We are at the top of the food chain. Our ability to think, to cognitively assess, decide and act is unparalleled.
Or is it?
Yesterday afternoon I ate a large chocolate bar.
I wasn’t hungry. I know it’s not good for my waistline. Only the other day I was reading about the hidden threat of too much sugar in our diet. I had a banana on my desk, which, despite its curvaceous yellow appeal, remained ignored.
Human behavior is complex and rarely, if ever, purely rational. In fact our rational internal dialogue almost always loses out to a deeper, hidden, irrational, impulsive, unconscious drive to act.
But, behavior doesn’t happen by chance or out of the blue. It has a structure – trigger, behaviour, reward. In one real sense we are machines: input, action, output. Mechanistic rather than thinking.
Behaviour can be conscious or subconscious, mental or physical, learned or inherited, voluntary or involuntary… some behaviour is genetically and biologically underpinned – we all withdraw our hand from the hot saucepan handle, from pain, without thinking. Some behaviour is influenced by social and cultural norms. Some by persuasion or even coercion.
That doesn’t however explain my chocolate addiction.
Nor does it explain much of our behaviour day to day.
I’m not genetically coded, socially expected or forced to curse that driver sat in the middle lane of the motorway. Nor to stop working on what I should be doing to do something more interesting. Nor to be late for that meeting. Nor to run for the bus. Nor to buy those trousers I don’t need.
No, these behaviours are motivated internally, by our beliefs, values and biases. By hidden patterns developed and evolved by our life story.
I regularly curse middle lane drivers. I’ve examined this behaviour closely. It’s not that I’m a stickler for the Highway Code – I confess I don’t always follow it. It’s not that I’m in the habit of moaning at people. It’s not that I’m often late and they’re simply in my way. For me, it’s because they aren’t honouring, recognising, making space for a fellow human being. They’re self absorbed. That value drives other behaviours in me; some I’m not proud of and that just happen before I can rationally think. So the unfortunate motorist is merely the trigger. My reward is I can honour a personal value – yet the irony of my own behaviour contradicting that very value is not lost on me and therein lies another behaviour puzzle. What remains true is that in that moment, the behaviour is unthinking, subconscious, mechanistic, programmed … out of my control.
Or is it?
You see, consciously understanding my internal motivation, beliefs, values and world map gives me choice. Noticing the triggers and the rewards of my behaviour gives me choice. So be curious about you.
If you think you think, think again…