Sometimes I read something that provokes the “Yes, THIS. This exactly.” response.
Today’s example: This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense
For the record, this is not about removing accountability from people. People must know the consequences of their actions, if for no other reason than feedback makes it possible to learn from a mistake. Experiencing the fallout of a bad decision is part of what helps me grow as a person – to be less selfish, and better able to deal with less than ideal conditions. Indeed, some people cannot cope with what most would consider mild stressors because they have never been permitted to own the responsibility for or consequences of their actions.
However, I also can’t learn from my mistakes if I have no time to mentally regroup and reflect. And what good is it to learn from my mistakes if I can see no other options? I think we cling so hard to this notion of “deserve”, because it makes us feel more comfortable when confronted with the suffering of another person.
Excessive stress makes it harder to make good decisions.
Under stress, I might make decisions which benefit me, but negatively impact everyone else. In this case, people might assume that I am not a very good person. Under stress, I might make decisions that are good for me in the moment, but extremely detrimental to me in the long run. In this case, people might assume that I am not a very smart person. Neither of these things is necessarily true. A person that is under extreme stress often cannot connect their actions to impact. They are overloaded with things constantly pulling their attention to the present moment.
The brain is a machine with limited resources.
The resources in your brain are limited, but also very flexible. In a given time period, you can use those resources to think about a few things deeply, or many more things shallowly.
In times of low stress, most of your resources are available to think through individual actions, and understand the long-reaching impact of your decisions. You can think about a candidate solution to a problem, consider how thoroughly it solves the problem and then consider the potential side-effects of that solution. Having considered the side effects, you can make a judgement call as to whether or not the consequences are acceptable. You can double check for another solution. If there are no better solutions, you can make a plan for how to handle the negative consequences. You can prepare.
In times of extreme stress – when you have many immediate things that are pressing for your attention with the same effective urgency – your brain draws back from its focused approach and begins a more breadth oriented approach. You alleviate the most pressing problems in the way that most immediately presents itself. Since you know that there are maybe a dozen other things that must be dealt with now, you can probably only account for obvious, short term consequences. You can’t really consider the consequences of any one action more than a couple of steps out, because you have already started reacting to the next thing that is happening now.
The brain is a machine that prioritizes based on immediacy.
The brain wants to deal with now first. It would actually prefer to only ever deal with now, but it contains a sophisticated modeling system called the imagination that generates “what if?” scenarios. Under ideal circumstances, this allows us to examine in detail every decision’s potential outcome before taking any action.
The main problem with this is that it only works when you don’t have something of a higher perceived immediacy to deal with.
For example, suppose you need to conserve water for some reason. You start making a schedule for how much you can use per day for what purpose. You feel a little thirsty, but you just had a ration, so you know you are fine and you do not act on the impulse to drink. You are very disciplined – right up until the point you notice your hands are on fire. In this case, your brain starts checking over its prioritization rules and sending the message “I know we don’t want to die of thirst, but it also seems kind of important to not be on fire. Executive decision time.” And before you even realize what you are doing, you have upended a container of precious potable fluid onto your now steaming meat stumps.
The brain does not like to go looking for trouble.
If I have found an action that reduces my stress now, and that action does not present any obvious problems, my brain is going to react like the lazy asshole it is, and say “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop. Right. There. We got the solution, why are you still mulling this over? If you keep thinking about this, then we have to . . . keep thinking about this. You are trying to figure out how your actions will impact tomorrow? What is that even? Is it code for ‘not my fucking problem’? Because that’s what it sounds like from in here.”
Your brain means well. It just wants to protect you. Only you. Specifically, only what it understands as you – and until it understands different, all that means is you, in your current state, right at this moment. Not the world. Not your family. Not your immediate surroundings. Not your future. You.
But if your brain can’t be bothered to look two goddamn minutes into the future for the sake of your continued well-being, what is it actually protecting?
It all comes down to feelings.
Strictly speaking, what your brain is protecting is your sense of well-being. Which is to say, how you feel about your situation, rather than the reality of it. Ideally, the two would be in sync, but for most of us, most of the time, it is not.
Why does it work this way? Because sometimes reality leaves you not feeling so good, and your brain is trying to maintain at least a balance between good and bad feelings. It is trying to reconcile all the data it has stored up in such a way that you are left feeling as good as possible. It likes pointing you to simple pleasures whenever it can – those go-to, low effort actions that promise to give a brief but certain good feeling. They don’t require work or stress or patience or any of that not-feeling-good bullshit that you are trying to get out from under. Simple pleasures get the job done.
Your brain can be convinced to put off feeling good for a little while – so long as it con be reasonably confident of a payoff, and isn’t made to feel too bad in the interim. But as soon as things start going south, it retreats back to the safety of what it knows and files the whole “delayed gratification” notion under “things which are probably bullshit”.
As your stress level rises – as the problems pile on and you become more and more uncertain as to what you need to do to fix them (or even what should be addressed first), you become less able to cope with any one thing. Those quick fixes become crucial – a last ditch coping strategy.
The problem with this though, is that those simple pleasures can become a crutch, and you may get locked into behavior that is ultimately detrimental over the long term. You get used to it. Which makes it hurt all the more when someone tries to take it away from you by indicating that you should stop. This is why I think it is so important to at least offer understanding. Which is not to say that you need to tell them that everything they are doing is fine and they have no reason to change. It can be as simple as letting them vent without immediately leaping to judge. Humans derive a degree of benefit from the knowledge that someone cares about their situation – that they are not simply disappearing.
This won’t necessarily work for everyone or every situation, I am fully aware of that. But it does seem a little more constructive than simply tossing out “It’s your own fault.” Honestly, I can’t believe that’s ever intended to do more than bolster the ego of the person saying it.