So You Intend to Change-Instincts Trump Intentions

Imagine this as the lead story of a national magazine, Instinct Trumps Intentions. As I go throughout the country speaking on performance excellence I continue to observe thousands of people who intend to lose weight, make more money, improve relationships, start a new hobby, learn something new, volunteer for a charitable cause, yet they continue to do nothing. Why is that?

This seems like a simple question yet it has multiple answers. Science would argue that the cause of procrastination and avoidance lies in cortical limbic loops. The outer cortex of the brain, the executive thinking part of the brain generates the intention. It then sends action potentials through thousands of neural networks as it searches for the activities necessary to achieve the desired results. Next it conducts an instant search for any links to pain of those activities by sending an avalanche of neuronal excitation to the limbic area of the brain, the amygdale, (fear and arousal) and on to the hippocampus for memory retrieval. 

The result is unavoidable and predictable. For every action that you need to take there will be a link to a previous or anticipated experience of discomfort. Your brain then magnifies this to become a catastrophic threat to your very survival so you are left with only one move, avoid. 

Psychology now steps to the forefront and you justify your avoidance with rationalization and you never know that you are doing so. This is the instinct that is present in all of life called the “survival mechanism”.

Your instincts just didn’t show up today. They are the result of millions of years of genetic selection for those traits that give you a competitive advantage and increase your chances of achieving your purpose for living-to pass on your genes. 

I call this evolutionary debris. At one point in time every instinct that you have gave you this competitive advantage. Throughout evolution you are a part of gene selection. It is natural for you to view the world through the lens of negativity, fear, doubt, distrust and blame. It favors survival to see the danger in a circumstance and avoid it long before you are conscious of doing so. 

This is a currently hotly debated topic in the scientific field. I’m referring to free will versus determinism. In other words, who controls the choices you make. Do you think you do?

Numerous studies display precognition. Scientists armed with a functional MRI device can see in real time how your brain is firing. Long before you are conscious of making the choice to press button B on a computer your motor cortex has already fired. Your choices are subconscious processes based on genetic coding and previous neural networks of memories of past experiences. 

This process is what enables survival. A caveman looks up and sees a lion. Long before he is conscious of the danger he has initiated his fight or flight response. He is fifty yards away in a full sprint before he becomes conscious that his life is in danger. These subconscious networks, cortical limbic loops of emotional memories are one hundred times faster than any conscious processing.

The reason for this is because the cave man who couldn’t generate this preconscious response and stood there wondering what the lion had in mind never lived to pass on their slow moving network.

What does all of this mean to you? It means that your work is cut out for you if you want to create new habits and enjoy new results. All of your genetic wiring is geared to safety and to staying the same. The word that describes this is homeostasis. Homeo is Latin for same and stasis means state. Our evolution has us stay the same. Keep the same body temperature and initiate a microscopic assault on any foreign tissue that enters the body.

This is good. If you inhale the Ebola virus you will certainly be thankful that your body immediately begins a release of antibodies into your lungs. You don’t have to participate in this non conscious process. You don’t need to understand it or believe in it. It is an instinct. 

Suppose you need a kidney transplant or you will die. That’s a foreign tissue. Will your body realize that an exception needs to be made? The answer is no. Your instinct will trump your intention. You intend to live and your instinct sees the foreign tissue as a threat to be attacked to save your life. 

Can you have a kidney transplant and still survive? Yes, but not without an intervention. The intervention are drugs that suppress the immune system. If you are ever in a situation where instinct is in conflict with intention then instinct will always win unless there is an intervention. 

For example, intend to run up a flight of stairs as fast as you can without breathing heavy and increasing your heart rate. Can’t be done. 

Imagine I have an air puff gun and I puff a blast of air into your eye. You will instinctively blink. Now let’s do this again. I tell you what I’m going to do and I ask you to give me your word that you will not blink. Here we go. What happens? Instinct trumps intentions, you blink.

 So you intend to create an alliance with an estate planning attorney, an accountant, a realtor, a lender and a property and casualty specialists. Your intentions are to send some introductory emails, set up some lunch appointments, select your team and then develop a seminar marketing plan for the rest of the year that you will each market to your own data base.

 You have your assistant go through your book and identify all of your clients other advisors on record. You call them first. The first call you find that you can’t get past the receptionist. The second call you get through but the attorney doesn’t care that you share the same client and is too busy to spend time with you. The call after that the accountant says you’re the fifth advisor to call him and he’s not interested. You get a series of no’s ranging from rude to apathy. 

Now your brain has had a steady firing in the area called the anterior cingulate. This is the area that gets fired on when you are in real physical pain. Rejection is viewed by your brain no differently then physical pain. Rejection is physical pain.

You intend to continue to make contacts to make this happen. You love the idea of servicing each others clients and referrals as the category expert. Your instinct however is to avoid pain. So you get very busy with other priorities and just don’t have the time to pursue this but you will get to it later. 

Sound familiar? 

Try this. Use a behavioral contract. Allow your instincts to continue to rule your behavior. The most powerful instinct that you have is the avoidance of pain and the seeking of comfort.

 Make a specific commitment to a small part of that intention. Commit to making 30 minutes of calls in this area on Monday and add a penalty of $100 if you don’t. Now look at what you just mobilized. Your brain will now make an instant pain comparison. Visualize the scales of justice. There is the pain of the activity versus the pain of the penalty for non performance $100. Your compelling human instinct is to avoid the highest level of perceived pain. If the highest level of pain is the $100 fine then you will be compelled to avoid it. You avoid this high level of pain by doing what you said you would do and making the calls.

Now you have aligned instincts with intentions. Until you do this you will be like a dog. Do dogs love bones? No, they love meat but they settle for bones. Don’t settle. Use behavioral contracting.

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