Traffic sucks. You’re plodding along and get to an intersection. On the other side of the road, you notice a car in a place that isn’t ideal. The flashers are on, and the person is getting out, looking distraught. You look back to see your light is green, and you proceed forward. Eight seconds is all it takes for our attention to wane as we focus on the next task or situation. What would it take for us to not lose attention and choose to help this random stranger? Maybe we never would, maybe we would only if it was a more extreme circumstance.
Memory and Attention
There are tons of things that can happen in our minds in eight seconds, from feeling any emotion under the sun to predictions and assessments of events we are witnessing through all of our senses. We can listen to music, drive a car, talk on the phone, avoid pedestrians, and analyze a distraught driver instantaneously, all in well under eight seconds. The number of things we are juggling at any given second is immense, even if we don’t always realize it.
It doesn’t help that short-term memory alone can be as small as 15 seconds, and based on YouTube and social media statistics, people tend to move on in a mere five seconds. It makes intuitive sense then that if we don’t focus on something, we could lose it completely very quickly. Add in the various things we are juggling, and it can be as hard as memorizing a phone number with one look, we just can’t hold too much at once. When we actually want to remember something, we need to hold our attention longer until it gets stored more permanently.
The decision to hold our attention and keep something in focus occurs automatically in a very dynamic cycle. The details of what happens in the brain is for the neuroscientists to answer. But there tends to be a cycle of attention alternating between priorities based on what we want, what our body/subconscious wants, and based on anything that stands out (like a loud noise, for example). If we don’t choose one way or another, the subconscious seems to choose for us.
The Optimal Subconscious Decision
In our scenario, we saw a distraught driver pulled over. We were at a light, and they were on the opposite side of the road. In our quick assessment, it didn’t appear that the person was in immediate danger. Since the car was on the opposite side of the road, we would have to do a U-turn and turn around, and we were sure that someone would eventually help. The driver was a male that didn’t seem like a threat, but strangers are strangers after all, so there should always be some level of caution. It wasn’t extreme conditions, and there was a service station within a mile. We aren’t usually consciously thinking of all these details, but our subconscious mind will serve us the options based on its quick assessment. What choices do we make?
In an instant, unless we have a good reason not to, whatever is the easiest, less-risky option would be the choice our subconscious would serve up, and we probably wouldn’t override that choice. We know that we could spend an eternity helping others and never get to our own problems if we don’t have some filter. To make matters even more difficult, maybe we have a myriad of emotions that are bubbling up as well. Maybe we are late for an important meeting, or maybe we just got into an argument with someone. The subconscious crunches all these variables to serve up the optimal choice.
What if, despite all that, even though it doesn’t make sense, we still want to make a particular choice? When we override what the subconscious serves up, we are going against all the normal options, all the feelings and emotions. We push to do something that most of our mind is made up not to do.
Famous studies on delayed gratification and studies on ‘decision making’ in general allude to the existence of something that takes up our mental strength. If we really want ice cream but we decide not to get ice cream, we are using mental strength to do so. Subsequent decisions and choices can continue to degrade this mental strength until we simply have none left. This mental strength to make choices and decide against what we want is willpower. Yet, it’s peculiar that ‘what we want’ would take willpower at all, right? It seems that what we want based on our past experiences and choices (subconsciously), isn’t necessarily what we want here and now (consciously). Whenever there is conflict that needs resolution before taking action, we seem to be using up mental strength or willpower to do so.
Why exactly something takes more or less willpower is, of course, unknown; however, it seems reasonable that the less we have to deliberate , think and de-conflict, the less willpower we need to use. As a simple example, imagine having to choose a meal from 10 unknown never-tasted-before foods. Taking the time to process all of them and make a choice would take longer and likely spend more mental energy than just flipping a coin.
If we override our optimal choices consistently, then the trend of those choices could become the new optimal choice, reducing our need for willpower. If we reduce the need for willpower, we can save it for when it matters instead of using it for not eating ice cream.
Despite those who feel we shouldn’t depend on willpower, it isn’t that we should or shouldn’t; it’s just that sometimes, we must. If we always listened to what our subconscious minds provide us, it would be like a permanent autopilot that would never be overridden. What would make us any different than a robot at that point? It’s not reasonable to have a perfect solution for every life situation, but what if we gave ourselves a checklist?
What we are looking for is for our autopilot to do everything that we don’t want to have to think about, and if we want, we can override it at will. In an airplane, the pilot sets autopilot to take care of the details that have to be adjusted constantly, like the rudders for wind, speed, and general direction, so they can focus on more holistic problems like anticipated turbulence, sensors, or equipment failures and various other issues.
What if handling those holistic problems is difficult though? What if those problems require several steps or things to keep in mind? Pilots use a series of checklists to manage their tasks to make sure they remember what they should do or keep in mind. This is what we can establish for ourselves to help us take a load off of our willpower and make better thought-out decisions without spending as much time and effort thinking about them. We can’t address all of life’s nuances, so we need a checklist for our character as a whole.
Character Baselines (The Personal Code)
When we make quick decisions based on what our subconscious thinks is best, depending on how we’ve gone through life, our default decisions could seem pretty selfish. It’s not that we are intentionally selfish; it’s just that we aren’t thinking about it, and we have nothing preparing us for what to do. In the case of our initial scenario of a random stranger stuck on the side of the road, we weren’t prepared to make a decision about it, so we just moved on. It is no different with the myriad of day-to-day encounters that we can’t fully anticipate: when to engage with someone who is argumentative, how to react when we are cut off, whether to tell a friend we don’t like something they did, what to do when we’re in a group that is doing things we don’t agree with.
We all have natural affinities toward things like being more or less likely to do what the rest of a group is doing or more or less likely to engage with an argumentative person. But, what is interesting is that we aren’t always consistent unless we knowingly establish what we want to do or what we hold important. For instance, in the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, he speaks of studies involving students being tested for their affinity to cheat. The test allowed students to grade their own tests and turn them in themselves. It was found that most students, by default, would cheat provided a simple, unintrusive, easy option. However, it was also found that those who were required to recite the Ten Commandments before taking the test didn’t tend to cheat. Similar studies using ‘agreements’ to not cheat worked as well. The mere reminder of a moral code changed the outcomes significantly every time.
Our tendency to ‘drift’ into fudging a test a little is no different than everyday life choices from skipping that workout to being rude to someone around us. We have to constantly remind ourselves about a code that we want to live by. It’s the reason the Girl and Boy Scouts have Scout’s Law, and the military has core values like ‘Honor, Courage, and Commitment.’ They are there to be a reminder of a standard that they want the members to hold themselves to.
This is the essence of character baselines; they are the ‘baseline’, a minimum standard we hold ourselves to. The only difference is that character baselines are tailored for ourselves. They are what we truly want for ourselves, not necessarily morals but our own personal code that helps drive everything we do. What is it that is most important for us to live by, to be reminded of day in and day out?
Too Much, Too Perfect
The fact that we have religion and various groups providing morals and values like ‘have integrity’ and such is fine and dandy. But for some reason, many of us aren’t living completely by these teachings, even if we are a member of these groups. There’s limited evidence suggesting one way or another, but there’s a good chance at least part of the reason is because it’s either too much or too perfect. We can’t live by a code that says don’t have sex when we want to have sex. We can’t live by a code saying ‘be obedient’ when we don’t agree with whatever it is someone is trying to get us to do.
Morals and right or wrong aside, the point is that often, we are going to break rules and codes that are too much or too perfect. Since that’s the case, why not build some rules for things we can agree to? Why not find things that we really do want to live by that we can actually hold ourselves to, not because we feel required to or pressured to, but because we genuinely want to?
Having a personal code may seem trivial, but don’t forget the study on the cheating students. All it takes is a reminder, and we act differently than we would without the reminder. Create baselines that are meaningful to you and you alone and remind yourself every day. Keep them in your purse or wallet, on your computer background, on your desk, or wherever you need to remember and live by them. They will make it easier to navigate life, giving our precious willpower a break. So, the next time you have eight seconds to make a choice, whether it’s to cheat on a test, help someone on the side of the road, or eat ice cream, make sure you follow your own code.