Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hacking Your Mental Goal System

"Accomplishing" a "goal" feels good no matter how absurd or arbitrary the goal. This is a strange mental illusion. Try this experiment:

Say to yourself -- either out loud or mentally -- in your best this-is-really-important voice, "TO DO: avoid being attacked by a ninja for the next 1 minute!" Make a mental picture of putting that on a to-do list.

Then wait about 1 minute.

Then say to yourself, "I did it! Great job!" and make a mental picture of crossing that goal off the to-do list.

Even though you know this is ridiculous and only a trick, you will still feel (to some degree) a pleasant sense of accomplishment. It is kind of like seeing an optical illusion or mirage even though you know what it really is.

Then try the opposite. Say to yourself in the same serious voice, "TO DO: find a real unicorn in the next one minute!" Make a mental picture of adding it to the to-do list. Wait one minute. Then say to yourself in a sad way, "Oh, no . . . I failed . . . I wasn't able to accomplish that."
Make a mental picture of the goal still being on the list, unresolved.

Even though you know this is also ridiculous and only a trick, you will still feel a vague sense of disappointment.

Somehow, the part of our minds that feels good about accomplishing a goal or bad about failing is not very well connected to the part that understands whether the goal makes any sense.


Foobario said...

A 'vague sense of disappointment'?

I was bloody devastated when I couldn't find the unicorn. I mean, I was so good at the ninja thing! I did it 5 times! But I failed miserably on my unicorn search and now here I sit, sans unicorn, waiting for the ninja to attack.

Starbuck said...

You need to fill your tasklist up with easy ninja-related tasks, then... drown out the unicorns...

Peter said...

I'm halfway up the ladder that I later find is leaning against the wrong wall . . . You describe the most difficult trap I think our civilization lays for us.