Conscious Choices v. Convenience
As we all come to rely on searching the internet for any information we want about anything – news, cultural and sports events, business tips, health remedies – we may notice the paradox of 15 search results in .01 seconds, yet those results becoming narrowed by the algorithms that drive them. Based on our preferences from past searches, to be sure, but we may still notice a constriction in options where our past choices shape – and narrow – the number of new choices presented to us.
Somewhat analogous to how our brains respond to challenges and difficulties resiliently – keeping options open and shifting coping strategies as we need to – or out of habits based on past experiences, those habits often deeply embedded in our neural circuitry; we may not even be aware that we have other choices.
We may not care. Algorithms can be pretty accurate, based on all the data tech engines have gathered about our preferences from previous searches, and they certainly save us a lot of time. Likewise, our habits of coping do save us time, often in a precious nick of time, yet we can groove those responses more deeply into our neural circuitry with repetition over time, again not becoming aware of other possibilities.
In both our conscious surfing the internet and our unconscious quick responses to life unfolding minute by minute, we may be trading conscious decision making for the convenience of quicker but fewer options.
The bottom line is: when we search for anything on the internet and when we quickly see 3 or 5 options on our screens, we may unwittingly think those are the only or best options available. In truth, we’re being presented quickly with a narrow range of what’s available, based on someone else’s data crunching about our past choices. We may be missing out on different choices, perhaps more ‘out of the box’ choices closer to what we are actually looking for at that moment. And we may not register in our awareness that we are missing out; it’s so quick, convenient, and maybe easier to not have so many choices to choose from.
Likewise, when we respond to any situation in the moment, it may seem more convenient to rely on the tried and true of the past (hopefully those choices did truly work in the past) than to spend the time searching our own internal data base for other options and possibilities; we may choose convenience over the dilemma of more options in our coping strategies, too.
It’s worth remembering:
People who are resilient tend to be flexible – flexible in the way they think about challenges and flexible in the way they react emotionally to stress. They are not wedded to a specific style of coping. Instead, they shift from one coping strategy to another, depending on the circumstances.
– Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven Southwick, M.D., Dennis Charney, M.D.
You can listen to Sam Harris’ insightful podcast with Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist at Google, now founder of the Center for Human Technology, exploring What Is Technology Doing to Us?, including the costs to our well-being when we trade conscious choices for convenience.
You can practice the exercise below to strengthen capacities in your pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s CEO of resilience, to keep options open when facing a difficult situation.
Exercise: Using Reflection by the Observing Ego to Formulate Wise Choices
1. Identify a particular problem in your life that seems unresolvable or remains unsolved to date:
– an insurance claim, from being rear-ended six months ago, hasn’t been resolved, no compensation has been paid yet;
– a divorcing spouse is refusing to cooperate in scheduled mediation sessions;
– management hasn’t yet replaced the co-worker who transferred to another division in the company two months ago; you’re over-swamped with work.
2. Put on your “observer” hat. Become aware of whatever you’re experiencing in this moment as you reflect on the problem. Notice the thoughts, feelings, body sensations you are sitting with, without become hijacked by them. Come into a mode of objective observation: I notice I’m thinking this; I notice I’m assuming that; I realize I forgot to ask about this; I don’t even want to think about that.
3. As you observe your own process of trying to solve the problem, ask yourself “What story am I believing now?” About yourself, about the situation, about others in the situation. Asking the question doesn’t necessarily lead to an answer immediately, but it could lead to new observations, new questions. It’s meant to help us develop the capacity to look again, to see new perspectives, new options, without triggering us back into agitation about the problem.
4. Take a moment to reflect on what you’ve noticed about your patterns of thinking, feeling, dealing and relating. Note that you are doing an exercise to strengthen your pre-frontal cortex to do its job of observing patterns, becoming more self-aware, which will allow you to create options to respond more flexibly.