Anna Salamon, (NO_ITEM_DATA:annasalamonHumansAreNot2010)
Why will a randomly chosen eight-year-old fail a calculus test? Because most possible answers are wrong, and there is no force to guide him to the correct answers. (There is no need to postulate a “fear of success”; most ways writing or not writing on a calculus test constitute failure, and so people, and rocks, fail calculus tests by default.)
Why do most of us, most of the time, choose to “pursue our goals” through routes that are far less effective than the routes we could find if we tried? My guess is that here, as with the calculus test, the main problem is that most courses of action are extremely ineffective, and that there has been no strong evolutionary or cultural force sufficient to focus us on the very narrow behavior patterns that would actually be effective.
To be more specific: there are clearly at least some limited senses in which we have goals. We: (1) tell ourselves and others stories of how we’re aiming for various “goals”; (2) search out modes of activity that are consistent with the role, and goal-seeking, that we see ourselves as doing (“learning math”; “becoming a comedian”; “being a good parent”); and sometimes even (3) feel glad or disappointed when we do/don’t achieve our “goals”.
But there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out. We do not automatically:
(a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve; (b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress; (c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal; (d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past); (e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work; (f) Focus most of the energy that isn’t going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best; (g) Make sure that our “goal” is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won’t continually sap our energies; (h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting; …. or carry out any number of other useful techniques. Instead, we mostly just do things. We act from habit; we act from impulse or convenience when primed by the activities in front of us; we remember our goal and choose an action that feels associated with our goal. We do any number of things. But we do not systematically choose the narrow sets of actions that would effectively optimize for our claimed goals, or for any other goals.