Two Minds

To explain why people act counter to their own interests, Freud proposed a Psyche motivated by Conscious and Unconscious forces. A model proposed more recently by Epstein is used below to help make sense of the perverse tendency to knowingly act counter to self-interest.

According to this model, all animals have an Experiential Processing System by which they learn which responses under which conditions produce pleasure and pain. But unlike other forms of life, humans have access to higher cognitive faculties that enable them to better predict the costs and benefits of certain behaviors.

The attributes of the two processing systems are contrasted below:
Experiential Processing SystemRational Processing System

Pleasure-pain oriented: What feels best nowRationally oriented: What yields the greatest net benefits
Connections determined by the principals of classical conditioningConnections determined by the principals of logicHas a long evolutionary history and operates in animals as well as humansHas a brief evolutionary history, operates through language
Encodes reality in concrete images, metaphors and narrativesEncodes reality in abstract symbols, words and numbers
Rapid processing: Oriented toward immediate actionSlower processing: Oriented toward future action
Slow to change: Change requires repetitive or intense experienceRapid to change: Changes with the speed of thought
Experienced passively, outside of conscious awareness [one is seized by one’s emotions]Experienced actively and consciously [one intentionally follows the rules of inductive and deductive reasoning]Certainty is self-evident [seeing is believing]Certainty requires justification via logic and evidence
Perception, motivation, and behavior are state dependentThe principles of logic are independent of local state

Despite the gift of a Rational Processing System many people repeatedly choose the path that produces bad outcomes for them, which brings up the Relapse Riddle: Considering how painful it is, why do people relapse, even after vowing not to?

It requires sufficient time and a surplus of cognitive resources to think things through and intentionally guide one’s reactions to the stressors and temptations that life presents. Predictably, when the time to think things through or the energy to over-ride or to even notice the local motivations that promote relapse are not available, behavior unfolds along the path of least resistance. People act counter to their interests because the Rational Processing System is not operating the vehicle at the critical moment.

The key to willpower is getting the vehicle to follow the intended path despite local conditions. According to our model: The rational processing system is available only at certain times – when there is a surplus of time and cognitive resources. In my office the client has access to these rare luxuries. He or she has taken an hour out of their day to focus their full attention on solving a particular problem, and is obeying the rules of logic because of the awareness that there is another person around to point out thinking errors. In my office stress and temptation are far away, but at other times good cognitive resources are not available and it is the experiential processing system mindlessly emitting the default reaction to local events that is in charge of real time performance.

Everyone has a particular history and so everyone has created their own default paths and addictive traps. Escaping a trap of your own making requires that you accept the active role in the process. The materials on this web site were designed with this model in mind. The text and some multi-media are directed toward the rational processing system, while much of the audio and some meta-features of this site are directed specifically for the experiential processing system.