Post-Hoc Rationalization

Cognition by Adam on 2006-12-03 04:01

“Even though we claim to be in charge of our destinies, most of our behavior is governed by a cauldron of of motives and emotions of which we are barely conscious. Your conscious life, in short, is nothing more than an elaborate post-hoc rationalization of things you do for other reasons.”

From V.S. Ramachandran’s “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness”

This reminds me of something I read once, though I don’t remember where, about the “narrator” aspect of the human mind. This is the part of your consciousness that is continually telling the story of of your life in language. When you decide to take a break at work, for example, the voice of the narrator speaks in your mind: “I guess I’ll get up for a break now, I’ve been working hard for a while and I’d like to stretch my legs.” Or when you select an item off the shelf at the groccery store: “I got this once before and it was pretty good. The price is reasonable too. Ok yeah, I’ll get it.” etc.

Each of us likes to think that the narrator is the core of our being, the part of us that makes the decisions. But it isn’t. The narrator is an explanation of our decisions after they have already been made. The decentralized actors which compose the mind cause decisions to bubble up as an emergent property from below.

So pay attention next time you make a small decision. It’s not the narrator in charge: the explanation always comes after the decision has been made. The narrator just watches, and then forms an explanation for what it sees.

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