How to Avoid Being on Autopilot

Photo by Jesse Orrico

We run on autopilot most of the day, making thousands of uncuncious split-second decisions — from picking up a coffee cup to driving a car. I don’t know about you, but I’d be a wreck if I had to re-learn or conciously think about all of the steps involved in drinking coffee. Our brain — a “pattern recognition machine” — is great at simplifying life. But what if our autopilot-split-second-decision-making-machine makes unfavourable choices based on past, bad habits? We’ll come back to that soon.

One of the components of the human intellect is to learn by observering and interacting with the world through our senses. We touch, we listen, we watch, we taste. Simply speaking, you can either learn by trial and error, or you can have someone else tell you “This is how it’s done!” Imagine trying out everything by yourself. You’d end up being dead pretty soon. That’s why we have other people guiding us. One of the functions of language and symbols is simply to tell others how to not die. Another function is to tell people how to behave in social situations. It is through this process that we establish efficient “rules” on how to act in different situations. While these rules have been great in helping us to survive, they can also trick us into making bad decisions.

Meet depressed John

Let’s take the case of a depressed guy — let’s call him John. According to mainstream experts on the subject, he should make sure to sleep well, eat healthy food, exercise and hang out with friends and family to tackle his depression. Instead, John spends hour upon hour playing video games. He may feel alone, bored and restless. Those are painful emotion and he’d like to avoid them.

John loves playing video games and keeping himself up to date with the latest industry news. While browsing through an online magazine on the topic, he suddenly stumbles upon the review of a new title he hasn’t heard about before. Intrigued by by its alluring artwork, he clicks on the article and reads it. “This seems interesting” says his inner voice before it dissolves into nothingness. John finishes reading the lengthy article and watches a video at the end of it.

Without reflecting on it consciously, he quickly decides that this is a game he’d like to play. It’s a role-playing game (RPG) where you’re going to save the world and become the hero of the day. Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? This may bring John out of the state where he’s bored, even feeling lonely in his teenage room. This is what he’s been looking for to get rid of the feelings. The only problem is that John isn’t thinking about what he should be doing instead. This solutions is right in front of him.

The motivation is there — he wants to avoid pain — and he already has a preference for playing video games. Not only that, John has already installed software on his PC that’ll let him browse through an online store which has thousands of titles. “I wonder if the game is available in here?” he asks himself and types in the title in the search bar. Indeed it is. He looks at the reviews that other customers have given it so far and decides that he is defiantly buying and downloading the game. Said and done! It’s time.

As John boots up and starts playing this fantastic RPG, he is continiously rewarded with a kick of dopamine (there are a few studies showing this is the case…) by performing actions in-game and gaining a constant flow of rewards. He’s now in a state of well-being. While this feeling may be short-term, it’s enough to keep him hooked. He keeps coming back for the kick, day after day. The time he spends on playing is time less he can spend on other activities, but he doesn’t think that much about it.

In this example, John could have jumped from reading the article to downloading the game and booting it up within an hour or so. It’s enough to get him into a spiral he’ll have a problem getting out of. The more we can understand these kind of behaviours and what triggers us, the better we can become at being masters of our own fate rather than slaves of our habits.