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Why Humans Fail: The reason New Years resolutions don't stick! Part 2: What we Value

In part 1 of this series we outlined how cognitive dissonance contributes to the mental framework that results in the failure of our goals. We then introduced the concept of Value Hierarchies and the idea that nesting a micro routine in a Value Hierarchy that ends with a positive conceptualisation of what we want, makes us more likely to engage in the micro routine.

Part 2 of this series expands upon the idea of Value Hierarchies and how they govern behavior. First we will look at how value hierarchies evolved (it's super relevant I swear)...

There is a growing amount of literature that highlights how morality and values have a biological framework that was developed from the bottom up. The theory is as follows: we started with simple animalistic motivations like eat, sleep, drink, play, reproduce, etc. These motivational states oriented us towards goals, i.e. Thirst motivates, water is the goal and we act to achieve this goal, just like other animals. The human species differs from other animals because we began to conceptualise abstractly by visualising, planning, and predicting to solve problems. We learnt that some ways of satiating ourselves produce better outcomes than others; that is to say, some things are better than others. Here we can see the beginnings of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The things that best satiate these motivations are good and the things that don’t are bad.

As we continued to evolve as a species, so did our cognitive capacity and our understanding of good and bad. We eventually learnt that there are ‘modes of being’/’ways of living’ (however you would like to phrase it) that are better than others. Being a good person is better than a bad person because, over time, being a good person gives someone a better chance of satiating their basic motivations. For example, “if I am a good person, chances are someone will help me hunt for food”. Now, if we use this abstractive ability to extract other ‘good’ categories, we come up with a conceptualisation of a ‘good’ life. I would argue that the concept “Meaningful Life” sits atop this hierarchy; that is, “a good life is a life that has meaning and creating meaning in life is the best way to live”.

These belief structures have been ingrained in us through a combination of nature and nurture, so we are not always consciously aware of the values we hold in our hierarchies.

(I would like to make it clear that I’m not trying to impose my sense of morality on anyone, I’m just choosing a value that is abstract and that people often strive for)

Our highest conceptualisation (i.e. the highest point on the value hierarchy) becomes our fundamental motivation for living. As with everything, this has positives and negatives, but I will leave the negative side of our conceptualisations for another blog post. Having this fundamental motivation, we have things that we look forward to, enjoy doing, and look back on with joy, because they coincide with the peak of our value hierarchy. Although we may not be consciously aware of it, the truly enjoyable things in life bring us closer and closer to our highest conceptualisation, which is the best way to satiate all our competing motivational states.

To highlight how these value hierarchies govern every aspect of behavior I will use two simple examples (watching Game of Thrones and cooking) to break it down:


· Meaningful life. To have one, I need to be alive (obviously)

· The best way to live is to be a good person.

· Good person. What is that?

· A good person is a good father (Still an abstract category). What is that?

· A good father can cook. What is cook?

· Among other things, cooking is cutting vegetables (micro routine/ action)

Game of Thrones

· Meaningful life. To have one, I need to be alive

· The best way to live is to be a good person.

· Good person. What is that?

· A good person is a good father. What is that?

· A good father has patience. How do you get that?

· You need to be relaxed. How do you do that?

· Watch Game of Thrones

So, nestled into a good person’s meaningful life are the micro routines of cutting vegetables and watching GoT. If you disagree, consider why you get so offended when someone says you can’t cook, or get so annoyed when someone interrupts you watching GoT? (Or, if someone judges another part of your life that is a micro routine?) Whether you know it or not, they are inadvertently calling you a bad person; therefore your life lacks meaning, or they are hindering your process to become a better person and have a meaningful life.

Now, if this is the case, why don’t people behave in this manner all the time? Why don’t we do the truly enjoyable things constantly? Why don’t people always act in a way that moves them towards a meaningful life?

Well, sometimes it’s easier to order takeout than cook. Sometimes it’s easier to unwind by watching GoT than it is to unwind at the gym. The problem isn’t the takeout, or the TV, the problem is that we use the “yeah, but…” rationalisation for our easy option, rather than owning the fact that we took the easy option. We have cognitive dissonance because our behaviour is deviating us away from our highest value, and we often resolve it by rationalising or excusing our behaviour (read: lying to ourselves). The more dissonance we create, the higher our stress and anxiety, the more mental work we have to do to resolve it, and the more exhausted we become (ergo, the more likely to let go of new routines like the ones we set as New Years resolutions).

So, what do we do? How can we use this information solve this problem? Well, first, we need to accept that there is no “how” to change; there is or there isn’t. Despite it being simple, it isn’t easy. In Part 3, we will examine how you can stop getting in your own way, and lay the foundations that will assist us in achieving our goals and help us make the choices that will create change.

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