We live our life like we buy yoghurt
We believe we choose our behaviour. We assume most of the time we make conscious intentional decisions about what we do. We are wrong.
Conscious vs unconscious
The differences between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind have been studied for a long time. Freud is famous for making us aware of the influence of the unconscious, however most of his theories have been since proven false. More recently Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow defines System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 can be loosely identified with unconscious decisions, and System 2 with conscious decisions.
Johnathan Haidt has an even more popular metaphor: the Elephant and the Rider. The Elephant is the emotional, instinctive side (unconscious), while the Rider is the rational, analytical side (conscious).
These perspectives are valuable, yet they suffer from an inherent bias. They presume we consciously choose most of our behaviour. We assume The Rider leads the Elephant. System 1 appears to take charge only when we are not paying attention. I believe this assumption is wrong.
Most of our behaviour is driven by our unconscious.
I call this unconscious the Paleo Robot because it makes decisions using algorithms evolved for the Paleolithic.
Let’s prove the unconscious rules behaviour with an everyday example: a yoghurt buying decision.
John goes to buy yoghurt in the supermarket.
How would John buy cheese if the decision was conscious and logical?
John would start by identifying all available yoghurt brands, products and variants in the store. There are at least fifty in an average supermarket.
Then John would compare all of them based on all their differences, like price and promotions, but also previous experience, colour, consistency, packaging, WOM, satiety, taste profile, company history, ingredients, source of milk, feed for the cattle that produced the milk. John would not rely on his knowledge alone, he would search online for information, reviews and opinions on each product.
This is already a lot of complicated work.
But the store options are not all available options. The methodical, logical approach would be to identify all brands and products in other stores and online shops. John would research and introduce these products in his comparative evaluation. He would take into account the added costs of delivery and/ or travel for each of these options.
After choosing the best product, John would also need to determine the optimum quantity. He would take into account expiration date, average consumption, probability of additional consumption from guests, volume discounts, storage space.
How much time do you think it would take John to go through this process? I’d say between 1 and 3 days.
How do you buy yoghurt in real life?
You see a yoghurt brand you recognize and like, and put your usual quantity in your cart. How much does this take? I’d say ten seconds on average.
Our unconscious decides most of what we do
We live our life like we buy yoghurt .
This simple example shows we unconsciously decide 99% of our actions.
The duration difference between the conscious methodical process and the quick unconscious one makes it clear why. You cannot afford to take a day to decide which yoghurt to buy. You would spend all your life buying groceries.
For our ancestors it was even worse. They had to make life-and-death decisions in mere moments. If they spent too much time debating what is in the bush, it came out and ate them. If they spent too much time planning how to hunt deer, the prey would be long gone until they reached a decision.
Conscious decisions do exist. Some decisions are conscious, rather than unconscious.
When do we make conscious intentional choices?
This is a complex question. I don’t think there is a clear answer. I believe it happens when several criteria are met:
- Decision is not urgent in our perception
- All our needs are met and we are in a good state, e.g. rested, calm, not hungry, not thirsty, secure
- Context for the decision is completely new, e.g. does not resemble at all any past decision. For example buying a house.
- OR Unconscious algorithms are pushing towards divergent decision. In this case the conscious comes in as a sort of arbiter to push the decision one way. E.g. there is one piece of cake left. You want to eat it because our the algorithm to maximize energy intake and opportunistically get as many resources as possible. But you also want to not eat it because of our algorithm for reputation that wants others to see you are not selfish and not greedy and because of your algorithm to be healthy (and thus not fat). The latter is the weakest out of all these algorithms by far.
- OR We are in a period of perceived change, when your ‘regular’ decisions might not be valid anymore. In such a time, you become much more intentional and re-evaluate decisions. For example during a life-events people 2.5x more likely to change their purchasing decisions in all categories. And during the pandemic (and the 2008 crisis) people changed their buying preferences which led to significant market shifts.
What does this mean for you?
We live our life like we buy yoghurt. It means that your predictions for your own behaviour are worse than you think. Your predictions are conscious, but the behaviour is unconscious. So they don’t match.
In market research it’s known that asking people whether they would buy a product is irrelevant. It does not match with their actual decisions whether to buy that product or not.
Your behaviour is driven by this unknown unconscious — the Paleo Robot. If you understand it better, then you understand yourself better. You gain the power to change your decisions for the better.