The War with Ourselves

Everyone has the frustrating experience of having our best intentions sabotaged by ourselves. From the mundane (unable to resist an office donut) to the catastrophic (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) it’s intrinsic to our humanity: we are our own worst enemy.

And it matters who wins this war. When our best selves gain control we move towards our goals, treat the people around us with respect, and experience the satisfaction of a life well lived. Our worst selves lead us down a slippery slope towards obesity, poverty, and bitterness.

This classic battle has been articulated throughout the ages. The angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, The Elephant and the Rider, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [7].

So what’s behind our seemingly irrational behavior? Why are we so inconsistent? New research at the forefront of cognitive science can help us understand why we go to war with ourselves.



Your Brain Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does

The most common story is told around our two, competing minds: a “cold,” slow, deliberate, analytical, conscious mind, and a “hot,” fast, intuitive, emotional, unconscious mind [7]. Your “cold” analytical mind plans out your healthy new diet, then your “hot” emotional mind comes online in the coffee shop and tells you that you deserve that delicious pastry. 

Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman called these “System 2” and “System 1” (respectively) in his (great) book Thinking Fast and Slow, and they begin to explain our self-sabotaging ways. But even Kahneman admits this is a “useful fiction [8].”  A two-system mind is a gross oversimplification of what’s happening at a neurobiological level, where there are many more different processes running at all times.

Building on the notion that our hardware evolved one specialized function at a time, evolutionary psychologists believe that our mind is not best thought of as a singular or two-system entity, but instead as a multitude of “modules” with competing agendas, some in plain sight and others entirely unseen [9]. These modules are the product of our evolution and, each in their own way, have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. But evolution doesn’t optimize for happiness, and in our modern world these warring modules can threaten our well-being.

Evolution has wired us for survival, not freedom.
— Unknown

Consider a few (still drastically simplified) modules in our mind. Our “hunger module” drives us to consume rewarding food. Our “rest module” is behind feeling tired and ensures we go to bed. Our “social bonding module” produces warm fuzzies when we connect with those around us. And what about that higher self? The goal setting and planning functions of our mind are more recent additions to our repertoire. The “planning module” is located (again we’re simplifying) in the Prefrontal Cortex and is a (relatively) recently evolved module that separates us from our primate cousins. And on and on. Every human impulse and emotion (seen or unseen) has its role.



We’re Fooling Ourselves

We all like to think that our behavior is guided by a single, consistent, intelligent perspective, but this “modular mind” framework shatters that misconception and begins to explain the paradox of going to war with ourselves - different modules in our minds exert varying levels of influence on our behavior and force us to behave in seemingly inconsistent ways (depending on the context we’re in).

Here’s the kicker. We can be aware of, and consciously respond to, some of the signals our minds are giving us - the red light that tells us to stop our car, or the hunger pang that lets us know it’s time to eat - but many more slip under the radar, silently influencing our behavior in ways that we don’t see.

To get a sense for how influential these unseen forces can be, let’s talk through just one example - our eating behavior - and explore three ways that our modular minds make it more difficult for us to do the “right” thing...

1. Unseen Decisions

The average person thinks they make around 25 food decisions every day. That's about 5 decisions per meal (what to eat, how much, and whether to have seconds) plus another 10 thrown in for good measure (for example, what to eat for a snack, whether to drink another cup of coffee, etc.). 

It sounds reasonable, right? 

But it turns out that these 25 decisions are only the tip of the iceberg. We actually make 200+ food decisions every day [10]. Every meal is riddled with them (what to eat for your main, what to eat for your side, when to eat, where to sit, whether to eat dessert, etc.), as is the rest of our day (whether you should you eat that one donut or both of them, where you can find a piece of fruit, which line to wait in, etc.). 

We're only aware of a fraction of the food decisions we make - the different modules of our mind take in different inputs and run on autopilot - so using willpower to choose wisely is not only ineffective, it’s not possible.

2. Unseen Influencers

But even for a food decision that we consciously make, we're hugely unaware of the many things - in our minds, bodies, and food environments - that shape that decision. Here are just a few examples:

  • Priming - Exposure to one thought influences your response to another. For example, seeing ads for high calorie, low-nutrient foods triggers you to eat whatever food is available [11].
  • Convenience - We're three times more likely to eat the food we see first than the food we see fifth [12]. Back in Fred Flintstone's day, if you were hungry and food was available, your best option was to stash the food in your belly and NOT to hold out for the better option behind door #3.
  • Supernormal Stimuli - We evolved in a world where rewards - like fatty, salty or sweet food - were scarce, but today’s food is engineered to hijack our reward centers and makes us behave in ways that aren’t suited to our best interests.
  • Pleasure of Anticipation - Dopamine is not about pleasure, but the anticipation of pleasure. It creates an itch that we need to scratch (and we often scratch it reflexively).
  • Social Proof - Driven by the assumption that groups of people have more information than we do, we mimic the actions of the people around us [13]. That includes mindlessly eating more cookies when the people around you do the same [14].
  • Affective Regulation - Our emotions and moods affect our decisions. People in a good mood make healthier food choices and think more about the future health benefits than people in bad moods, who make less healthy choices and focus more on the way a food tastes, sounds, or feels [15].
  • Ego Depletion - Our capacity for self control (or our willpower) is a limited resource, analogous to a muscle that gets tired with use and needs time for recovery [16].

All of these hidden influencers quietly coax different modules in our mind, which nudge us to behave in their best interests. And this is only the short list.  There are so many more hidden influencers, and more depth to each of the ones we mentioned - scientists dedicate their lives to uncovering and explaining them.

Everything making sense so far? We hope so, because now we’ll make a turn onto “irrationality lane.”

3. Unseen Biases

There’s one more complicating factor that makes our challenge even more daunting: uncertainty. In the context of our food decisions, that uncertainty comes in many flavors - when will we be able to eat next? How will this food make me feel? How will it affect my health? What will people think of me if I eat that?

How do we evaluate the probability and expected value of each choice, and compare that to the other options we have available?

Herbert A. Simon, an American psychologist, economist, computer scientist, and more, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978 for his explorations in the area of problem-solving with uncertainty. He developed the notion that we are inherently limited by the amount of information we have, our processing power, and the time we have to make the decision, and that we go for “good enough” (and not perfection) [17].

The legendary duo, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky took things a step further, demonstrating that we have cognitive biases - mental shortcuts that allow us to evaluate the probabilistic losses and gains of of our options - to compensate for our limitations [18]. Though helpful a majority of the time, our biases apparently have gaps that lead to errors of reasoning and judgement, and seemingly irrational behavior [19]. Here are a few examples of those gaps:

  • Projection Bias - We’re surprisingly bad at predicting how we’ll feel in future situations, and are heavily influenced by our current state-of-mind [20]. For example, when in a “cold” state-of-mind (like when we’re satiated), we are bad at guessing how tempted we’ll be when we’re in a “hot” state-of-mind (like when we’re hungry). This leads to ineffective (or absent) planning.
  • Loss Aversion - People much prefer to avoid loss (perhaps twice as much) than to make gains [21]. This affects so many areas of our life, but in the case of our eating behavior, it’s why taxing junk food works better than subsidizing healthy food [22].
  • Planning Fallacy - We tend to optimistically underestimate how long it takes us to complete a task, even when we know that similar tasks took longer to complete in the past [23].
  • Hyperbolic Discounting - Given the choice between two rewards, we have a strong bias for the reward that arrives sooner and heavily discount the value of the later reward based on how far off it is [24]. Said differently, we’re not wired for delayed gratification.

This area of research is particularly fascinating and we could go on with more examples, but we hope you get the point - that our minds are wired to make decisions that are often in our best interest for survival and reproduction, but not necessarily for our long-term benefit.

This Doesn’t Apply To Me

If you want to see these biases at work, look no further than the reactions of study participants after being shown that they were manipulated by these unseen forces:

Where To Go From Here

When you add all of this up, it’s hard to shake the idea that we can get anything done in this world. Even Daniel Kahneman, himself, doubts we can overcome these biases [7]. When it comes to making decisions that are in our best long-term interest, it seems we’re wired to fail… 

And yet there is hope. Numerous people throughout history have succeeded with some extraordinary things, despite having these flaws built-in.


Teddy Roosevelt, at the age of 54 (after retiring from politics) set out to explore the ‘River of Doubt’ in the heart of the Amazon. He travelled for months through uncharted wilderness on approach, traversed 950 miles of virgin river, survived attacks by local inhabitants, and endured near-starvation and near-death from disease. The river was named Roosevelt River in his honor.

Ernest Shackleton & Co. set out to traverse Antarctica in 1914, on the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition. After having their ship Endurance crushed by ice, they wintered on the floating ice floes of the Weddell Sea, then completed a 900 mile open-water journey in a 22 foot dinghy across the dreaded Drake Passage, then traversed (without a map), the high unexplored peaks of the island of South Georgia to find rescue.

After completing the first trans-Greenland voyage on cross-country skis in 1888, Fridtjof Nansen hatched a dangerous plan to reach the North Pole. He constructed the Fram, a ship designed to be locked in ice for few years while the pack slowly drifted toward the Pole. The Fram party endured brutal cold, a walrus attack, and was forced to shoot all of their sled dogs in order to survive. Although Nansen didn’t reach the pole, his inventions paved the way for the next generation of polar exploration. Nansen didn’t stop there. During the first World War, Nansen went on to lead the repatriation of a half-million displaced persons, and for his efforts won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. During those efforts Nansen noted "Never in my life", he said, "have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering."

Humans are actually capable of amazing feats, despite all our shortcomings.

But here’s the key: our natural instincts won’t get us where we need to go. You cannot trust yourself to just “do better next time.” Remember: we’re wired for survival, not freedom. 

Instead we need to do the hard work, learn ways to manage our natural tendencies, and (perhaps most importantly) cultivate reflexes that don’t come naturally - much like a boxer who has been re-trained to keep their opposite foot forward (or be knocked out). These are the skills of change. 

How exactly do we cultivate these skills? Fortunately many smart minds have built theories for how to approach behavior change, which we’ll cover in the next chapter.

Key Takeaway: Our evolutionary wiring makes it difficult for us to act in our own long-term interest: we don’t see most of the decisions we make, we’re more heavily influenced by our biology than we think, and we walk around with mental shortcuts that don’t always serve us well. You can’t trust your instincts to get you where you want to go.