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The Reasons Why We Do What We Want

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Why did you buy this book? Did someone make you do it or coerce you into buying it? No. You bought this book because you chose to. You wanted to. And I’m glad you did!At some point in our lives, we often wonder or ask ourselves, “Why do people do what they do? Why did he break my heart? Why did she not keep her promise? Why did they reject my job application? Why do I choose to avoid going to the gym?” The list of questions go on. And each and every time such questions arise, irrespective of the context, part of the reason remains constant—because I/you/he/she/they/it – wanted to.

For us to do anything, it is inevitable to first want to do it. For instance, why do we eat? Because we get hungry. When we satisfy our hunger, our body gets physical nourishment and our minds get mental satisfaction. Notice how the entire process is a chain of different wants motivating each other. And that behind every motivation there is a benefit, which in this case means physical and emotional rewards. The want to eat is being motivated by the want to satisfy our hunger, which in turn is preceded by the want to obtain energy for the body to function, which is further preceded by the want for sustenance.

Why are we looking for benefits to begin with? Apply the same deduction mentioned above here. We are looking for benefit because we want to and the fulfilment of ‘that want’ needs motivation which will spur from an expectancy of a beneficial outcome. So, in essence, it is beneficial for us to look for beneficial motives. But why do all motives have to be beneficial; where do those motives come from? The answer can be explained using the concept of ‘drives’. In psychology, a drive is an ‘excitatory state produced by a homeostatic disturbance’, an instinctual need that has the power of driving the behaviour of an individual, impelling them into activity to procure a reward that would reduce the drive and satisfy its related physiological need and reattain homeostasis. Therefore, anything that prevents homeostatic disturbance is beneficial to us. And this motivates us into wanting to find ways to fulfil our needs. Psychologists also distinguish between primary drives which are are innate (e.g. thirst, hunger, and sex), and secondary drives which are learned through conditioning (e.g. money, drug addiction). Primary drives can only be fulfilled if we know what to do in order to fulfil them. We are not hard wired to look for water, we are hardwired to quench our thirst. And in the process of procuring a reward that would reduce the drive and satisfy its related physiological need, we learnt that water is the solution. Moreover, we have to be right about the solution with repeated use and exact results because our life depends on it.

Now, when I say beneficial, it is subjective, depending on what people think is beneficial for themselves as per their comprehension of what they think and find as physically and emotionally rewarding. For example, cigarettes, drugs or alcohol are in no way beneficial to our health. However for people consuming them, they experience a rush of neurotransmitters in their brain’s reward system. Such that they get addicted to them with continued usage. When someone quits smoking or drugs, the craving stays. It takes time, persistence and perseverance to withdraw. In the meantime, our body suffers from withdrawal symptoms which continue for quite some time, during which we are drawn to think that it’s beneficial for us if we retake those drugs again. And that would make our brain really happy. Thus many relapses happen with people giving in to the temptation, even though doing the opposite is much more beneficial health wise and for the long run. This here is a lapse of judgement. The body wants what it wants. It’s comprehension of what is beneficial and non-beneficial is highly clouded and they are most likely to side with the non-beneficial, for quick and temporary satisfaction.

Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, states that ‘When people think of the outcomes of their decisions, they think much more short term than that. They think in terms of gains and losses”. Simply put, to us, “gain” mean pleasure and “loss” means pain. Further more, pain is caused due to homeostatic disturbance and pleasure is the continuation of homeostasis. Staying true to our nature whatever feels pleasurable we always want more of it! Why do we do so? To get a more comprehensive understanding let’s look into: Freud’s “pleasure principle” which states that we do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. And ‘reality principle’ which basically limits our range of options to choose from to attain that feat. This is similar to “loss aversion” commonly used in Economics, also popular in Cognitive Psychology and Decision Theory, which refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Studies have shown that the pain of loss is felt almost twice as strong as the reward from a gain. That is to say, it is better to not lose $10 than to find $10. In simple words, we would do more to avoid a homeostatic disturbance in the first place than retain it back. And being right about wwhat to do in order to achieve that is necessary to ensure continued avoidance of disturbance. That is how we evolved. Because the wrong choice can be fatal. That is to say that if we eat poisoned mushrooms to because we were hungry and not knowing it was poisoned, can kill us. And that trait stays with us.

Pain and pleasure both are subject to limitations of our mental library, and the created perspective about it in our heads because of it. Our mental libraries are what we ‘know’! It is the sum total of all the knowledge we have gained and are acquiring through what we read, see, hear, our interactions with the world around us. To put it differently, it is our mental hard drive, where we retain information in form of memories. This ‘created perspective’ is our interpretation of the incoming data after being filter by our mental library and how much information have been able to recall at a given moment in time. Careful with memories though, for they are tricky things. Unless you’re hyperthymesic, you are just like the rest of us. Our memories are unreliable. We have all come to realise this at some point in out lives of how memories can change the shape of a room, colour of a car, face of an old acquaintance, etc. Our memories can be distorted, for they are just an interpretation. They are not a factual record. They are forgettable and become obsolete without continued repetition. We have all had our memories fail us in tests when we skip revision. And their elusive nature is frequently seen in dreams where our day to day memories get twisted and something just doesn’t add up, even if overall it looks about right. Also, because of memories being unreliable eye-witness testimonies are the worst form of facts and other methods have been evolved over the years. Yet we continue to rely on our memories very often. Why? Because it’s easier for most people to just remember than keep a statistical record. Also to remember is the fact that memories are heavily biased, they are not factual. Depending on how we feel, were feeling, will feel in the future, our memories get coloured by the hues of our emotional state, from whence they were created to whenever they will be recalled. Which is why often in a fight between friends both sides have contrasting stories of what happened: who did what, who neglected who, and how. So then whose version is the right one? For the most part you and I can’t really know unless we dig past the biases. And to each of them what they think they went through or felt, or how things unraveled are the facts. And in their minds and memories their version of the event are justified!

The meanings of pleasure and pain are in themselves subjective. Some things might be painful or pleasurable only to certain people. That is to say, serial killers get pleasure by killing their victims. You get the point!

Now how do we go about choosing the ‘most beneficial angle’ to gain pleasure and avoid pain? There are an infinite number of choices and beneficial angles that coexist at the same time. And we simply go for the ‘most’ beneficial of them all, which we perceive as worth the effort, at that particular moment in time! Before we choose to act towards a particular outcome, we quickly calculate based on loss aversion, pleasure principle, benefits, motivations, etc. For instance, we need to do something to fix our homeostatic disturbance caused by boredom. There are plenty of choices at our disposal at the given moment in time when we are bored. We can want to read a book, play a game, watch a movie, do the laundry, go grocery shopping, have a cup of tea, call a friend, etc. And there are individual beneficial outcomes of each activity for us. For one, they all will help kill boredom. Now comes the part where we choose from among them, the one worth putting our effort into. Deepak Chopra’s succinct statement: “in every moment of our existence, we are in that field of infinite possibilities where we have access to an infinity”, helps us understand this phenomenon better. When simply making the choice of which form of escape we want to opt for, based on varied pre-mentioned factors. Every moment of our lives thus require us to make such choices. When we are making a decision and acting upon it, we are ‘prioritising’ one particular action or choice above all else which we have concluded to be important enough to put our effort into.

Us humans look for palliative remedies more than we look for a cure. Why? Because it allows us to avoid pain quicker. Escaping pain at all times is more beneficial to us than experiencing pain because of the time needed to recover. Since we are aware of the availability of a chance or a choice always that enables us to avoid discomfort caused by pain altogether. Hence we act according to the saying prevention is better than cure! Most of us are thus in the habit of popping pills to instantly relief ourselves of migraines, head aches, etc. Such decisions are also influenced by how much importance we assign to any work. Hence, we make relative choices based on our comprehension of the most beneficial angle among various choices at our disposal. And this choice has very little to do with the results we finally get. What I’m saying here is that we all want to be right in our calculations about the conclusions or outcomes of our actions. It’s like I said before, we need to be right about what solutions to find in order to fix homeostatic disrturbance because the wrong one will most certainly prove fatal. There are many instances in our personal lives when what we thought to be beneficial proved otherwise. Yet, we justify it to ourselves and consequently to others, as to why it is the most beneficial course of action, because we have already made a decision. That is how we evolved. The process remains the same, it is our ignorance that’s faulty. What we do after that is simply ‘justification’.

For example, you just made yourself a cup of tea. Now you decide the next most beneficial activity is to play a video game while you sip your tea. As a side note remember: humans are poor multitaskers. Yet, who cares? Anywho, you pick the cup up and play the game at the same time. Not the best of decisions, based on the outcome. For the cup slips! And you were bare foot! What would you do? Your decision and reaction by default would be to choose avoiding the pain that can be caused by the hot tea. Technically to continuing playing the game which is also an option, just not the most beneficial move at the moment. So, regardless of how much pleasure you were getting from the game, you decide to attend to your current physical discomfort. For your foot has started to send signals to the brain which then activates its fight or flight mode to first get rid of the danger. Removing the danger is of outmost importance at that moment. All this of course happens at a subconscious level and much of it as reflex.

Alternately, what would a person who cannot experience pain do? Yes, there is a medical condition known as ‘Congenital Analgesia’, where the said person will be completely unaware even if a hot iron rod falls on their bare foot. He/she in the same situation will hence continue to gain pleasure playing the game even if their skin gets scalded by the tea. In fact, they won’t register a spillage has even occurred until they see it.

The more time we spend doing something we like, the more tolerance to the pleasure received from it (say, playing the video game) would increase. And the more they would want to continue at it. Once we feel pleasure, we keep wanting more of it. In between, when pain seems to be on the way, we try to put everything on pause. We first try to find a way to avoid or eradicate the pain. And then continue to enjoy pleasuring ourselves again. This process repeats on a loop.

Avoiding pain is what we can also call an “escape”, which we all desire in all forms and circumstances. It is ingrained in every decision we make. We can therefore say that everything we do is a form of escape! You may of course care to disagree. For there can be differing points of view. This happens to be my way of looking at our actions. Even the act of fulfilling our basic necessities in itself is an escape from having to experience pain due to unfulfillment. The very act of survival is basically an escape from death! At the same time, us choosing the most beneficial outcome is done in order to avoid or rather evading a particular pain among all the other pains which seem bearable in comparison. Optimally and idealistically we would like to rid ourselves of all possible pains entirely! Realistically, we choose to pursue a course of action because it allows us to avoid more pain than if we choose any of the other courses of action. It’s always a matter of what we are willing to suffer for.

Let’s take for instance the poem, “The Night of the Scorpion”, where a mother chooses to get bitten, instead of allowing her child to get stung by a venomous scorpion. Why do you think she would do so? Here, for her, the pain of watching her child suffer is perceived more painful by the mother than getting bitten herself. She prioritises avoiding the pain of the first and chooses to bear the latter. This decision can vary in different versions of the same instance. She might choose to give into her extreme phobia of scorpions and is thus unable to save the child from getting stung. Here, she prioritises her fear. Whatever she decides to do, will clearly show us what her priorities were, how she perceived it and thus based her actions on it.

All that we do, we want to do it with the minimum amount of effort, with the most optimal results; based on our comprehension of varied concepts in our mental libraries. We do everything to fulfil our hardwired primal desires, even the outcomes we think of, are to satisfy them! The necessities are what keeps us alive, or ensures our survival. So, we prioritise based on these laws. Whatever priorities we have is based on necessity first and luxury later. For example, when our stomach is full, we are satiated, we can choose to think about or want to or decide to have sex. But if we are in a life-threatening situation and are dying out of hunger, sex would not be our first choice of action. At the same time we wouldn’t demand to be picky with what we want to eat. We won’t be looking for or demanding our usual favourites. Whatever is edible, which gets registered as food, we will take it and eat. Why? Because food is scarce, our options are limited, we know and we will prioritise. Here, our primitive instincts will motivate our actions. Even if there is a chance that we wouldn’t or don’t like the food, we know we don’t have the luxury to care or choose! We would rather eat the food easily accessible to us in the shortest amount of time with the minimum amount of effort than going out to get our favourite meal. Alternately, when we are comfortable at home on a lazy day, we can consider what to order to eat based on our liking of a food, our cravings etc.

When we go to a restaurant we either order what we know we like, or we try something new. The one we like we don’t perceive it as something that would disappoint us. We often hesitate to order something new because of the uncertainty involved with like or not liking that dish. We mostly prioritise the avoidance of a disappointing choice and choose to go with what think would not disappoint us – the safe bets as they say!

Given same resources and factors, we also get bored of having the same thing over and over again. There comes the time to make a choice and we calculate it accordingly. We don’t just randomly choose something new; even if it seems random, nothing ever is! However we choose: by “eenie menie”, flip of a coin, or taking our time – our mind has already decided what it thinks might be the best bet. Now, given more resources, you just have a higher chance of making that gamble. Some people might project this characteristic of trying out new things and have made it a part of their automated loop. This occurs because given their resources at their disposal, they are able to do so. A significant decrease in resources can make them abide by the same laws that govern others with similar amount of resources. It is everywhere, no matter who you are.

Similarly, in terms of food, we like certain ones and stay away from others. It is our taste buds that are playing a role here. What feels good on our taste buds are automatically deemed beneficial for us. Because they give us pleasure and we want to avoid eating food which does the opposite even if they are beneficial to our health. The sense of pleasure is so powerful: the more we feed it, the more it wants. Stop it and it makes us act like a stubborn child who wants to avoid going to school if he is deprived of his daily share of chocolate every morning. This is the shortcoming of the automatic brain. We have to take charge every once in a while. We have to condition our brain to create the kind of automated loop we want it to create.

In order to understand this better, let’s do a thought experiment: Let’s say a person has a gun pointed at you and he is blackmailing you to pick up a knife and stab your father; otherwise he is going to shoot you in the head. Now, unless you are Batman, you have two choices: you either accept and do what he says; or you reject. In both cases, you have to make a choice; you have already made a choice. And why would you make either of those choices? Just apply everything mentioned above and deduce this on your own!

You can choose to kill your father. Or you can choose to die. You can choose to say that in one situation you were forced to make the choice that you made. But in reality, in both the cases you were forced to decide upon a course of action and execute it while acknowledging the repercussions. The decision was completely on you. Here, the only place you were truly forced is to want to make the choice you did. Granted both of those choices would be acted upon out of fear and/or defiance. Nonetheless, you still wanted to execute those actions!

Now allow me to shift your focus from your wants to that of the blackmailer. What is he doing? Pointing a gun at you in order to ‘make you do what he wants you to do’. You would only lie to yourself if you choose to ignore the familiarity of the phrase. You can empathise with it, irrespective of who you are. It just so happens that we all want others to do what we want them to do, some way or the other. It gets registered in the subconscious early on in life that believing one can achieve everything all by themselves, is simply naive. Regardless of us accepting it on a conscious level, human beings are social animals. All that we have achieved till now, we have done it together. That is why the word ‘help’ exists. The important thing to remember here is that we are always going to require the assistance of others. And the very act of asking for assistance is us asking others to want to do what we want them to do.

There is always conflict of interests. In such endeavours one common obstacle is the conflict between what we want somebody to do, and what they want to do instead. Because let’s be clear we can only get someone to do something only if and when they want to do it. In this case, for assisting us. Same goes for the blackmailer in our above example, he is not just trying to make you do something. He is making ‘you want to do’ what ‘he wants you to do’. He is using blackmail as a means of persuasion.

But what about when we don’t want to blackmail people into getting things done our way? In such situations, it will be immensely beneficial if we know how to get the other person to want to do what we want them to do. And the process is a simple one. ‘Think of mutual benefits!’ Take into consideration why would you do something for someone unless you benefit from it in some way? It is basic human nature that the other person will want to benefit as well. Think of all our interactions as an opportunity for a business transaction, where both sides can be happy because it’s mutually beneficial. This way hard feelings, uncomfortable situations as well as deadly consequences can be avoided.

How do we achieve this? Let’s say that your friend has something that you want, if you think you can just ask for it without him getting any benefit and thinking that your friendship would go unaffected, you need to reconsider. Because over time if this method of exchange continues you will have trouble brewing. It is way more effective if you can indulge in a mutually beneficial exchange, for you will have higher chances success every time, upon repetition. Why? Both sides get something they want.

Let’s come back to the situation in hand where you are asking your friend for a favour. The first question you should really be asking is, why will he want to give it to you? What will be the motivation behind it and hence, the beneficial angle behind that motivation? Therefore, you either figure out as much as you can about the other person’s perception of the answers to the question. Or you can create his perception of those answers for him. How? Find out what it is that you have or can do for him in exchange for what you want. He has to feel happy while fulfilling his side of the bargain. He has to see it as beneficial in investing on you. By ‘investment’ I mean all of the resources that he would need to put at your disposal in order to fulfil his end of the bargain, such as his time, energy, money and so on. There is going to be effort from his side. So, making a conscious effort from your side to decrease the amount of mutual efforts or even creating an illusion of minimised effort can significantly increase your chances of getting things done. Thus, both sides win. In any case, the perception of benefits to his eyes should be greater than the effort put in. Such endeavours show that you pay attention and are aware of both your as well as his wants. This also shows you to be less self conceited, and though every human is self motivated, overtly seeming so is disliked by everyone else at a subconscious level.

Once your bargain is fulfilled. And the other party has seen the beneficial outcome in investing on you, they will be drawn to invest more. Why? You are giving them pleasure. With growing pleasure, their trust in you will grow. In turn, their efforts will increase as they will look for higher gains by dealing with you. It’s just like anything else that gives us pleasure, we are constantly drawn to want more. Statistically speaking, whenever we gain pleasure, our brain’s reward system gets flooded with neurotransmitters and it sets a bar, a “baseline” for that particular experience, this is also known as “tolerance”.

Anything lower than the baseline would not satisfy us. So we are constantly drawn to raise the bar by getting more out of that experience. Because simply put dissatisfaction is pain. It’s like smoking, it starts with one. After some time of consumption you are no longer satisfied with just once a day. So you increase your dosage as per your increased tolerance. Now you go for more than one and so on. The bars are set differently for different experiences. And it often happens that we try to make up for the dissatisfaction of one experience by doing something else. This is also known as “substitution.” For example, when a person is sexually dissatisfied, they will compensate for it by masturbating.

Let’s look back to the time when we were children. Remember how our parents made us want to do things they wanted us to do? “If you want this, do this first!”. We have all heard and thus used this line in our lifetimes. What is happening here? The parent using this line wants the child to do something which also makes him happy to want to do so because he has a reward coming. The reward is the benefit for the child from the child’s perspective. And the work done by the child is the benefit for the parent. Both sides are happy. Had the parent used an approach which seemed beneficial only from the parent’s perspective, the results of such an endeavour would not be so effective.

While thinking of mutual benefits and going about looking for ways to achieve the same remember what or how much you give back is upto you. Depending on your judgement of how likely it is to get you what you want. Instead, let’s focus on what’s important here – the approach! As for how to have better judgement and increase your likelihood of beneficial results, there’s more in the later chapters.

In the end, you may ask this question – ‘do these methods and approaches really work?’ My answer to that is – “it’s a balance of probability”. There is either a highly likely or less likely chance of something working out. When you consciously work on making it a habit, your skills will get better, which is definitely something you will benefit from. The experience of most people shows that you are more likely to change other people’s attitudes to getting things done your way using such principles. Mostly it depends on how crafty or artsy you can be. Like my partner said to me, I quote to you: “it is not how you say it rather what you say!” Took me quite a bit to understand it and much longer to be able to practice it. And I got desirable results to be sitting here writing this chapter for you to read, while he is dozing off. You and I can both say that he definitely tricked me into believing this is the most beneficial way of how I want to spend my weekend! We struck a bargain. So for one week I am free to do what I please. Book writing is tiring you all. This break is definitely mutually beneficial and much needed! 

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