Knowledge and Negative Self-Talk


The notion that each one of us has within ourselves multiple brains may, on first read, sound downright odd. My brain: it’s that thinking gizmo that keeps my ears apart, right?

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt details four completely different brains each of us possess; not all of them residing above the neck. And he follows this up with a second whammy: contrary to Descartes assertion that thinking was his making, contemporary studies suggest that the seat of our true existential horsepower resides well beyond conscious control.

“To understand most important ideas in psychology”, writes Haidt, “you need to understand how the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. We assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes.”

Automatic processing, Haidt reveals, is often more powerful than any conscious effort we might apply. A particularly common example arises when, through conscious mental control, we attempt to change our thoughts by trying “not” to do something:

When controlled processing tries to influence thought (“Don’t think about a white bear!”), it sets up an explicit goal. And whenever one pursues a goal, a part of the mind automatically monitors progress, so that it can order corrections or know when success has been achieved… Automatic processes continually check: “Am I not thinking about a white bear?” As the act of monitoring for the absence of the thought introduces the thought, the person must try even harder to divert consciousness. Automatic and controlled processes end up working at cross purposes, firing each other up to ever greater exertions. But because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhaustible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears. Thus, the attempt to remove an unpleasant thought can guarantee it a place on your frequent-play list of mental ruminations.

Another area in which our automatic processing plays a much bigger role than we might think is in the way we form judgments; particularly moral judgments (those “good/bad”, “right/wrong” pronouncements our inner critics are particularly fond of). Haidt asks us to consider what actually happens in a moral argument: “Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made.”

If you’d like to find out more, you’re in luck: Jonathan Haidt has made a number of the chapters from The Happiness Hypothesis available as free downloads on his web site.  Happy reading!