Friday, 6 June 2008


How many times has this happened to you? You leave work, decide that you need to get groceries on the way home, take a cellphone call and forget all about your plan. Next thing you know, you've driven home.

What gives? Why are we as a species so often so desperately poor at achieving our goals?

The problem is that evolution failed to realize that remembering goals is not like recognizing objects. When your brain sees a lion, the thing to do is to decide, lickety-split, to get out of the way. Run first; ask questions later.

Alas, evolution didn't have the foresight to realise that different kinds of tasks require different kinds of memory, and it used the same basic sort of memory for everything, not just for remembering what lions and tigers look like (in which general tendencies suffice) but also for cases -- like tracking our goals -- where a bit more precision would have been helpful. As a result, trying to remember what to do next can be a little like trying to remember what you had for breakfast yesterday: There are too many breakfasts and too many yesterdays for our biological memories to keep track of.

The same thing can happen with our goals. When you sit in your car late in the day and ask yourself, "What am I supposed to do next?" and all of a sudden the cellphone rings, your brain can easily lose track of which "next step" is the right one. Instead of zeroing in on the specific memory it needs, it may well settle for remembering whatever you've done in the car most often -- and that's drive home. Voila, autopilot you forget the groceries.

Our attempts to pursue our goals are often thwarted by the fact that evolution has built our most sophisticated technologies on top of older technologies. Our “old” brain still bosses the “new brain.”

Yet our brains are structured in such a way that the more tired, stressed or distracted we are, the less likely we are to use our forebrains and the more likely to lean back on the time-tested but shortsighted machinery we've inherited from our ancestors.

Still, all is not lost. Even though our short-term desires are pretty good at grabbing the steering wheel of our consciousness, our more recently evolved deliberate minds are powerful enough to regain at least some measure of control.

Our conscious, deliberate systems will never have total control, and our memories will never be perfect, but as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, recognition is the first step.

Read Money, Money, Money Ain’t it Funny for more on this relating to investing.