Why do we keep screwing up?

My son asked me once if I knew everything.  Since he’s 5, I’m assuming he wasn’t being a sarcastic twit.

So I told him ‘No’.  I told him that all adults, no matter what they do for a living, how they act and how important they think they are, are just getting through life hoping that whatever they are doing is the right thing.  More importantly, they’re hoping others around them won’t realize that they are mostly winging it and are one big mistake away from complete and utter ruin (or more relevant, one missed paycheck away from complete financial disaster because they bought a house they couldn’t really afford…).

I'll take the one with less brainstem please.

We continue to make mistakes because our brains are not wired to make right decisions.  At least ‘right’ decisions in human terms.  Our brains, essentially a whole bunch of grey matter stacked on top of a reptilian brain, is evolutionarily wired to make gene survival decisions, not decisions about profitability, who to shack up with or what not to say during a presentation to board members.  We think we’re fantastic at making decisions but the core of the decision-making is no more amazing than the instinctual game-theory mode of decision making insects, squirrels and penguins exhibit.

We make mistakes because what we physically sense is not what our brain senses.  A photon of light coming through your eyes or a pressure wave hitting your ear-drum is converted into a bio-electrical pulse and interpreted by your brain.  The brain assigns a meaning based on previous experiences.  Based on that meaning, you form a thought response.  This means that ALL your decisions are not initially under conscious control.  This is why you form snap judgements.  It’s only when the higher processing kicks in that we modulate those snap judgments.  And that’s how you differ from a crocodile.

We do things and think about things entirely from within our own black-box.  We make decisions based entirely on past decisions and experiences because that’s all we have to go on.  We see stuff we expect to see, not necessarily what is actually there because the brain doesn’t interpret every piece of data that flows through your eyeballs.  The brain looks for patterns because recognized patterns either signify safety or danger.  (This is also why I stress that folks move around when they’re presenting.)

And this is why we keep making mistakes.  We make decisions based on past patterns of thinking.  And since those patterns didn’t kill us in the past, our brain continues to take the path of least resistance and move us towards the same decision making process.  Look at the stuff you’ve screwed up in the past five years.  There’s a good chance it’s the same patterns of behaviour that caused it.  I know it was for me.  Behavioural inertia is tough to overcome.  That’s why procrastinators procrastinate.  Dirtbags continue to be dirtbags and excuse-makers continue to make excuses about everything.

When we were scavenging on the Serengeti, decision making was simpler then.  You either took too long at the gazelle carcass and was eaten by a lion or you instinctively ate a few mouthfuls less and left the carcass well before the lions showed up.  Since leaving just as you noticed birds scattering in the distance meant living to eat another day, you did the same thing over and over again.  You then translated the pattern of birds scattering to mean danger so now, whether you’re eating, or hitting on that sultry she-Australopithecus, you ditched the scene the moment you saw birds scatter in the distance.  Good patterns of decision making meant your genes got to move on.  Bad patterns of decision making got you killed.

Except bad decisions don’t usually get you killed today.  And your brain says “Hey man, that worked!  Let’s do it again!”  So you continue to make wrong judgments about people, eat double Whoppers or have fights on internet forums.

What doesn’t get you killed was supposed to make you smarter.

So how do you break out of these patterns? Acknowledge them and make the conscious effort to not act on them.  That’s why you evolved a forebrain.

Are you telling me you’re no better than a reptile?