Where there is a will there is a way; just remember you usually have to train yourself in how to follow that way

The behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and the tennis philosopher W. Timothy Gallwey both argue that each of us is divided into two separate systems or selves – one conscious the other automated.

While they both acknowledge the positive contributions of the automated self they are less aligned on the contribution of the conscious self, especially when it comes to learning. While Kahneman sees the conscious self as an auditor that helps us avoid the repetition of stupid errors, Gallwey sees the conscious self as a meddler that must be tamed so that the automated self can work its subtle magic.

Depending on the context, each of them is probably correct.

Jonathon Haidt suggests that we use the Buddhist metaphor of an elephant and rider to understand the relationship between our automated and conscious selves. In the real world, an elephant goes pretty much wherever it wants to. Yet, riders do in fact manage to get elephants to alter their course. The rider can’t force the elephant to move, but it can make the elephant feel like moving in a certain direction. Our automated actions are often triggered by cues that we are exposed to just before we act.

There’s a lot going on inside and around you that plays a real role in determining who you are and what you do, and the disenchanting truth is you can’t control a lot of it. Still, when you take the plunge and embrace the reality that that much of your life is contingent upon contextual factors, the rider and elephant metaphor can serve as an invaluable framework for finding points of leverage in the midst of all of those uncontrollable factors. With clarity of purpose and repeated self-nudging, you can load the deck in favor of a constructive – if somewhat constrained – form of self-authorship. Moreover, this constrained form of free will may indeed get you further than just pretending you can manifest any “you” you’d like by imposing the brute force of your heroic, unbending, unbounded will upon yourself and the world.

Robert Sapolsky (video in comments) does a wonderful (and highly entertaining) job of introducing the complexity of the myriad drivers of behavior in biology, which in turn drives much if not all of what we more commonly refer to as human behavior.

This a link to an article on research that seems to indicate that while we feel like we are experiencing our focused attention as a spotlight, it may actually function more like a set of filters activated and de-activated by a combination of internally-driven mechanisms of intention AND the ongoing detection of the many objects and events our sensory systems encounter in our external environment.


Below is a link to an essay I wrote a few years ago on behavioral automation:

Make behavioral automation work for you instead of on you

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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