Me Fighting Me

Jim Wasserman

PSYCHOLOGISTS and biologists call it a supernormal stimulus response. Basically, organisms evolve in the direction of what’s good for them. There doesn’t seem to be an off switch to this instinct, however, so organisms can pursue these “good things” even to their detriment.

For instance, field researchers have shown that birds instinctually drawn to colorful eggs will roost on more colorful fake eggs—and ignore their own. And, no, humans aren’t immune to such mistakes. Sunlight is good for us, but many know the pain of sunning to the point of sunburn. Advertisers know we have basic urges for sugar, salt and sex. They use these urges to nudge us to consume, say, sugary foods and salty snacks.

Instinct can push us to crave more abstract things, too, that are higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Financially, we can be nudged to go further than a healthy budget would allow. Our rush for a secure home can cause us to overspend. Biology and aesthetics say we desire a fit, attractive partner. But many cried “too far” at Peloton’s sexist Christmas advertisement a couple of years ago.

There’s also that strong desire to be viewed as “successful.” How that looks is ever-changing, but in a material world it almost always comes down to money and goods. We go into debt to be alpha peacocks, taking out huge mortgages so we can show the world an ever-bigger nest. On the road to success, we’re all accelerator and no brake. Even those who don’t crash aren’t “winners” because there is no finish line to this race, just the next urge to spend.

If we don’t seem to have a natural off switch to our instinctual desires for more, can we create artificial ones? Even if we can’t train ourselves to stop throwing good money after bad, could we at least stop ourselves from throwing away too much good money?

Some people can simply say “enough stuff,” which just happens to be the name of a book I wrote, and walk away. On their daily calendar, many make notes to “do” or “don’t do” some things. Others need more tangible visual reminders—such as a sign in front of their computer that asks if the time, fees and frustration of all their portfolio manipulation is really worth the possible extra return. One friend has a small yin-yang symbol tattooed on his wrist to remind him to pause before acting.

It’s a long story, but two weeks ago was a really bad time for our family. My stimulus response in such circumstances is to jump into action. I was doing everything—and nothing—all at once to try to fix the situation. This usually works, but this time it was like spinning the wheels of a car trapped in mud. My escape strategy was just digging a bigger hole, especially mentally.

As luck would have it, I had to immediately travel to Thailand for in-law matters. Separated by time differences—and an unreliable internet connection—I was forced to quell my instinct to do things and just, well, ruminate. I thought, I mourned, I reflected. I was less active in trying to make things better, and that was a better resolution for me.

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