The Joys Of Catching Yourself Out.

The first instinct is definitely not always the correct one

Steve Peters
Aug 4 · 6 min read
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Image for post
By McGeddon — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

I’ve developed a strange habit recently. Whenever I have a particularly strong feeling, instinct or opinion, I’ll spend a few moments trying to argue against it. I’ll research conflicting opinions, I’ll examine my points for biases and logical errors, and when I discover a flaw in my thinking, I actually feel this perverse sense of satisfaction. It’s like peeling off a scab.

I’ve been doing this a form of training for my instincts. Or rather, I’ve been doing it to train myself not to rely on my instincts when it’s not appropriate. It turns out that two things are true; I rely on my instincts a lot, and most of the time I shouldn’t. I suspect the same is true for you.

What I’ve noticed over the month or so that I’ve been doing this, is that it’s much easier for me to question my instincts (or have them questioned by someone else) without feeling like I’m being attacked or that there’s any problem with my instincts being wrong. In fact, in most situations, I’ve come to expect my instincts to be wrong. And that’s a good thing…let me explain.

Your instincts are just…they’re not good.

A little over a month ago I watched this video about survivorship bias. In the video, a teacher shows his class a picture of a bomber from WWII (shown above) that’s been marked with red dots to show bullet damage. The data was gathered from planes after they returned from their missions. The teacher then asks the class a question; where should the aircraft designers prioritise putting armour on the planes?

Roughly half the class says to put the armour where the dots are. This seems to make sense, after all, that’s where the planes have been shot. But there’s something strange about the location of the shots. There are none on the cockpit. None on the fuselage which is the thinnest, weakest part of the plane. There are none on the engines. By the logic of the students, these sensitive areas needn’t be armoured at all, because none of the returning planes had any damage there.

Of course, the reason for this is that the planes which were damaged there didn’t return to be checked.

Instinct vs Reason.

Even if you weren’t completely fooled by the question, chances are that your very first instinct was to armour the points where the bullets had hit the planes as well. Then, after a little more thought, you figured out that the opposite is true; if the planes were still able to return home after being damaged in these areas, it’s clearly safe not to armour them heavily. Instead, the focus should be on the areas which catastrophically damage the planes.

The two conclusions represent two systems of thought within the brain which, for convenience’s sake, I’m going to refer to as instinct and reason. Of course, the relationship between instinct and reason is much too complex to simply separate them out into two distinct systems like this, but bear with me.

For our purposes, instinct is the knee jerk reaction. It’s the part of us which responds instantaneously to situations. It’s our gut feeling. It works effortlessly and immediately and tunes out any distraction which doesn’t serve it. Reason is the part of your brain that…well, reasons. It’s slower, more deliberate. It can handle more complicated and abstract concepts but requires conscious effort to use and doesn’t deal well with distraction.

We have a strong tendency to trust our instincts, but this, ironically, is a terrible idea. The instinct to trust our instincts is based on the fact that they’re our most reliable strategy for survival in emergency situations. Instincts operate much faster than reason, they allow us to process enormous amounts of information in a short space of time, and because of their importance to our survival, we feel an urgent and powerful motivation to follow them.

Instincts are what allows us to instantaneously recognise an angry expression on the face of an aggressor. Or react to danger before we’re fully consciously aware of it. Or recognising the spatial relationships between moving objects. All of these things happen instantly, with little to no thought or effort.

What instincts aren’t good at is figuring out abstract problems. For example, your instincts about what 39 x 53 equals, are highly unlikely to be correct. To solve a problem like this you need to pause and think and hold information in your memory whilst processing other information. You need to be calm and relatively undistracted, you’d find it much more difficult to solve this whilst driving a car say. Most importantly you need time. Which is fine because these types of problems aren’t emergencies,

As human life has become increasingly complex, we face reason problems far more often than we face emergencies, but the emergency handling protocols are still in place. Problems which could be solved by reason, are dealt with entirely with instinct and its partner, emotion. Our instincts treat our hurt feelings as a physical threat and the rational, reasonable part of our brains are shut out of the loop.

Take an argument with a romantic partner for example. One day the two of you are having a lovely day when an argument erupts. It seems to come out of nowhere. You instinctively note the shift in their tone of voice, you see the tightness in their jaw and the narrowing of their eyes. Their body language becomes cold and unreceptive. But then, nothing happens. There’s no emergency. Your instincts have picked up the cues that something is wrong, they’re primed for action, but there’s no lion to fight off.

Still, the fact that your instincts aren’t useful here doesn’t stop them from giving it a good old fashioned try. They’re only good for fighting are fleeing, so they do one of those. These either make the problem worse or do nothing to solve it. Still, you feel like there was no other choice because, for your instincts, there wasn’t.

A reasonable approach.

Now imagine if reason had handled the situation instead of instinct. Your instincts would still have picked up on your partner’s tone, facial expression and body language. That all happens much instantly. But now, reason gets to figure out what to do about it.

Maybe you realise that you just said something horribly insensitive without meaning to and can now apologise. Maybe instead of getting caught up in your partner’s emotions, you can calmly ask what’s wrong. Maybe you can take a breath and listen and take in what your partner is saying so that you can understand their perspective instead of just seeing the situation from your own.

Instinct, as useful as it can be, can’t do any of these things. Its job is reaction, not reflection. But in a situation when you feel at all threatened, it will try to handle the situation because its job is to keep you safe. The practice of questioning yourself is a way of helping it to understand that you are safe. And that it’s okay to let reason handle the situation.

From each according to their ability.

I’m not suggesting that one day you’ll be able to have a perfectly calm and reasonable conversation when your feelings are hurt or when somebody is treating you unfairly. Anger is a natural part of the human condition.

What I am suggesting, is that it’s possible to embrace the information from your instincts but to consciously minimise the influence of instinct on your problem-solving process. Our instincts give us a ton of useful information in an instant. They’re constantly alerting us to patterns and threats that our reasoning minds would miss. But unless the situation is a matter of life or death, that’s where the work of our instincts is done.

Becoming more reasonable is really about training the instinctive mind to stay in its lane. The information it provides is useful but the conclusions it draws, (read: conclusions that we come to instantaneously) should be subject to immediate suspicion and scrutiny. Micro-managing our instincts, checking the conclusions they come to for logic and continuity is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. But practising it could be the difference between a plane with a few holes win it, and one which doesn’t come back at all.

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