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.

You’re Not Sabotaging Yourself


Following right on the heels of a lack of will power, the number two reason people come up with for not following through on what they set out to do is self-sabotage. This is a catchall phrase that seems to refer to any behavior that is inconsistent with one’s conscious intentions or goals. As such, it’s completely meaningless.

You may routinely do things that you regret doing:

  • Overeat when you’re trying to lose weight
  • Sleep in when you want to go to the gym
  • Fail to study for an exam you want to pass
  • Put less than your best effort into a project that matters

But that doesn’t mean you’re sabotaging yourself.

Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of sabotage: “the act of destroying or damaging something deliberately so that it does not work correctly.” Dictionary.com defines it as “any underhand interference with production, work, etc….as by enemy agents during wartime or by employees during a trade dispute.” Vocabulary.com says sabotage occurs “when you ruin or disrupt something by messing up a part of it on purpose.”

What these and all other definitions of the word sabotage have in common is the element of deliberateness. Sabotage, by definition, isn’t accidental or an unfortunate side-effect. It is intentional. So in order for us to be sabotaging ourselves, we would have to be engaging in counterproductive behavior on purpose.

This gets dicey right off the bat because we’re told our counterproductive (self-sabotaging) behavior originates in the unconscious. It is “hidden from our everyday thoughts,” according to one self-help author. But if we do something because we’re “unconsciously compelled” to do it, as a psychologist wrote, then it can’t possibly be intentional or deliberate.

Yes, it’s true—and inevitable—that we have competing or conflicting beliefs, goals, and intentions. In Incognito, David Eagleman says:

Brains…are built of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. As Walt Whiteman correctly surmised, we are large and we harbor multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle.

When the hostess at a party offers chocolate cake, you find yourself on the horns of a dilemma: some parts of your brain have evolved to crave the rich energy source of sugar [System 1], and other parts care about the negative consequences, such as the health of your heart or the bulge of your love handles [System 2]. Part of you wants the cake and part of you tries to muster the fortitude to forgo it.

Brains can be of two minds, and often many more. We don’t know whether to turn toward the cake or away from it, because there are several little sets of hands on the steering wheel of our behavior.

This is relatively straightforward and in no way implies that the part of our brain that craves sugar, System 1, has an intention to undermine System 2’s attempts to manage our health. The brain just doesn’t work that way.

Eagleman proposes that the brain is best understood as a team of rivals and adds:

Remember that competing factions typically have the same goal—success for the country—but they often have different ways of going about it.

How we frame a problem determines where and how we go about looking for its solution. If we view our counterproductive behavior as resulting from self-sabotage, we’re likely to divert our attention to trying to figure out why we’re sabotaging ourselves. But we don’t have direct access to the unconscious, which is where our so-called sabotage originates, so even if we were sabotaging ourselves we could never actually get to the bottom of things.

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Looking back into the past to find the trail of breadcrumbs that leads to the behavior of today amounts to a whole lot of wheel-spinning. It can’t succeed, and even if it could, it wouldn’t make any difference in regard to solving the problem at hand: getting our behavior to line up with our conscious intentions.

That’s because it isn’t the unconscious part of the brain that’s the problem; it’s the conscious part. If we don’t know what we want, we don’t have a clear direction. If we aren’t fully committed to what we set out to do (or claim to be setting out to do), we have no urgency. Without both direction and urgency, our best laid plans are dead in the water.

We can retrain System 1 to do more of what we want it to do and less of what we don’t want it to do. But that requires repetition and persistence. Lots of repetition. And lots of persistence. It isn’t easyand it isn’t as sexy as searching for our inner saboteurbut it’s both straightforward and effective.

Self-sabotage is nothing more than a good cover story.