The Faulty Autopilot: 5 Instinct-Driven Behaviours We Should All Overcome

Carl Jung once wrote:

“It is not I who create myself, rather I happen to myself.”

(The Collected Works of Carl Jung, Vol. 11, Para 391)

It’s a strange sentence to digest but it’s a succinct summary of an important universal truth — we do not create or choose all of our behaviours and thought processes, just as we do not choose our height or eye colour. Rather, most of our emotional attributes, thoughts and instincts are determined by millions of years of evolutionary history intertwined with experience, upbringing and environment and although we have a tendency to believe ourselves conscious and aware most of the time, we are in fact more often operating on autopilot.

We have to operate on autopilot in many ways. We couldn't possibly intellectually evaluate every little thing we come into contact with during the day. We rely on a well tuned system of unconscious tools that decipher the world around us instantly and leave brain power for the tasks that we can work through slowly, without the risk of being eaten by a predator or hit by a bus. But the autopilot seeps into our relationships and decision making in ways that might not seem so obvious. We often believe we’re in conscious control because we can give reasoned explanations for our thoughts and actions, we can form arguments and justify ourselves. But our reasoning mind isn’t as powerful as we think — we are regularly driven by autopilot instincts first and resort to reason second. Instinct creates our reaction, our visceral feeling towards a person, a situation or idea, and we reason to justify and support that position.

We can all think of other people who do that but hey, not me! Right? Even if you consider yourself a very considered person, you are unfortunately not immune to this. Spotting this part of our own nature is wickedly difficult, particularly in the moments when it manifests most potently. But I assure you, you have experienced this. Still don’t believe me? Here are 5 common examples of behaviours and thought processes that are partly or wholly driven by that pesky autopilot.



Evading, traversing and reasoning to win

“You Always do this!”

Think back to the last time you had a drawn out argument with someone close to you, a spouse, friend or family member. Recall the topic that started it, perhaps a clash over something one of you did or didn’t do or a disagreement over an idea, a suggestion or opinion. Did you stay on that specific topic throughout the entire course of the argument or did you find yourself traversing to different topics and ‘bigger' issues?

We are competitive animals with an intrinsic desire to win and save face. Though many of us wouldn’t consider ourselves competitive in the most obvious sense (in the realms of games, sports or business) we all have a competitive streak when it comes to relationships, social status and reputation. Evolution has favoured those who fight for their place in the social hierarchy by demonstrating strength and prowess. When it comes to arguing, that evolutionary history has gifted us a formidable drive to do whatever it takes to overcome a challenge to our position. We call on a collection of tricks to twist and evade sharp attacks and in the event that our original position becomes untenable or weakened, we look to traverse elsewhere. It happens quickly, without conscious planning or realisation and it often goes in familiar directions.

When we can’t defend our position any longer we look to kick the legs out from underneath our opponent instead, traversing to a broader topic where we might find more traction. When that opponent is someone we’re close to and have history with, we reach back in time for previous indiscretions — anything we can turn upon them to undermine their moral character.

Once a line like “you always do this!” is deployed we take the emphasis away from our weakened argument and turn focus to our opponent’s history of wrong-doing. The argument is no longer about the original topic. We’re no longer talking about why the laundry didn’t get done, we’re talking about who works the most hours and why it’s always ’thrown in my face’. We’re talking about ‘how you never listen to what I’ve got to say’ and ‘don’t respect me’. And just like that the door is thrown wide open to any topic at all.

Every new idea we bring to the surface feels relevant and worthy. We need to talk about these things right? It’s about time we got this out! This is where the instinct-first, reason-second mechanism is at its most potent, and for the outsider, at its most obvious. But to us, in that moment, it’s not obvious at all, what’s obvious is that we’re angry or upset and that we have a genuine grievance to air. Sure, there may be issues that need to be discussed but in this fiery, combative state we’re in no position to actually resolve anything. And that’s because we are no longer seeking resolution, we are seeking victory. A moderator might call timeout, separate out the different strands of argument and focus on one at a time or draw our attention all the way back to the laundry. They might ask each of us to actually listen to the position of the other respectfully, though by this point we’re so entrenched and riddled with adversarial emotion that there’s little hope of achieving that. A observant moderator could likely call out the humungous holes in each of our arguments and the many ways our emotions are getting the better of our reason.

But alas, there is very rarely an observant moderator standing by to save us from ourselves. If we’re to avoid the destruction and lingering unpleasantry of these kinds of arguments we have to notice the desire to go off piste. Next time you find yourself reaching for “You always do this!” or any of its devious cousins, take a pause, focus on the issue at hand and question, are you reaching for resolution or victory?



Labels in place of good arguments

“You’re just a _____ist!”

When we argue with someone with whom we don’t have a history or someone we haven’t locked horns with before, we often reach for a slightly different tactic. Faced with counter arguments that we have no retort for in the moment or a weakening of our own stance, we once again instinctively look to traverse to more stable ground. And whilst we might not have a back catalogue of personal interaction to draw from, we still find ways to achieve the same end — turning the argument away from the specifics of the topic at hand and towards the failing moral character of our interlocutor.

'ad hominem’ (adverb & adjective) — (of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining

A common tactic — particularly in the digital age, where attention spans are apparently withering and character count is paramount — is to reach for powerful, emotive labels that instantly heap negative connotations onto our opponents. When we label someone a bigot, a xenophobe, a communist, fascist or racist, we rely heavily on a deep history of connotation to bury the specifics of the argument at hand. Our ego rejoices in an easy win as we immediately plant our flag in the higher ground whilst our opponent tries to dig themselves out from beneath the heap of potentially inaccurate, unqualified and non-specific connotations and separate themselves from the group identity we’ve attached to them. We do this in more intimate arguments with those close to us as well, reaching for adjectives like ‘selfish’ and ’stubborn’ to shift focus away from the detail of the argument and toward the personal. Suddenly, our opponent is forced to explain and argue why they are not selfish or stubborn, rather than continuing to make their original point. We feel like we’ve achieved a win but it’s empty and in many cases leads to more bitter argument and more lasting damage.

If your argument is well considered and deserves respect, it’s on you to give it that respect and let it stand on it’s own. In giving in to our reflex to reach for the easy win, we collapse the argument altogether, closing ourselves off to potentially important ideas and closing off our opponents to ours. In an argument with someone close that can mean fostering bitterness and resentment and shutting down communication. In political debate, it means destroying dialogue, fostering hatred and division and closing off the path to compromise and progress.

When you find an ad hominem attack or lazy label on the edge of your tongue, consider that you may have lost your way in the argument — you might just be wrong. Take pride in forming considered arguments that don’t require shortcuts and empty victories. (Hint: That sometimes means admitting you were wrong and learning from it.)



Arguing the 'value' of art

“It's bad because the lyrics are dumb!”

We are social creatures, evolved to thrive in packs and tribes. That part of our evolutionary backstory gives us a deep desire for consensus that drives us to either conform or urge those around us to follow. It works well in so many ways and underpins deep bonds of friendship and group loyalty but it also plays a part in potent, sometimes vicious and violent group rivalries. We’re all familiar with the worst of those but this kind of behaviour isn’t limited to tribal warfare or football hooliganism, it shows up everywhere. One of the more trivial but nonetheless irritating results is our common tendency to argue the ‘value’ of art.

We’ve all done it — throwing up arguments about why this movie is better than that movie or the music that we like is genius and the music they like is trash. We all have our own taste when it comes to art and none of us can honestly understand all of the ways that our own taste is shaped, just as we all react differently to flavours in food without knowing exactly why. But we tend to treat artistic and aesthetic judgement differently from our taste in food. We more commonly find ourselves rationalising over the objective value of one artistic product over another, reaching for sound explanations for why Artist A is making high-brow, genre-defining, world changing stuff and Artist B is damaging society or purposely churning out garbage for financial reward.

“When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgement, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons… You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense”

Johnathan Haidt, the Happiness Hypothesis.

Artistic taste carries more weight than whether we prefer sour flavours more or salty ones. And that’s likely because it becomes interwoven with group identity. Just as we unite with others over shared enjoyment of a particular genre of music for example, we drive a wedge between ourselves and the other over our difference in opinion. It’s easy to find ourselves associating a particular art form with a particular group, and if we don’t identify with that group, if they are the out-group, it’s in our nature to attack their integrity and put ourselves above them. And it makes us behave in bizarre ways.

Imagine arguing with someone over whether apples or bananas are ‘better’. Maybe you picture this being a bit of fun or mostly tongue in cheek but imagine you are deadly serious. Neither of you is willing to accept that it's just a matter of tastebuds stimulated in different ways and you fight hard to reach an 'objective' truth. “Bananas are for kids!”, ,"They’re immature and simplistic!”, “It’s clear that more intelligent people like apples”. It’s laughable but swap out the fruit for music, movies, literature or theatre and it’s commonplace. Have you ever reasoned that you don’t like a song because the lyrics are dumb? If so, I’ll bet there’s another song out there that you do like, with equally simple, silly or odd lyrics. It isn’t about the lyrics.

This isn’t to say that there’s no place for criticism or review of art but stop implying value or objective truth. And whilst you’re at it, stop allowing yourself to be turned away from art because of its social connotations. Maybe there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to like that song because of the group you associate it with. The tribal part of you draws a line between your group and their group and resists any cross-over. But allowing yourself to like a song doesn’t say anything about you or tie you to a group. And the same goes for everyone else. You aren’t stupid/simple/sophisticated/ignorant/intelligent because you prefer bananas to apples, and to suggest otherwise is absurd.

We don’t know why we react to art the way we do and aesthetic judgement is primarily visceral — we feel it. If a piece of art has an effect on you, great, if not, too bad. Talk about it, it can be enjoyable and educational to figure out why it might have moved you or why it fell flat. But don’t demand anyone else feel the same way and don’t put your taste on a pedestal over anyone else’s. You didn’t choose your true taste, just as you didn’t choose your height. To shun your honest preferences in favour of more socially desirable ones is to embrace dishonesty and pretence. Open yourself up to art without social bias, be honest and free, and embrace subjectivity, you might just find a whole world of new content to enjoy.



Closing yourself off to opposing views

“I know what she’s gonna say already, I don’t need to hear it”

Try this exercise: Think about an issue on which you have strong opinions and write 5 bullet points that sum up the key arguments from your side of the debate. Now do the same for the other side of the debate. 'Strong man' the opposing arguments — make as solid a case for them as possible, as if you are a lawyer defending them in court. Did you struggle to keep the first list concise, fighting to avoid the temptation to go into great detail? And what about he second list, did you struggle to find 5 points at all? Did you stray into a straw man approach to the opposing views?

We have a tendency to instinctively avoid views that oppose our own. It’s not only unappealing to spend time listening to and reading opposing ideas, it can actually be difficult to summon the will power to do so. A 2017 study gave 200 participants two options — they could read and answer follow up questions about an opinion that they agreed with (on the topic of same-sex marriage), or read opposing viewpoints. In return for reading opinions they agreed with, participants would be entered into a raffle to win $7. If they were to read the opposing views though, they would be entered into a raffle to win $10. The workload would be the same for both sets of opinions and so the $10 raffle was clearly the stronger incentive. Regardless of that, 63% of participants chose to forego the larger potential prize in favour of reading views that aligned with their own. A majority of people were happy to take less money in order to avoid coming in to contact with opposing views.

Before you surmise that those people were most likely from the other side of the political spectrum — the ignorant crowd — consider that the study sample consisted of a balanced number of participants from across the spectrum, and found no significant difference between liberals and conservatives. This kind of behaviour isn't exclusive to any one group, it is part of the human condition. Given the choice, it’s in our nature to actively avoid coming into contact with opposing viewpoints. And when we summon the self-awareness to honestly examine our own instincts, it can actually be alarmingly easy to discover the strange, visceral biases that force us away from conflicting ideas and toward confirmation of what we already believe.

Consider listening to a popular and perhaps ‘controversial’ political commentator, news outlet or politician, that you understand to be on the other side of the political spectrum and notice your reluctance to commit. Given an alternative that aligns with your view, you will feel a strong pull toward the comfort of having your own biases confirmed. That instinct salters us from cognitive dissonance, the state of holding inconsistent ideas and in doing so it perpetuates tribalism and fuels ever-growing echo chambers. And most importantly, it undermines the strength of your stance on any particular topic, because without knowing and understanding all of the information and counter arguments, you can’t expect to have a truly sound opinion.

In a polarised culture, distorted by internet memes, click bait and twitter, it’s remarkably easy to form opinions about people and their ideas without ever truly coming in to contact with them. When we find the courage and resolve to open ourselves up to potentially opposing ideas, we often find them far less controversial or extreme as they are portrayed, and the people delivering them far more human. Escaping echo chambers and the dehumanising tribalism that comes with them can be both liberating and enlightening and if we don’t find anything of value, at least we know we gave it an honest effort. Stop closing yourself off to opposing viewpoints and discover a world of ideas and humanity beyond the echo chamber.



Assuming malice and pure evil

“He must be a selfish asshole!”

When someone skips a queue at our expense we immediately jump to malice as the explanation — that person MUST be a selfish, ignorant asshole, out to inflict suffering on others. It’s not in our nature to instantly consider the other possible justifications for an action that appears to damage ourselves or our group. We have a tendency to believe in this mythical force known as evil and consider it a motivating force for action. Movies, literature and comic books are filled with villainous characters who carry out atrocities for the sake of evil itself. But pure evil is a myth — no one acts purely with a desire to be evil and in most cases perpetrators of harmful acts don’t believe that what they are doing is evil.

That’s not to say evil acts don’t exist, they absolutely do. Discrimination, persecution, violence, theft and deceit are all evil, but we don’t indulge in them for their own sake or for the sake of being evil, we do them when we lose control of our emotions or we're under overwhelming pressure. We do them when our competitive instincts get the better of us or we’re downtrodden or fighting against a formidable enemy. We all experience these things and although they aren’t excusable, they are understandable and we should extend others the same margin for error as we give ourselves and our allies. The first part of that is avoiding the temptation to immediately assume malice or bad faith.

"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity” 

Hanlon's Razor

We quickly jump to evil, selfishness and ignorance as explanation for the opinions and actions of our enemies, or anyone we identify as the ‘other’. But in assuming malevolence we fail to understand what really motivates these people. Perhaps the person cutting in line has a high-pressure deadline that he can’t afford to miss. The person who was short with you in the restaurant has had a really long day and received some bad news. The politician signing that bill you hate truly believes it will do good and has a different perspective to you. They aren’t evil and they aren’t out to intentionally hurt, they are under pressure and failing to be perfect or approaching the situation from an angle you can’t immediately fathom. We all fail to be perfect and the only way we reach for both personal and collective perfection is to understand what it is to be human, allow reasonable room for error and learn from it. Never attribute to malice, that which can be adequately explained by human nature, life and all of its complications.


So What?

Imagine a disease of the brain that deformed the personality, made the sufferer irritable and petty, argumentative and viciously competitive regardless of the situation or implication. One of the most potent symptoms of the disease is denial of the disease itself and unwavering scepticism of any offered cure. Now imagine that the only cure requires consistent dedication and effort and it’s safe to assume that our imaginary disease would be incredibly difficult to cure in the majority of cases.

Unchecked instincts, egotistical behaviour and unconscious thought processes riddle our lives with these symptoms — our nature is the disease. We fight over inconsequential nonsense and refuse to back down, even if it means destroying relationships. We allow ourselves to be triggered, angry, vengeful and envious when we could instead choose grace and equanimity. We harbour and cultivate stress, damaging our health and consuming time and energy that could otherwise be directed towards enjoyment or positive challenge. And we work hard to justify all of the above by forming arguments that sound meaningful, justifying actions and thought processes that we never chose.

The first step to improvement is spotting the symptoms for what they are. Find the behaviours listed in this article in your own life and examine them honestly. Once you see them notice the denial as it surfaces and discard it. We need not feel guilt for instincts we do not choose or create but the moment we allow ourselves to justify and defend them, we own them. And so there’s liberation in the mastery of our nature. When we learn to slow down and notice our mind at work we develop the ability to choose when to respect our instincts and when to overcome them. In overcoming them we treat the disease and relieve the symptoms and all of the pain, stress and discontent that they create, for ourselves and those around us.

Catch yourself in the act, I dare you.