainer
Behavior driven by the local environment —  e.g., the PIG Behavior driven from within —  i.e., Core Motivation
Pleasure-pain oriented: What feels best now Rationally oriented: What yields the best outcome
Associations determined by the principles of conditioning

Associations determined by the principles of logic

Long evolutionary history and operates in animals as well as humans Brief evolutionary history, operates only in humans at times of cognitive surplus
Holistic Analytic
Determines the salience of a stimulus Determines the meaning of a stimulus
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: Changes gradually [analog] with training Rapid to change: Changes instantly [digital] upon insight
Experienced passively, outside of conscious awareness [one is seized by one's emotions] Experienced actively and consciously [one intentionally follows the rules]
Certainty is self-evident [seeing is believing] Certainty requires justification via logic and evidence
Subjective experience is state dependent Rational processing is independent of local state
Associative [performer's] perspective Dissociative [observer's] perspective

The power of rational processing is a gift, but to use it requires that you understand when it is available, and what it can and cannot do:

  • Rational processing can produce rapid, irreversible change (for example, “I used to believe in the tooth fairy, but since I realized it was really my mother I've never relapsed to the earlier view.”) The speed, effortlessness, and even the beauty of this kind of change is contrasted with the glacial change associated with perfecting a procedural skill. What appears to be the effortless performance of a professional athlete or musician is the result of a great investment of time and effort. Appreciating that it is worth the effort to change a well rehearsed behavioral sequence is an example of the change of the first kind. Doing what it takes to change the habit requires change of the second kind.
  • The rational version of you — the puppy trainer — can influence future behavior, but only through its influence on the puppy. Insight alone is not sufficient; it is but the first phase of a two phase process. Once you understand how your addictive trap works, you will have to set things up to enable the puppy to escape it. There are a variety of tools available to help you, including: pre-commitment, rehearsal of desired performance, and ecological management.
  • 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. So you will have to use your intellectual gifts during the times when you have access to them.
    • The course offers several methods to decrease your emotional/motivational arousal so that you can access your best cognitive resources. You can put your intellectual gifts to use during the first (intellectual) phase of your challenge. Your task is to discover what you really want most out of life and figure out how to get it. Needless to say, you will discover that the addictive trap is not your path of greatest advantage. In fact, getting what you want demands that you escape the addictive trap. To do so you will have to develop the skills and faculties that enable you to tolerate great stress and temptation and not defect. While this may sound hard and painful, it usually is not. Instead, exploring and manipulating your subjective experience is interesting and often enjoyable.
    • Developing these skills and faculties is the focus of the second phase. Here the task is, "Puppy Training." Remember, high-risk situations occur at times when you lack access to your Rational Processing System, so you will have to train the puppy to react in ways that bring about good outcomes.

Dissociating from the Experiential Perspective

In practice, it is difficult to free your Rational Processing System from the state-dependent biases of the creature it inhabits. To appreciate the subtlety of this challenge, answer the question:

What do cows drink?

Pay attention to the first thoughts that come to your mind as you consider the answer to this question: What do cows drink?

The correct answer, of course, is water. If you invested some time and effort to consult your knowledge base of cow behavior, perhaps constructing an image of a cow drinking from a trough, you would likely conclude that water was the correct answer. However, the fast, effortless reaction is to associate cows with milk and since the idea of "milk" is now in consciousness, the "knee-jerk" reaction is to assume that this is the answer to the question posed. In this example, the Rational and Experiential Processing Systems produced different answers to the same question.

Now, consider a situation in which you encounter an opportunity to use the incentive. Do you want to use it or not? In real time you may not think of relapsing is an error, just as "milk" did not seem to be an error until you thought it through from a rational perspective. An important tool you will learn to use in this course is shifting from the Experiential to the Rational processing Systems.

Associative & Dissociative Perspectives

The chart contrasting the attributes of the Rational and Experiential Processing systems is complicated. While many could benefit from additional explanation, one is important enough to be worthy of special explication. The Experiential Processing System takes the perspective of the performer [aka, the Associative Perspective], while the Rational Processing system takes the perspective of the observer [aka, the Dissociative Perspective].

Thought Experiment: Exploring Alternative Perspectives. Imagine that you and I were sitting in a theater watching a play, staring you, depicting important scenes from your life. For this exercise you have two different perspectives: One, with me, observing the play, and the other as the actor performing on stage. The actor cannot see his/her own face unless looking in a mirror. But from our perspective in the audience we can see the actor's face. Likewise, the same circumstance, say a conflict about whether or not to use the incentive, looks different from these different perspectives. These different perspectives tend to produce different appraisals about the costs and benefits of a first lapse.

Once you have this premise, consider how the sequence of events surrounding a relapse looks from the actor's perspective and the observer's perspective. Before the lapse the actor may be eagerly anticipating the payoff of incentive use, while the observer may be troubled and hoping for a heroic rescue. After the lapse the actor may experience self-loathing, while the observer may be troubled and hoping for a heroic rescue.

[We will revisit this method of purposely shifting perspectives to enhance the power of your will later in this course]

Can your Rational Processing System figure out how to over-ride the cause-and-effect principles that cause the Experiential Processing System to be taken in by an addictive trap? This is no trivial task: The puppy is bound to follow the lawful principles of psychology in the same way that water is bound to follow the lawful principles of hydrodynamics. Water cannot flow uphill even if there is a better path to the ocean up there. Most living creatures including puppies and children are bound to follow cause-and-effect principles rather than what is best for them. Can you use your cognitive gifts to rise above this kind of determinism?


  Freewill Vs. Determinism >>

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