Instinctive Complexity

By J. Peder Zane

Do we look before we leap? Think before we act? Are we rational beings in control of our behavior or hostages to primal instincts and irrational impulses?

These questions have come to the fore as scientists have become increasingly impressed by the extent to which human activity is controlled by mindless habits, unconscious thoughts and untested assumptions.

If people were airplanes, we’d be on autopilot most of the time.

This idea has been popularized through the field of evolutionary biology, which argues that human behavior is guided by deep-rooted survival strategies developed over thousands of years. And it informs a successful subgenre of books kick-started in 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell’s mega-seller, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.”

Followers include “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior” by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman; “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” by Leonard Mlodinow; “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein; and “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” by Dan Ariely.

Challenging the idea of free will, these books detail how often we are guided by thoughts, assumptions and impulses that conflict with our stated desires. Like the angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, this double-consciousness explains why we stop at Ben & Jerry’s right after we’ve vowed to lose weight; why we tend to follow the leader even as we think of ourselves as creative rebels; and why many of us harbor ugly racial and ethnic stereotypes even though we know they are false.

Just thinking about all this mindlessness will give you a headache! In fairness, it’s not all bad: If we had to think about everything, we’d never have time to do anything.

Though powerfully descriptive, this line of thinking is hardly new. Plato and his ancient Greek pals trumpeted reason as an antidote to the irrational, uncontrollable forces they saw driving the world.

Like it not, the “truths” of the human heart and mind were articulated long ago – read the ancient philosophers, the world’s great religious texts and a little Shakespeare, and you’ve covered the bases. In each historical epoch, we don’t create new ways of seeing the world but, like diners at a Chinese restaurant, pick different options from a long-established menu to satisfy our current needs.

The question is not whether people are guided by unconscious forces – always have been, always will be – but why we find this insight so appealing right now?

I believe it’s because this approach speaks to our complex relationship with the larger world. While plumbing our psychology, it also seems to describe our culture.

In these fast-paced times where massive global forces seem to affect every aspect of our lives, the idea that we are at the mercy of powerful, invisible forces makes sense. At a time when many of us rely on technologies we don’t understand, invest in financial markets that seem beyond reason and see the price for food, gas and other essentials determined by the politics of countries we’ve barely heard of, our impotence is palpable.

At the same time, this framework suggests a primal authenticity, connecting us to our basic humanity amid all this confusing complexity. It says that no matter how much we may shape and change the world, we are still, at heart, creatures of the Earth, moved by timeless instincts more powerful than anything we might create. I’m a weak, impulsive animal; I’m keeping it real!

Ironically, this line of thinking may also be resonating now because of our recent success in debunking time-honored notions of human nature. At the beginning of the 20th century, most Westerners had fairly firm ideas about it. Eminent scientists wrote books detailing the essential nature of various groups – the ingrained, unalterable habits that made one race different from the next.

Sigmund Freud spilled barrels of ink detailing the eternal instincts that drive all humans and the forces that make women so different from men.

Today, much of that work seems like pure hooey. The great movements for civil rights convinced us that people aren’t all that different. We realized that it wasn’t scientific facts but imposed ideologies that led us to slice and dice one another into various camps.

This point was driven home once more in a 2008 New York Times Magazine about declining birth rates.

“Around the world, even in developing countries,” the article reported, “birthrates have plummeted – from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today – as populations have shifted from rural areas to cities and people have adopted urban lifestyles.”

This trend is most pronounced in many Asian and European nations where the birth rates have slipped to around 1.3 per woman – well below the “replacement rate” of 2.1.

The article offers a host of economic and cultural forces to explain this. What impressed me about this dynamic was how it upended a “basic fact” I was taught growing up: that humans are driven by the biological imperative to procreate, to spread our seed, to give our DNA everlasting life.

Apparently not. And if we can tame that drive, we can do anything.

The mind is more powerful than nature. It enables us to make and remake ourselves and the world. Instead of describing our inherent weakness, books like “Blink” and “Sway” are cautionary tales about what happens when we leap before we look, when we act without thinking.

They remind us of the closest thing we have to an eternal truth: The mind is a terrible thing to waste.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.