Thought and Action

I don’t know why I did it. But today I can recognize that events back then were part of a lifelong pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together—I think I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do.….I don’t mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions. From The Reader by Bernard Schlink

The British Psychological Society’s Research Blog asked some of the world’s “leading” psychologists to identity the “one nagging thing they still don’t understand about themselves.” Is there only one? Anyway some of the answers were rather interesting.

Ellen Langer said she still didn’t understand why she has nightmares almost every night. Richard Wiseman said he did understand why he sometimes said or thought witty or funny “things.” Chris McManus gave the answer I liked best. “What is this thing I call beauty?”

However, David Buss gave one I’ve thought a lot about at various times.

“One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases. One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (e.g. publishing a new book), when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated. Another is succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest. A third is undue optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects, despite many years of experience in underestimating the time actually required. One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.”

Is it possible to overcome these psychological biases? You’d think so, especially once you become aware of them. But no, this doesn’t happen very often. I think this stems from a failure to recognize the sharp distinction between thoughts and actions.

Knowing something is one thing; acting upon it is another. Everyone who smokes knows the dangers of doing so. But that doesn’t stop them from lighting up every now and then.

It isn’t uncommon for individuals undergoing psychotherapy to know a great deal about the origins of their problems and various approaches in dealing with them. In spite of this knowledge, they find it impossible to do anything to overcome their maladies.

And Jonah Lehrer on his blog The Frontal Cortex writes about the limits of self-knowledge.

My own unfixable flaw concerns "paralysis by analysis," or thinking about decisions that I know shouldn't be consciously deliberated. Although I've written about Tim Wilson's work with strawberry jam, and know a bit about the information processing powers of the unconscious, I still find myself spending far too much time in the supermarket, debating the merits of various jams. It turns out that writing a book about decision-making doesn't make you a master decider - it simply allows you to have more precise names for your mistakes.

A few years ago I did an experiment on the effects of knowledge in changing behavior. I asked would knowledge of the Bystander Effect (The frequent failure of individuals to come to the aid of a distressed person) lead individuals to avoid this failure in the future?

In one condition, I gave the participants a great deal of information about the Bystander Effect, showed them a brief film about it, and asked them to write a short essay on the topic. In spite of this knowledge, these individuals were no more likely to come to the aid of a person who dropped a large box of books or was observed having a severe asthma attack than those in the control condition who were not given any information.

A lifetime of studying psychology has convinced me, that all too often we overestimate the influence of what we know on behavior. Instead, knowledge represents only one of the many factors that influence us, especially in situations where there are strong social pressures. In these situations, we may find it very difficult to translate our knowledge into action. Until we develop more effective ways to accomplish this, we must be careful not to overestimate the extent to which a psychologically informed public will behave any differently than an uninformed one.