The Simple Programming of the Mind
Ideal Life 12 - If (this) then (that)
Summary: Your mind is a collection of if then programming.
IF (this) THEN (that)
The if statement is famous in programming. It is rather simple: if (condition) then (action).
If the condition (this) is met then the action (that) is performed.
If (a = 8) then (write "success") means, if variable a is 5 then the screen displays, “success". If clauses are simple and intuitive.
In programming they are the foundation for the complex software running everything around us. But they run something much more important than your laptop, your smartphone, the bank software, the energy system or any other software.
If statements run your mind.
Actually, that's not quite correct. Rather:
Your mind is a collection of if statements.
Behaviour, perception, cognition and your very model of the world and yourself are numerous nested, interweaving, if statements.
The human mind is mostly many clauses like this:
if (trigger + context + anticipatory dopamine) then (behaviour)
Common example: if (bored because doing nothing + phone nearby) then (open phone for something dopamine-rasining such as social media or gaming)
We like to believe our behaviour is intentional and considered. But most of the time it is an unconscious reaction shaped by natural selection and personal history. This is described as System 1 by Kahneman. I call it the PaleoRobot. It's really a collection of if statements.
if (expectations + key signals) then (perception)
Researchers fooled birds to abandon their own eggs for neon cardboard replica. The fake eggs had the key signals for eggs at a higher intensity than the real eggs.
So they fooled the birds' if-based perception.
Such mind hacking stimuli are called Super Normal stimuli. They fool us as much as the cardboard nesting birds.
junk food with little nutritional value that fools us into choosing it,
social media likes masquerading as social validation,
pornography fooling us to think it’s reproduction opportunity,
Cognition and Our Model of the world
We are the smartest animals on Earth. But that does not mean we are as smart as we think we are.
Our view of our own cognition is that it is a rational cause-effect deep understanding and reasoning of the world. It's not. It's mostly pattern recognition.
if (dark clouds then (rain)
if (food available) then (eat)
if (someone on phone while you are presenting) then (feel bad to motivate yourself to act to prevent the perceived rejection)
if (you wake up in the coming) then (make coffee)
if (see friend on Facebook on exotic vacation) then (feel envy)
if (chair available) then (sit)
These are simplistic examples. The if clauses of our thinking are complex, with numerous variables and highly context-dependent.
The point is not that we are less intelligent than we think. The point is about the nature of this intelligence. It is not-deep understanding of cause and 'effect, it is pattern recognition. Instead of finding the root causes, we identify and use proximate causes and correlation.
Let's take the stock market and investing as examples. These are areas of great interest for the people who get involved with them. You would expect everyone who plays in this field to strive for a deep understanding of the root causes for the price fluctuations of assets.
Indeed some do. There is a lot of literature by experts and academics in this regard.
But most don't. Most investors are not interested in root causes. They only want information that predicts immediate future evolution. They want proximate causes or correlations. And they don’t care to understand the mechanisms, because it would mean work to get this deep knowledge of the root causes.
This is why the stock market, and the crypto market are full of scam artists and crooks. They sell false predictions to people who cannot really verify then.
It's also why these markets are so volatile. A deep if clause in our mind is
if (everybody does X) then (I should do X)
This was a great rule for survival.
It's awful for investing. It's why investors follow each other like sheep, even when many know rationally that they should not.
Investing is just one example. Our very model of the world is a collection of patterns, of complex if clauses.
Are we robots?
Are we simple automatons carrying out our deterministic rules?
Yes and no.
Yes in that most behaviour is from these if then unconscious rules.
No in that we make these rules for ourselves. And we can change them.
We program ourselves.
This is a process that takes place automatically in response to our experiences: fire burns so you learn if (fire) then (don’t touch), or to others’ experiences: stories of fire burning others lead to the same rule.
It is automatic, but not completely outside our control. We can hardly change our internal if clauses just because we want to. It’s hard to change something like if (I see sugar) then (I want to eat it). It does not work just by deciding to be different.
And yet, we can change these clauses, and our resulting behaviour.
The trick is to do it indirectly. By changing the environment and our perception of events, we can guide our unconscious to modify existing if clauses or adopt new ones.
An in-depth article on how to do this is incoming. It will explain how to create long lasting change in behaviour. One not based on willpower, but rather on changing the unconscious if clauses.
Why are we in this situation of simple programming ruling our lives? Why do we have such difficulty changing our behaviour?
Because it allowed us to survive.
Success in the wild does not come from seeking a deep understanding of nature, but rather, from functional knowledge.
It did not matter why plants don’t grow in winter, it mattered to identify the signals when winter is coming and prepare for it.
if (days are shorter and colder + fruits are ripe) then (eat as much as possible and gain fat)
This helped our ancestors survive the winter. It did not matter that they did not know why fruits are ripe in Autumn, why seasons happen, how the Solar System works so that days shorten and so on. It only mattered that they respond to the signal in the specific manner that helps them survive.
Learning was about predicting the immediate future for own benefit or to avoid harm. Simple if then rules are an effective method to gain and apply this functional knowledge. They are clearly successful considering we escaped natural selection.
Unfortunately they are less successful in the Anthropocene. We have built a world that both ignores this specificity of our mind and rewards deeper understanding. Yet our brain did not change. So we struggle and suffer with the world we have created.
What to do
How does knowing this help you? Here are some suggestions
Habits & behaviour change
Becoming smarter at anything.
Ask why, why, why.
It’s hard but gives you a better understanding than 99% of people. Do it only for stuff you care about because it takes time and effort. Trying to apply it to everything in your life would be exhausting.
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” ― Elon Musk
Find your close ones' if clauses which have high impact.
For example when your girlfriend/ boyfriend gets upset. Often there is a root if clause there, that creates recurring conflict because it is activated. If you find it, then you can help her/ him solve it. Or at least avoid it.
Other people’s actions are not about you.
We are incredibly sensitive to the emotions and actions of people around us. We have evolved to intuitively interpret them in relation to us. E.g. “my friend is grumpy, then they must be mad at me”.
Yet others’ behaviour is not about you. It’s driven by if clauses. Maybe sometimes one of your actions triggers an if clause, but it is still their programming.
In our world of inter-connected billions reducing how much you care about your image in others’ eyes is critical for a good life.
Find your own emotionally charged if clauses. Solve them.
Your mind is a collection of if then programming.
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Previous Ideal Life entries:
Tiny Habits - B.J. Fogg
Atomic Habits - James Clear
The Power of Habit - Charles Duhigg
Behave - Robert Sapolsky
Thinking Fast, and Slow - Daniel Kahneman