By Jeff Wise
The Saturday Evening Post
The door is already swinging shut as a flash of horror hits me. Clunk.
There they are, my car keys, dangling from the side of the steering wheel, a few feet away and impossibly out of reach. The chill autumn evening is fading to dark; I’m in a rest stop 150 miles from home; and I’ve just locked my keys in my car. Right now I hate myself so much. Where’s my brain!?
We all make dumb mistakes from time to time: hitting “send” instead of “delete”; driving right past the exit you meant to take; calling your wife by your ex-girlfriend’s name, and we feel as though our brains have been replaced with a particularly un-cerebral brick.
But it turns out, screwing up is a surprisingly subtle and nuanced phenomenon, one that results not despite our brain’s sophistication but because of it.
Our brains are much more like machines than we realize. As we roam around negotiating our world, it feels like we’re consciously controlling our own behavior. But most of our behavior is carried out beyond our consciousness.
“Human cognition can be divided between those processes that are automatic and those that are controlled,” explains Dr. Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California Los Angeles.
Controlled processes, like writing a sonnet or planning a trip, take mental effort. Automatic processes tend to feel effortless. “You have no problem opening your eyes and simultaneously experiencing all the objects that are in front of you,” Lieberman points out. Though complex processing is needed to achieve this feat, it feels easy because all the work is being carried out behind the scrim of awareness.
Automatic brain systems govern instinctive behavior and well-learned habits like brushing your teeth, recognizing your name amid the burble of strangers’ conversation, or jumping at the sound of a loud noise.
In 2009, a team led by psychologist Dr. Phillippa Lally at University College of London recruited volunteers who wanted to teach themselves a new habit, eating a piece of fruit a day or jogging. Every day the subjects were asked to record whether they’d carried out their tasks or not, and to rate whether a task seemed effortless or even “hard not to do,” as a fully ingrained habit can seem.
When the results came in, Lally and her colleagues found most of the volunteers’ self-reports followed a similar pattern: The tasks were hard to do at first, but quickly became much easier, and then reached a plateau as the habit took hold.
Getting there took persistence. Depending on the person and the habit they were trying to learn, automaticity took anywhere from 18 days to eight months to set in. Consistency turned out to be key. Those who kept blowing off their tasks were less likely to ever form the habit at all.
Many brain hiccup errors occur in a similar fashion — when the conscious and automatic parts of the brain get in each other’s way. So when I forget my wife’s birthday, it’s not because I don’t love her; it’s because I’ve failed to pre-establish a cue that will trigger my conscious memory.
When I miss the exit for my in-laws’ house and instead barrel along as if I’m driving to work — which happens to be two exits down the same highway — it’s not for lack of love for my in-laws. It’s because distraction prevented me from consciously overriding my well-learned habit of going to the office.
In each case, the solution involves identifying where the automatic brain is going wrong and figuring out a way to interrupt that robotic behavior on your own. In the case of my wife’s birthday, I’ve set up a reminder in my iPhone. To avoid missing my in-laws’ exit, I now explicitly ask my wife to remind me when we’re getting close. And when I’m visiting my parents and need cash, I put my wallet back into a different pocket than usual after inserting the card in the ATM. When I reach the end of the routine, the strange sensation of an empty wallet-pocket cues me that something’s amiss and my conscious brain reengages.
Understanding how our brains make mistakes doesn’t mean we’ll never screw up again. But it should improve the odds that we don’t make the same mistakes too many times in a row.