We are often tempted to think, say or do things that feel good rather than things that are good … for us, for others, for humanity, for life on Earth. Yes, we are largely guided by our emotions, and less by our ratio.
The root-cause of this conflict, in my opinion, is that emotions largely stem from inherited patterns in our brain based on thousands of years of experience. The famous sabre tooth tiger, yes. Alas, we rarely encounter sabre tooth tigers in our daily life anymore, haha. We do encounter many other risks for which no patters in our brain exist to warn us against.
I believe it stems from the fact that our brain consists of two quite different, yet connected parts. These are sometime refered to as our ‘old brain’ and our ‘new brain’. I refer to respectively the cortex or neocortex and (roughly) the whole of brainstem and limbic system. Daniel Kahneman refers to these as System 2, slow and more conscious (something like “ratio” or deliberate thinking, considering) and System 1, fast and more unconscious (something like “emotion”, or intuition, instinct, impulses).
A simple example is the use of sugar. In the stone age sugar was scarce, so we adopted this behavioral pattern to like it, hence, to eat as much of it as possible. Today sugar is abundant and too much of it definitely is bad for us. Yet, we still have this brain pattern that makes us insatiable when it comes to sugar. Feels good, is bad! You get the picture, I guess. The circumstances, the world we live in has changed much more rapidly than our brain structure is able to adjust.
Here is a very simple model I created to help you differentiate between what feels good and what is good for you.
So, it works very simple. The vertical axis displays the degree to which something feels good or bad. The horizontal axis displays the degree to which something is good or bad.
Then you get four quadrants. Two of them are straightforward:
- Feels Good Is Good – This, clearly is where you want to be. And, of course, it will be effortless to think, say of do things that feel good and are good. You will go there almost automatically. Hence, I refer to this as the “Will Go Zone“.
- Feels Bad Is Bad – The opposite of Feels Good Is Good. This clearly is where you will not be a lot, unless maybe you suffer of destructive mental disease. You will automatically not go there, normally. Hence, I refer to this as the “Won’t Go Zone“.
And two of them are more complicated:
- Feels Good Is Bad – A conflicting quadrant, conflict between ratio and emotion. You will automatically be tempted to go here, but you (should) know that you should not. It will be very tempting, especially when you are metally weak. Hence, I call this the “Temptation Zone“.
- Feels Bad Is Good – Another conflicting quadrant, again between ratio and emotion. You will automatically be tempted to avoid this, but you (should) know that you should go there. Again, it will take an effort to go here, especially when you are metally weak. Hence, I call this the “Effort Zone“
And there you have it, the Ratio Emotion Matrix or “Feels Good Is Good” Matrix.
Working with the matrix
Theoretically, working with the matrix is easy.
If you are in the Will Go Zone, you’re fine. Stay there, keep that activity. You probably won’t ever be in the Won’t Go Zone; if you are, please find help.
If you are in the Temptation Zone, try to move to the right, replace that activity with something else, go towards the Will Go Zone. The easiest way is to find alternative activities that feel as good.
If you are in the Effort Zone, try to move up, try to make the effort to reframe or relabel the activity in your mind to make it feel better. There are lots of self-help books for this.
Why a neocortex
A related topic, more of evolutionary biology nature, is the question why our brain, over many years and many generations, has grown a totally different structure (neocortex) on top of the existing structure (limbic system and brainstem). Here is a nice image that shows how more advanced brains tend to hav a relatively bigger neocortex:
Note – I do not know the origin of this image. I had it in my personal files many years. I hope I do not infringe on any intellectual property. Please let me know!
It remains a mystery to me. Apparently, it turned out to be evolutionarily advantageous to grow a weird bulb onto the old brain …