From Knowing to Doing: How and Why We Act

BLOG From Knowing to Doing: How and Why We Act

How We Act
Last week I had a fascinating chat with Mark Brady, marketing/design guru extraordinaire, whose Alchemy model of business elements, using the metaphor of the periodic table of elements, is so achingly beautiful and original that I don’t really care whether it makes sense or not. Mark’s been playing with a new model that he calls The Five Elements of Purposeful Effort: Hearts, Minds, Hands, Actions and Prizes. I’m hoping he uses the playing-card suits metaphor for this model, so that the strategy of “arranging and playing ones hand” can come into play.

Despite its elegance and how beautifully it’s portrayed, I think Mark’s model is incomplete. It seems to me that, whether we’re talking about marketing effort or political activism, “purposeful effort” is driven by more than our hearts and minds, and the tools at our disposal. What’s missing is our instincts, the subconscious processing that makes most of our decisions for us long before we rationalize them intellectually or justify them emotionally. Our instincts, our visceral selves whose identity is coded in our ancient DNA and fluttered by pheromones and dreams and all the things we never notice, are what cause us to fight or flee, what shape our worldview and capacity to accept ideas and change, what drive us to behave “irrationally” and “immorally”. A ton of studies show that “we” make up our minds before we make up our minds, and that it is our visceral selves that make the decision.

That’s not to say that this decision can’t be overridden, or stalled by analysis paralysis. We are complex creatures, and while most of our information processing is subconscious, our emotions are very powerful, and our intellects, while feeble, are strategic and, in modern cultures anyway, trusted more than either our instincts or our emotions.

I’ve argued before that we have multiple “selves” locked in a kind of awkward dance inside us, and that this schizophrenia has been selected for in nature because it serves us quite well. I’ve portrayed them in the sketch above using the cute hugging salt and pepper shakers Geoff showed me. These three “selves” are: the visceral self that internalizes information subconsciously and draws on our genetic programming to make sense of it; and the intellectual and emotional “selves” that internalize information consciously and then process it back and forth semi-consciously.

For example: When we’re choosing a house to buy, we have a set of criteria in mind, which we attempt to apply with some rigour. What actually happens, however, is that, as we “sleep on” the decision, our visceral selves process a ton of information that we have absorbed subconsciously, and they will (whether we realize it or not) make the basic decision for us — that house, that we thought we loved and which best meets our criteria, somehow has something not quite right that we can’t quite put our fingers on. We will justify, any way we can, not buying that house, and putting in the offer on this house instead, even though it was only our third choice based on our criteria. What made us choose it, rather than our second choice, was our emotions, which always outweigh intellect in any buying decision. In fact, the only place our intellect really comes into play is actually negotiating the terms of sale: once we’ve made our decision, we can dig up and cite to the vendor the factors that had caused us to only rank it third on our list, and possibly beat down the asking price. Or at least, it will cause us to pause if we determine logically that we can’t really afford this house, and if interest rates spike we’re screwed. Or so we hope, anyway.

From all this I would like to posit this theorem on how and why we act:

The decision on an action is rooted in instinct and driven by emotion. The actual strategy used to carry out that action is often best guided by intellect.

But: If our instincts are stunted, blunted or untrusted, the decision will be made almost entirely on emotion alone.
And: If we lack the time or capacity to apply intellect, the strategy to carry out that action will also be a purely emotional one.

Another example: You are looking for a new partner. You have written a personal classified describing what you are looking for and what you offer. After your last disastrous relationship you are determined that this next partner will share your interest in X. But when you actually talk with and then meet with potential partners your body will in fact make the decision for you, using its own, unknown criteria. You will attempt to justify your interest in the person your body has chosen. “The chemistry is really good,” you will say. Your emotions will have a say, but not in the same make-or-break way as your body. They will be a tie-breaker if your body likes two candidates, unless you are poly in which case you will attempt to make both relationships work. You will find a way to rationalize the fact that neither candidate has the faintest interest in X.

Once your body has decided and your emotions have weighed in, your intellect will be encouraged to manage the relationship. You had better wish it luck, because it’s going to need it.

I am exaggerating a bit, but not much. I have seen this over and over.

The reason I care about this is that I’m beginning to understand the knowing-doing disconnect, and how we are often paralyzed when it comes to doing what we “know” or “think” or “feel” we should do. Specifically, I’m interested in understanding why there are probably millions of people who understand, at a visceral and/or intellectual level, that our industrial civilization is disastrously unsustainable and that we should be doing something about that, before it’s too late. Yet those millions of people do nothing, and in fact don’t even behave, in their day-to-day work and personal lives and social activities, as if there were anything wrong with the industrial civilization that underlies all of those activities. On the surface it would seem a form of madness. But here’s what’s really happening:

  • We are culturally programmed to distrust both our instincts and our emotions. Anything we do we must socially justify to others intellectually, rationally.
  • It is utterly impossible to rationally justify your instincts or your emotions. Theirs is not a logic of words.
  • So while we may feel this overwhelming, unbearable grief for Gaia, in the unspoken screams of trillions of suffering creatures all over the world, penetrating us to the bone, we are paralyzed, because we cannot rationalize this feeling.
  • Likewise, while there are lots of intellectual arguments about our civilization’s unsustainability, our civilization, being a social and ecological system, is massively complex, and therefore those arguments are always easy to cast doubt on. And once you start talking in intellectual terms, you drain all the blood out of the discussion, and your emotions disengage. We cannot care about something as abstract as atmospheric gases, or “the environment” that is somehow “apart”, separate from us. We cannot.
  • So we shut up and suffer. And/or we really start to want to believe those who tell us our instincts and intellectual knowledge are wrong, to the point we leap at any argument made by anyone with the faintest shred of credibility (even when that person is bought and paid for) who will assure us that everything is all right, that the market or technology or the Rapture or some other deus ex machina is going to fix the problem, if it even existed in the first place. Even though we know there is no such easy fix.

While this frailty of human social nature is easy to exploit by those committed or addicted to our unsustainable civilization, there is no great conspiracy going on here. We do this to ourselves, because the “logic” in the bullet points above, that leads to this madness, is fundamentally flawed.

Here’s how we should be thinking (and feeling, and intuiting, and then, to get back to Mark’s model, acting):

  1. Trust your instincts. You don’t have to explain how you know that our industrial civilization is unsustainable and is causing immense suffering all over the world. You just know. The fact that you cannot translate that knowledge into an intellectual argument does not invalidate your knowledge. When someone takes an unexpected swing at you, you just know to duck. You just know. There is no conveying how you know in feeble human languages. There is no shame, no intellectual failure in saying: I just know. Of course that will not persuade anyone else. As Daniel Quinn explains in Beyond Civilization, that is not your job, and would be a waste of time. Others will understand when they’re ready, and not before.
  2. Find others who share your instincts, by telling others what your instincts are saying to you, period. Not why or what to do about it, just what they’re telling you. What you just know. Read Keith’s short Message for Humanity in my weekend post or here, as an example. If that says what you know, then Keith and I are people who probably share your instincts. If this isn’t what your instincts are telling you, then find others who do share your instincts.
  3. Get in touch with your emotions. Reconnect with them, and with the world. Our society teaches us to ignore and suppress our emotions, but we feel emotions for a reason. Until you give yourself permission to feel what you feel, you will not be able to act. You will not be able to be yourself. The word emotion comes from the Latin word meaning to move. Let your emotions move you to action.
  4. Using your collective intellect to guide you, act in collaboration with others who share your instincts and are moved to act. To restate: The decision on an action is rooted in instinct and driven by emotion. The actual strategy used to carry out that action is often best guided by intellect.

My newfound zeal for activism has come from the belated discovery of these four simple (well, simple if you have the courage to be nobody-but-yourself) steps. Until very recently I was paralyzed by the vicious cycle of the five bullet-points above. Now I am moved to act. Not to go out and blow up pipelines or SUV dealerships in a fit of rage. But instead, to meet with people who have reached the same understanding that I have, who just know what I know, and who have been moved to act, and to use our imagination and creativity and ingenuity and innovation skills and critical thinking skills and capacities and collective wisdom and shared tools to identify ways to dismantle our industrial civilization, cleverly and dispassionately. We should be able to find ways to measurably do so (e.g. achieve a drop in GDP, atmospheric CO2 and Gini ratio and a commensurate rise in indices of well-being) without extravagant and unproductive PR stunts (our purpose is to reduce damage to the planet, not to persuade people by getting media coverage), without violence and without causing suffering, by honing in on their vulnerabilities (e.g. their need for massive amounts of low-interest investment, government subsidies, and insurance against risks).

We can do this. We must do this. We know we must act. We just know. And we are moved. And together, there’s no limit to what we can do.

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2 Responses to From Knowing to Doing: How and Why We Act

  1. A “Save the World” search engine… I encourage others to sign up… it’s such a simple and yet powerful idea.

  2. Penny Walker says:

    Hi DaveI really like your explanation of how we make decisions. I’m struck by how your interpretation of the inner emotional monologue is very different to what I expected you to say – that is, it’s different to my interpretation of what’s going on. (And since you experience and interpret this differently, then perhaps for different people, there are different internal monologues.)Let me explain: * At a subconscious emotional level, in everyday activities and conversations, the belief that everything is (more or less) OK and that I should ‘fit in’ is reinforced.* Actions which I might take which are a response to information and emotions about ecosystem collapse are not seen by myself or others as ‘normal’.* I want to be normal. I want to belong. I want the affection, admiration and respect of those around me. I do not want to be shunned, mocked or responded to aggressively.* So I stick with the ‘normal’ status quo way of being, because this is more likely to provide the responses that I favour.* I might take gentle actions when others are doing it too, and when others reward those actions with the positive responses I like.What I see a lot, and notice in myself too, is an unwillingness to go through with some actions which I contemplate, because I don’t want to be shunned. I may even collude with the mockers when I see others who are responding in a way which seems too way out.What do you think?

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