Being Human: An Owner’s Manual

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion. – Dale Carnegie

Why do human beings do what they do? There are entire fields of study dedicated to answering this age-old question. Most of what drives the world is a net result of individual actions people have taken. Understanding why people do what they do (including you), will help you understand why the world works as it does, and provide opportunities to improve yourself, build and maintain relationships, and potentially lead to new and exciting places. 

Consider the following models of how humans work as a starter kit on your journey.

The Simplest Human Model

The most basic model simply says: Humans move towards pleasure and away from pain (“the carrot and the stick” theory of motivation). When both are present, pain avoidance tends to be the stronger motivator.

The 6 Human Needs Model

Tony Robbins’ interesting model identifies 6 human needs that everyone has in common. In this model, all behavior is simply an attempt to meet these 6 needs:

  1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
  2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, and new stimuli
  3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special, or needed
  4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
  5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability, or understanding
  6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, supporting, and giving to others

While people need all 6, most individuals will have 2 that dominate their behavior. The last two – growth and contribution – have a unique place in the model as he believes they are the keys to having a fulfilling life. Are they one of your top 2?

System 1 vs System 2

Once you have a basic understanding of what drives individuals, the next step is to figure out how people, including yourself, process information. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes a 2-tier system of mental processing, which is a little more complicated, but worth understanding.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. We use this system to detect that one object is more distant than another, orient to the source of a sudden sound, or answer routine questions (“What is 2+2?”).

System 2 turns on for specific demanding mental activites, including solving complex computations (“What is 17 x 24?”) and making “big” choices. We use System 2 when we maintain a faster walking speed than normal or count the occurrences of the letter “a” on a page of text.

Think of System 1 as associated with skills, knowledge or habits. When a skilled response is available, that process automatically starts. So if no skill, knowledge, or habit is available, then you might assume that  System 2 automatically kicks in. It turns out that is not quite how it works.

It is rare for System 1 to not have an answer. When searching for the answer to a question, it simultaneously generates answers to related (and often easier) questions and offers these up as answers. For example, when asked “How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?”, System 1 might actually answer the easier question “How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?”

The problem? There is no simple way for System 2 to distinguish between a skilled (accurate) answer and a hueristic (guesstimate) one. System 1 answers can be “endorsed” with minimal checking, which is how it gets a bad reputation as a source for errors. You can see this in the classic “bat and ball” question:

  • A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

What was the first answer that came to mind? For most people, it was 10 cents. Think about it for a minute (by using System 2) and you’ll see why that is wrong.

Once you understand the basic differences, there are techniques you can use to improve how your brain handles everyday life.

Take the Muller-Lyer illusion:

If you’ve never seen it, you might think the lines are different lengths. If you have, you “know” they are the same length meaning you’ve trained System 1 to give the correct answer (if you still can’t see it, move a standard object such as your finger between the two). You can also set rules for System 1 to follow. A simple example in the world of finance is to “always take the highest insurance deductible”. 

While they are not perfect, if you spend time thinking about these models, you can begin to understand, and ultimately predict likely behavior for yourself and others, which will be a critical skill in getting what you want in life (of course, that’s after you figure out what that is). 

3rd Piece of Advice: Unlike reality, think of humans as often predictable in ways that you can learn.

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further:

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