Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Rationalizations and Potato Chips

We rationalize our actions every day. We explain to ourselves why we acted impulsively in order to make sense of the world because we don’t want to admit that we have no idea why we just did what we did.

Neuroscientists are learning more about how we act all the time, and it seems to be the case that we do everything based on impulses hard wired into us, that few of our decisions are as well thought out as we once believed.

They’ve discovered that we will reach for a potato chip, for example, before our minds consciously decide we’re going to do that. The hidden brain behind our logical brain makes a decision that we want that potato chip and so we reach for it.

A millisecond passes and we begin to spin our action like a good press secretary, to tell ourselves the story of why we reached for it. We like potato chips. We’re hungry. It’s a long time until dinner. They’re just sitting there on the counter and if we don’t eat them, we’ll have to throw them soon we’ll have to throw them away later.

Some scientists claim that we don’t really have free will as a result (at least not as we have come to understand it). And perhaps they’re right. But it may be more complicated than that.

You see, all our actions result from the accumulation of experiences we recall from our past. We remember having eaten potato chips in the past and enjoying them. Our taste buds put potato chips in the “delicious” category of tastes because they’re salty and our bodies need salt to survive.

It doesn’t matter that we get way more salt than we need on a daily basis. When we were hunter-gatherers, we struggled to find enough salt, so our bodies default to the “we need salt” setting unless we’ve just consumed a fair amount of it.

So our bodies do what they’re wired to do and our brains put those actions into a story to make sense of the world. After all, does it make sense for us to act without knowing why we’re acting?

Actually, it does. But that scares us. So we create a narrative to put ourselves in charge, to make it seem like we intended to reach for the potato chip all along when in fact it was a deeper part of our body, a subconscious part, that assumed we needed the potato chip and directed the hand to grab one.

The same seems to hold true for most everything we do. The body detects what it perceives to be a need based on the firing of neurons in various cells and takes action to satisfy those needs. The brain wants to believe it’s in charge and therefore makes up stories to explain those actions.

That’s okay, of course. It doesn’t matter that we’re not as in control as we think we are. We just have to admit it so that we can begin to adapt our bodies to control those impulses.

By telling ourselves over and over that we don’t really need potato chips, we can slowly wean ourselves off them until we no longer feel the need to reach for them every time we see them.

But I still love a good potato chip.


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