Mind the Gap

You experience the gap numerous times each day. Everyone does. The gap, in this case, is the discrepancy between what you expect will happen and what actually happens. Because your brain finds this gap to be very unsettling, it responds by rushing to close it (i.e., explain it) as quickly as possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of an explanation is to help you understand what’s happening—or give you the sense that you understand—so you can determine a course of action to take.

This is an automatic process that works reasonably well in a variety of situations, especially if they’re straightforward and/or familiar. Coming up with explanations is so automatic and so fast that you probably don’t stop very often to question the validity or accuracy of the expectations that gave rise to the gap that needs explaining.

But if your expectations are based on unfounded assumptions or an incorrect analysis of the situation—or if they are missing critical information—then your explanation is bound to be flawed. And it turns out that most such explanations are flawed.

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to unconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is that listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. —Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara

You can’t avoid having expectations. If your brain wasn’t predictive, you wouldn’t be able to function in the world you find yourself in. But those predictions are based, to a great extent, on the mental model the unconscious part of your brain maintains of what’s normal for you. Naturally, you feel pretty confident about them. But the degree of confidence you have in your explanations is not a reliable guide to their validity or accuracy.

When the gap is generated by a flawed explanation based on unfounded expectations, the action you take to correct or respond to it won’t get you the result you want. Instead you will be faced with yet another gap to explain and contend with. Continuing down this winding road can take you very far afield from your original destination.

As a result, the conscious part of your brain (the part you think of as “I”) may become more and more dissatisfied, frustrated, and even confused. You may give up or at least feel like giving up. The unconscious part of your brain, on the other hand, is likely to be quite satisfied with this state of affairs.

We have a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring for survival. –David DiSalvo

The unconscious part of your brain is, as Cormac McCarthy put it, “a machine for operating an animal.” This particular machine’s prime directive is survival, and it thinks the best way for you to survive is to maintain your status quo. It has a variety of tricks up its sleeve to deceive you into thinking you’re moving forward when, in fact, you’re expending a lot of mental energy running in place on the hamster wheel.

The Myth of Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a great example of an explanation created to account for the gap between the expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions and the experience of doing something other than what we consciously intend to do. If you accept the self-sabotage explanation, the logical action to take is to try to determine how and why you’re sabotaging yourself. This is a diversionary expedition that leads to a dead end. It contributes nothing in the way of helping you change your behavior.

The expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions is based on several unwarranted assumptions. The reality is that since we operate on autopilot most of the time, most of our behavior is generated by unconscious impulses, not by conscious intentions. And the unconscious part of our brain wants to maintain the status quo. You’re far more likely to keep doing what you’ve been doing than you are to do something different.

You may not like it, but the fact that you don’t always do what you consciously intend to do should not surprise or confound you. The logical action to take (instead of trying to figure out how and why you’re sabotaging yourself) is to retrain your brain to make the desirable behavior part of the status quo.

When you follow the path of least resistance by unquestioningly going along with your brain’s interpretation of events and behaviors, you end up digging yourself deeper into your rut. If you want to expand your mental model, change your direction, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop the habit of questioning your expectations.

Elementary, My Dear Watson*

When you’re trying to solve a complex problem, determine a course of action, or evaluate others’ conclusions, you’ll need to engage logical System 2 reasoning, which is the opposite of System 1’s quick assessments.

I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty. —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

It can be helpful to understand different types of reasoning, be able to identify the type—or types—of reasoning that are being applied in a given situation, and know how accurate each type is likely to be.

But recognizing and/or applying a reasoning process to your problem or evaluation process isn’t enough to guarantee that the outcome of that reasoning process will be sound or accurate. Skillful reasoning doesn’t compensate for faulty premises or missing or biased information.

The following descriptions (but not the examples) of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning were provided by Alina Bradford, writing in Live Science (livescience.com).

Deductive reasoning: conclusion guaranteed

Deductive reasoning is a basic form of valid reasoning. Deductive reasoning, or deduction, starts out with a general statement, or hypothesis, and examines the possibilities  to reach a specific, logical conclusion, according to the University of California. The scientific method uses deduction to test hypotheses and theories. “In deductive inference, we hold a theory and based on it we make a prediction of its consequences. That is, we predict what the observations should be if the theory were correct.  We go from the general—the theory—to the specific—the observations,” said Dr. Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, a researcher and professor emerita at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In deductive reasoning, if something is true of a class of things in general, it is also true for all members of that class. For example, “All men are mortal. Harold is a man. Therefore, Harold is mortal.” For deductive reasoning to be sound, the hypothesis must be correct. It is assumed that the premises, “All men are mortal” and “Harold is a man” are true. Therefore, the conclusion is logical and true.


  • It is dangerous to drive on icy streets. The streets are icy now so it is dangerous to drive now.
  • All birds have feathers and robins are birds, so robins have feathers.
  • Elephants have cells in their bodies and all cells have DNA, so elephants have DNA.

[Caveat: Deductive inference conclusions are certain provided the premises are true. It’s possible to come to a logical conclusion even if the generalization is not true. If the generalization is wrong, the conclusion may be logical, but it may also be untrue. For example, the argument, “All bald men are grandfathers. Harold is bald. Therefore, Harold is a grandfather,” is valid logically but it is untrue because the original statement is false.]

Inductive reasoning: conclusion merely likely

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalizations from specific observations. “In inductive inference, we go from the specific to the general. We make many observations, discern a pattern, make a generalization, and infer an explanation or a theory,” Wassertheil-Smoller told Live Science. “In science there is a constant interplay between inductive inference (based on observations) and deductive inference (based on theory), until we get closer and closer to the ‘truth,’ which we can only approach but not ascertain with complete certainty.”

Even if all of the premises are true in a statement, inductive reasoning allows for the conclusion to be false. Here’s an example: “Harold is a grandfather. Harold is bald. Therefore, all grandfathers are bald.” The conclusion does not follow logically from the statements.


  • John is a financial analyst. Individuals with professions in finance are very serious people. John is a very serious person.
  • Jennifer leaves for school at 7:00 a.m. and is on time. Jennifer assumes, then, that she will always be on time if she leaves at 7:00 a.m.
  • The water at the beach has always been about 75 degrees in July. It is July. The water will be about 75 degrees.
Abductive reasoning: taking your best shot

Another form of scientific reasoning that doesn’t fit in with inductive or deductive reasoning is abductive. Abductive reasoning usually starts with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the group of observations (Critical Thinking Skills, Butte College). It is based on making and testing hypotheses using the best information available. It often entails making an educated guess after observing a phenomenon for which there is no clear explanation.

Abductive reasoning is useful for forming hypotheses to be tested. Abductive reasoning is often used by doctors who make a diagnosis based on test results and by jurors who make decisions based on the evidence presented to them.


  • Given a particular set of symptoms, a medical doctor needs to determine the diagnosis that would best explain most of them.
  • Jurors have to decide whether the prosecution or the defense has the best explanation to cover all the points of evidence although additional evidence may exist that was not admitted in the case.

While using one of these three types of reasoning is a function of System 2 (conscious) cognition, evaluating them—and their results—is an example of metacognition, which is a higher order of System 2 cognition. Metacognition is a skill you can develop to help you think smarter and improve outcomes in all areas of your life.

I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

*This quintessential Sherlock Holmes quote was never actually uttered in any of Conan Doyle’s stories about him.

X Is for eXpectations

Life is an ongoing series of experiences, one after another after another. When you’re in the midst of one of them, you experience it. After it’s over, you explain it, meaning you remember it and tell a story about it, incorporating it into your ongoing narration.

But before anything even occurs, you have an expectation about what will or won’t happen, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how events will unfold and the consequences that are likely to ensue.

Expectation is

  • A belief about what should happen or the way things should be.
  • An estimate or forecast of a future situation based on present or past experiences.
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something, whether hopefully or fearfully.

Experience is:

  • The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.
  • An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
  • Direct personal participation or observation.

Explanation is:

  • A story about how or why something happened or turned out the way it did.
  • Rationalization, justification, and/or judgment about the experience.
  • The cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.

There’s some degree of conscious (System 2) involvement in all three phases of an experience. But there’s even more unconscious (System 1) involvement in them.

The Way Things Should Be

According to Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh:

Our primary contact with the world…is via our expectations about what we are about to see or experience. 

Your expectations are constrained not only by what has already happened (your past experiences), but also—and even more significantly—by the stories (and explanations) you’ve constructed about them. Your expectations, arising from your mental model of the world, determine much of what you make of your experiences.

It’s worth remembering that your experience of what’s going on in your mind and in the world is not the same as what is actually going on in either your mind or in the world.

In addition to helping you navigate the terrain you inhabit, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, as well as assumptions, biases, etc., that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you assign to it.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. —Louise Erdrich

Although it doesn’t have to be, the cycle of expectation/experience/
explanation can be a vicious one that narrows your perspective—and your world.

Generating expectations isn’t something you are doing; it’s something your brain is doing. You may have come across advice to do away with expectations because they are either “self-defeating” or nothing but a prelude to disappointment. (Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath are just a few who have linked expectations with disappointment.) The advice to eliminate them is based on a belief that expectations are consciously created, which gives us control over them.

Your Brain is Predictive, not Reactive.

Your felt experience may be that something happens and you react to it, but the reality is that your brain is not reactive but predictive. It is always doing its best to anticipate what’s going to happen next, as if it were playing a never-ending game of chess, continuously anticipating and preparing you for your next move.

Your brain generates multiple possible representations of what to expect in the environment. The representation with the smallest prediction error is selected. However the generation of representations is constrained by what is stored in memory and by the sampling of the environmentDirk De RidderJan Verplaetse, and Sven Vanneste, Frontiers in Psychology

You’re only aware of what your brain thinks you need to know, when you need to know it. Although your reactions and responses feel spontaneous and freely chosen, most of the time they are neither.

The unconscious is always several steps ahead of the conscious part of your brain. As neuroscientists have pointed out, this is what makes activities such as sports possible. If the brain was merely reactive, it wouldn’t operate fast enough to enable you to hit a baseball or block a goal. A reactive brain wouldn’t have helped Michael Phelps win his 10th gold medal while swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. All of his previous practice, experience, and knowledge gave his brain a solid basis for predicting what to expect and what he needed to do in order to win.

Because your brain is predictive:

  • You are not constantly surprised.
  • You don’t always have a choice.
  • You are able to engage in activities that require quick and accurate responses.
  • You are capable of learning from your experiences.
  • You don’t have to think about every little thing you do in the course of a day.
  • You find it difficult to change undesirable habits.
  • You may be tricked by various types of illusions.
  • You are unaware of your visual blind spot.

Your predictive brain—and the expectations it creates—can be a major obstacle when it comes to behavior change if you don’t take it into account. The neurons in your brain are constantly firing, interacting, and stimulating each other at various rates. If you stick to the belief that you always have a choice and try to use willpower to override your brain’s wiring, you will make things much harder for yourself than they need to be.

Not only can you not stop your brain from generating expectations, but doing so would be self-defeating. What you can do is become more aware of what those expectations are, check how closely they match reality, and evaluate how well they work for you in creating a satisfying and meaningful life.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

W Is for Writing

Writing is such an effective tool for change that I use it in all of my classes and workshops. It can help you clarify intentions or goals and assist you in staying on track. It’s also extremely useful for helping you calm down, focus, and develop clarity about troubling or difficult issues.

The pen compels lucidity. —Robert Stone, novelist

The catch is that in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing. You could just fill page after page in a notebook (something I did for quite a few years until I chucked the lot), but after you’re finished you may not be any clearer than you were to begin with. You might even be more confused.

Starting out with a question or prompt, maybe just a keyword or key phrase, can allow you to access some of the thoughts that may be swimming below the surface. Using a multi-part exercise can help you get even deeper and reap greater rewards.

The two basic approaches to writing—flow writing and deliberate writing—involve using the two different parts of the brain (System 1 and System 2). The problem with completely unstructured writing is that it can muddle these two approaches so that you don’t get the full benefit of either.

Flow Writing:
Making Use of Associative Thinking

The unconscious (System 1) excels in associative thinking. It detects patterns and connects dots quicker than the conscious part of your brain (System 2) can. It’s a fast processor that sometimes sacrifices accuracy for speed. But it also has access to lots of information the conscious brain isn’t aware of.

Flow writing, which is also called free writing, is non-linear, non-rational, and non-logical. You put your pen to paper and write quickly, letting the words “flow” without censoring or editing them. You don’t stop to think about what you’re writing. The best way to free your mind for flow writing is to set a page limit or use a timer.

Flow writing is a good choice if you’re not entirely sure what the problem is. If you have a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head, you can get them down on paper and take a look at them. But even with flow writing, you’ll get better results if you begin with a specific question, prompt, or keyword.

Deliberate Writing:
Making Use of Logical, Linear Thinking

The conscious part of the brain is rational, logical, and linear. It operates at a much slower—more deliberate—speed than the unconscious. A good way to engage conscious thinking is to respond to a series of questions or prompts. While flow-writing casts a wide net in search of answers or information, deliberate writing narrows the search.

This 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise is an example of using deliberate thinking to gain clarity. You proceed through the sequence of questions or statements with the intention of reaching some resolution.

Integrated Writing:
Making Use of Both Kinds of Thinking

Sometimes flow writing or deliberate writing alone is sufficient, but integrating them can be much more powerful. Integrated writing is synergistic rather than additive, which means the whole (the result) is greater than the sum of the parts you used to get there. A few examples of integrated writing include:

10 minutes of flow writing (System 1 associative thinking) followed by writing the answers to a series of questions (System 2 logical, linear thinking). You can create your own set of questions or use the ones in the 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise.

Write Your Way Out of the Story. For instructions scroll to Antidote #3 in this post on rumination.

Go Deeper: This is a 4-part exercise that’s best to do in one sitting. Begin by writing a question at the top of a blank page and then flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Next, reread what you wrote (engaging System 2), select a sentence or phrase, and write it at the top of another blank page. Flow write in response to this sentence or phrase for 8-12 minutes. Finally, reread both pieces (System 2), find a question—either one you asked in your writing or one that occurs to you after reading—write it at the top of a blank page, and flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Then reread all three pieces and write a one-paragraph summary (System 2).

No matter which type of writing you decide to use, remember to have an intention. Be clear about what you’re doing and what you want to get out of your writing.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even if writing doesn’t come naturally to you or seems like punishment, if you want to create habits that serve you, follow through on your goals and intentions, and develop your self-awareness, it’s worth exploring and experimenting with it.

As with any tool you want to master, regular practice makes all the difference. When you set and keep the same general time and place to write, you encourage (or prime) your brain to respond.

When you go into a restaurant, your brain is focused on deciding what to eat. When you get into your car, your brain is focused on driving. This is one of those obvious things you probably don’t really think about it. When you go into the restaurant, your brain is not focused on driving because it isn’t presented with environmental cues related to driving.

Another reason for developing a writing practice is that the real benefits of writing are cumulative. They are gained over time, not as the result of any individual exercise or piece of writing.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

T Is for Thinking

What exactly is thinking? It turns out this is an area where you can’t trust dictionaries to provide meaningful definitions. If you consider the various definitions of the word—or the process—you’re likely to either be confused or to grab one that fits your existing concept so you (and your not-necessarily-thinking brain) can move on.

I don’t want to get philosophical about it, but I think there’s value in acknowledging the confusion. Being able to think clearly and effectively is essential for anyone who wants to lead a satisfying and meaningful life. It’s the difference between using your brain and letting your brain use you.

Warning! Metacognition* Ahead.

One definition equates thinking and opinion. But that source also equates opinion and judgment, so my opinion is that their thinking is sloppy and can’t be trusted. Are they referring to opinions and judgments rendered as a result of careful deliberation or are they referring to off-the-cuff (and often off-the-wall) moment-to-moment opinions and judgments that result from jumping to conclusions based on little or no evidence?

Another source says thinking is the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts. This sounds reasonable, but I’m not sure what they mean by “using one’s mind.” Based on the way the two parts of the brain work, we know that the majority of thoughts we have are suggestions from System 1 (the unconscious) rather than the result of conscious deliberation.

Yet another definition equates thinking with having a conscious mind. But there’s a difference between consciousness and both the contents of consciousness (what you’re aware of—see above) and conscious processes. You’re conscious of all kinds of things you’ve never given any particular thought to.

For example, I’m aware that I dislike the color pink and rainy climates. I’m also aware that I’m suspicious of people who prefer rainy climates. But I’m not under the impression that any actual thinking was involved in the development of those so-called “thoughts.”

How Do I Think?
Let Me Count the Ways.

Some of the confusion undoubtedly results from the fact that, as with memory, there are so many different types of thinking that the term needs adjectives to clarify and differentiate them. Variations on the theme of thinking include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Associative thinking
  • Ruminative thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Default-mode thinking
  • Counterfactual thinking
  • Overthinking
  • Positive thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally and isn’t easy. In order to make an important decision or solve a significant problem, you need well-developed critical thinking skills so you can effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Associative thinking is the process System 1 (the unconscious) uses to link one thing (thought, idea, experience, etc.) to another. Associative thinking is much faster than logical, linear thinking, and there are times and places when quick, non-reflective responses are required. But there are some built-in problems with associative thinking. It sacrifices accuracy for speed, so the patterns it sees and the connections it makes don’t always lead to useful conclusions. It doesn’t discriminate very well, preferring clear-cut distinctions rather than shades of gray. And it takes numerous cognitive shortcuts known as cognitive biases.

Ruminative thinking is the tendency to passively think about the meaning, origins, and consequences of negative emotions (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). One negative incident or thought leads to another, and the escalating intensity of negative thoughts can result in depression, aggression, or even an increase in physical pain. You can ruminate about situations, other people, or about yourself (self-rumination). Rumination can feel like problem-solving, but all it does is keep you focused on the problem. The danger is that it can become a habit—and habits are notoriously difficult to change.

Creative thinking (or creativity) is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things. This is less a talent or gift than an approach to life, and it provides many rewards apart from the products of creativity. Creative thinkers are less likely to be bored, more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and are very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life. The key to creative thinking is to know when to use logical, linear (System 2) thinking and when to use associative (System 1) thinking.

Counterfactual thinking is thinking that runs counter to the facts. It consists of imagining outcomes other than the ones that occurred: the way things could have been—or should have been—different from the way they turned out.  Being able to imagine different outcomes is an enormous evolutionary and practical advantage. It’s integral to being creative or inventive and in not continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Counterfactual thinking can be either functional (helps you figure out what to do next time) or nonfunctional (leads to blame, stress, anxiety, etc.). And it can be either upward (how could things have gone better?) or downward (how could things have gone worse?).

Default-mode thinking is the opposite of mindfulness. Although you can sometimes direct your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on, at other times it just wanders along a winding path on a trajectory of its own. That’s because whenever you’re not focused on an external task—and even sometimes when you are—the network of brain structures referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN) is active. Mind wandering isn’t the same as being distracted. In fact, default mode thinking is essential for consolidating memory and maintaining your sense of self (who you are).

Overthinking is often the result of believing you can fully determine—or even guarantee—an outcome based on the amount of thinking you do about it. It often consists of making multiple lists of pros and cons, running through if/then scenarios, trying to gather as much information as possible, or attempting to approach an issue from every conceivable angle. This is not an effective approach to planning or decision making because thinking more or thinking harder doesn’t lead to clarity, only to confusion and possibly a headache. Too much logical, linear thinking can be as bad as too little.

Positive thinking is usually defined as a mental attitude that accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. Supposedly, positive thinking can help you succeed and better deal with life’s upsets and challenges. However, a considerable amount of research has come to a different conclusion, which is that positive thinking may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Positive thinking isn’t the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.

*Metacognition means thinking about thinking as opposed to reacting to it or being at the effect of it. The part of the brain that runs you most of the time (the unconscious) initiates both thoughts and actions that serve to maintain your personal status quo. So if you want to change the status quo, you need to determine what kind of thinking you’re doing—or what kind of thinking is “doing” you.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.