Reasons why it’s easier to understand than to act, and what to do about them.
In the first part of this post, I introduced the insight/action gap and offered one macro reason why it’s so prevalent: changing things takes effort, and as long as we’re alive, the evolutionary imperative says “it’s all good”. I also suggested that we should think of this gap less as a singular chasm that mysteriously doesn’t get spanned, and more as the output of a million micro-forces that don’t happen to push/pull in quite the right directions.
In this second part, I’ll cover the first two of the major structural reasons why the gap can come about and then hang about, and make suggestions for how to counter them.
1. Interpretation is easy and satisfying.
The reason: Humans are interpretation addicts. Even just within the cognitive sphere, our daily lives are made up of constant interpretive activities attaching to everything from patterns of light and shadow to football scores to the ever so slight arc of your mother’s eyebrow when you tell her about your travel plans. And all this incomprehensibly intricate activity attaches to language more readily than to anything else.
Language turns continuous, analogue sounds into discrete segments: the letters of the alphabet that we combine and recombine into words, and the words we amalgamate into sentences.* The digital nature of language makes it extremely easy to copy and recombine and do complex things with it that feel satisfying—like write blog posts about it being helpfully digital, or concoct arguments for why moving house probably isn’t worth it. So there’s a bias to making everything semantic; you can think of language as a funnel that drags everything into itself.
Talk therapies are a great example of the language funnel in action: Let’s take all the complexities of my existence and turn them into words, often narratively structured and retrospective (here’s the story of how this current life situation came about). All stories are satisfying, and stories about ourselves are even more satisfying than all the others, and neat stories that tie up all the loose ends are the most satisfying of all—even when the satisfaction comes laced with masochism. Therapies that privilege the verbal interaction itself aren’t directly designed to help anyone change behaviours. They’re predicated on the belief that the language funnel is the way to get the problem solved: that if we can just do the funnelling really well, then the insight will follow from that, and then the insight will lead to the actions that change the life in the desired ways. But this assumption is often not borne out in reality. In fact, the insight/action gap is being assumed not to exist. Which is fairly stupid.
[*I owe this insight—beautifully obvious once you see it—to my mother, Sue Blackmore. It’s from a chapter draft for a book I hope she’ll complete and publish, with the working title God’s Memes.]
The response: Make a habit of taking the next step whenever you come to a conclusion in words, whether that’s when journaling or in conversation with someone or just following a train of thought. For example, you conclude that self-esteem issues are part of what makes you keep not asking for that promotion. OK, so you don’t stop there. Instead you decide on a single action you can take that may even slightly reduce the effects you’ve identified, e.g. get yourself a self-help book on self-esteem, try out two exercises from it, and see whether they make any difference.
Think of the verbal conclusion as a hypothesis to be tested, not a truth to sit back into. If the action you try out does nothing, maybe your conclusion was off-base. If it does something unexpected, ditto. The point is not to get invested in your own right-or-wrongness, but to open up avenues for change that will bear some relation to the original hypothesis, and that will be coming about precisely because you dared to treat it as a starting point not a stopping place.
2. Intellectual change is overvalued relative to practical change.
The reason: The language funnel is propped up by the way that as societies we often privilege verbalized intellectual outputs (exam scripts, books, TED talks, even fluent conversational insights into one’s own problems) over practical skills and transformations that may sound trivial when articulated in words (e.g. learning to eat in a way that suits your body and life, having a romantic relationship that feels wonderful). This persists even though the practical things typically have much more direct and/or profound consequences for quality of life.
In many areas of life, changing practical actions ought to be seen as urgent and important, but often isn’t, in part because the “you need to work out what the root causes are first” line dominates—e.g. what’s really the origin of these relationship problems you’re having? Behaviour change can lead to mindset change just as much as the other way round (I’d argue much more readily), but the societal bias means that the action-to-attitude half of the causal loop is often neglected. This is deeply unfortunate, given there are many factors that make it easier to get any process of change kicked off with a tweak to what you do rather than attempted alteration to how you think. Telling yourself to feel differently about something you’ve been feeling a particular way about for a long time (e.g. feeling less angry towards your partner when they do that thing you can’t stand) is typically harder than doing something relevantly different in your day (e.g. asking them how their day went). And of course, focusing on thinking—even if we do successfully do it differently—can very easily just pile up more and more thinking that never translates: feeling less anger may or may not translate into your relationship really blossoming again.
The response: A simple tactic to uncover and counteract the default valuation biases we often have as individuals is firstly to rate the perceived significance of an intellectual conclusion (e.g. this habit that’s obviously creating problems for my relationship—maybe something about flirting with other people, say—represents a part of me that isn’t getting expressed any other way) immediately after reaching it and then setting a calendar alert to do so again a month later. Then, second, do something similar with a practical change that relates to this conclusion and that you also try out (e.g. finding some other way to express this part of you or something that may contribute to laying it to rest—maybe making time for something else you find exciting, with or without your partner): how significant does the change feel a) when you first decide on it, b) just after you’ve first done it, and c) a month after you first did it? When you’ve got both your 1-month ratings you can look back at both sets, make some notes on what patterns you notice, and draw some conclusions about expected versus actual significance.
3. Thoughts cost less than actions.
The reason: As I pointed out in Part 1, actions come with resource costs. Of course, thoughts do too, but they come a lot cheaper. So if you can get away with just doing some thinking, inferencing, pattern-matching, then you get the interpretive satisfaction and perceived significance outlined in points 1 and 2 without the costs of actually doing anything.
The trouble is that cognitive dissonance naturally arises when you reach a convincing conclusion you don’t act on: You’ve now set up a conflicted situation in which your knowledge and actions are at odds with each other, e.g. your belief that rewarding jobs are good things for people to have versus your demonstrably not acting to get yourself one. And cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. So to lessen it to a tolerable level, what you need is not just to do the low-cost thinking, but alsoto give yourself good enough reasons for not changing anything in response. And this is where cognitive dissonance reduction kicks in.
Dissonance reduction is a highly honed human skill, and it can work wonders, as long as the miracle you want is to reduce discomfort at the cost of preventing problem-solving. This is the tradeoff (and it’s one of the most brutal there is) because, by definition, you’re persuading yourself that the problem isn’t as serious as it might seem, or that the costs of action are too high or its probability of success too low, or whatever, in order to make yourself feel better about inaction. If you convince yourself that it was always inevitable that you would end up in this kind of dull and low-paying job and that now after 20 years it’s clear that you’ll always have jobs like this, for example, or if you tell yourself that having a job you really look forward to getting back to on a Sunday evening sounds idyllic but that no one really loves their work that much, do they, then that extra little bit of cognitive activity saves you the effort of actually trying to solve the problem.
The response: I guess there are three main options here: 1) improve the (perceived) cost/benefit ratio for taking action, 2) worsen it for thinking, or 3) block the cognitive dissonance reduction. So you might 1) devise very small specific problem-solving actions to take (e.g. 30 minutes’ online research of vacancies in your area), or 2) tell someone else your cognitive conclusions so it’s not just you who knows you’re not doing anything about them, or 3) identify a common dissonance reduction tactic you tend to employ (e.g. trivializing or distracting yourself from the costs of the conflict) and invent a way to impede it (e.g. starting some daily journaling where you make a point of giving yourself space to think about what your professional dissatisfaction is actually doing to your life and your family’s).
4. Thoughts can be one-offs; actions usually can’t.
There’s a particular kind of structural mismatch between insight and the corresponding actions that contributes to making the former easier. With insights, although they may take time and effort to formulate, once you’ve achieved one, it often has a “one shot and you’re done” feel to it. I might conclude, say, that the ways I keep spending my weekends seem to make little sense given my explicit life priorities reflect a profound need I hadn’t previously acknowledged to myself. Maybe wearing myself out with marathon training despite saying I want to start a business reflects a need to give myself excuses for not achieving as much as other people seem to think I could. Once I’ve reached that conclusion and it has a certain minimum satisfaction rating (i.e. it makes enough sense of enough things without making too many implausible assumptions), I’m done; I’ve got my payoff. Conversely, there are very few one-shot actions that get you high satisfaction in one go. Truly conclusive actions are rare, and many pivotal actions (leaving your partner or your job, starting a business or getting married) are merely the starting point for the multiple repetitions with variation and progression that are needed to get you what you want (e.g. a great career or relationship).
The response: Seek out actions that have as many of the benefits as possible of one-shot solutions. One way to do this is to optimize a new action to have immediate payoffs. So you might make a change—however small—to your weekend routines with or without your family that instantly feels better and more aligned with your priorities or values than the previous norm. A related option is to design the new action to bring about cascades of other changes. For example, stopping watching TV every evening after dinner:
–> helps you do more varied things with your partner, which
–> makes you both feel like you’re investing more into the relationship and getting more out of it, which
–> makes you feel more able to express little things that are on your mind before they turn into enormous problems, which
–> makes you both more relaxed knowing you’ve got a solid communicative foundation, which
–> helps sex happen more often and feel better, which
–> improves everything! (and is a great substitute for telly)
5. Insights tend to apply at the wrong level of detail.
The reason: This is one of the biggest of the big. Verbalized intellectual insights tend to operate at a high level of generality, e.g. my employment situation revolves around my lack of self-esteem, or, slightly less vaguely, around my unwillingness to demand more than the merely tolerable for myself, while tiring myself out trying to help others live better. This type of insight might generate something that feels like a plan of action: I need to bolster my self-esteem / start being more assertive / get a new job / starting listening to my body’s needs / eat more / run less. But even the last of these, which sound the most practical, aren’t particularly useful as direct guides to action. I’m struck so often by how often you can think you’re making a plan when actually what you’re doing is sketching out a hazy aspiration. What you really need to make it likely that you’ll take and sustain meaningful action is something more like “I’m going to try out 15-minute Mon/Wed/Fri evening yoga sessions for 2 weeks after getting changed from work and before making dinner; then use questions x, y, and z to assess how well that routine is working for me relative to going for a run in the early morning; then decide whether to keep them going or adjust or try something completely different”.
The response: In any life domain where you’ve identified that stasis is the default (e.g. physical wellbeing, relationship, career), practise developing your insights into guides to action at a useful level of specificity. Usually—because our minds resist specifics at every turn—this means the more the better, including contingency planning (e.g. if I miss a weekday evening I’ll do a weekend morning instead, or I’ll do nothing different and just get back on track on the next scheduled day) as well as “how will I know whether I’ve succeeded?” criteria.
6. High-level fatalism is infectious; “this isn’t too bad really” is endemic.
The reason: Believing certain things about the structure of the universe and your place in it makes effective action more or less likely. If, for example, you believe that there’s a divine plan and your suffering is happening for a reason, you may be less likely to do anything about it. Ditto if you believe everyone else’s suffering matters more than your own, a belief that often comes in “I don’t deserve anything better than this” clothing. Even if you don’t have any obvious high-level beliefs blocking your inclinations to act, the belief prerequisites for action may be missing: Seeking and taking satisfaction in intellectual insights requires you to believe only that the universe makes some sense; taking action, meanwhile, requires you also to believe yourself capable of change and deserving of it (or at least not undeserving, or alternatively indifferent to the entire concept). As an onlooker to another individual’s suffering, one of the greatest frustrations of all is often the “this isn’t bad enough to take seriously” response. It’s the easiest thing in the world to find examples of other people who are worse off than we are, and then to use them to justify our inaction. And maximum bystander frustration may correlate with low-to-medium suffering, since there the downplaying is easy but the solutions probably are too. After a chat with someone the other week, I jotted down “‘I can’t complain’ probably means you should!”, and maybe that sums it up.
The response: Changing high-level beliefs is one of the most effortful cognitive things we can do, because they tend to be inculcated early on by a thousand powerful sociocultural forces, often in the form of religious packaging that’s had thousands of years to evolve (Blackmore, 1999, Ch. 15). It can be done, though, and recognising its necessity to achieving something else personally meaningful (e.g. a professional or relationship change) can be a catalyst to a liberating loss of constricting ideology, even if the path there is often traumatic. If what’s needed is nothing quite as formalized as apostasy, other ways of switching up high-level priors can work too, like a changed physical and social environment or mind-altering substances and practices of one kind or another.
7. The gap makes itself look wider than it is.
The reason: Alongside deferring action, another things humans are good at is over-generalization, particularly with a negative slant. As I pointed out in my own resignation story in Part 1, quite likely your “years of doing nothing” aren’t actually that, when you observe more carefully and assess more fairly.
And maybe you have made major attempts in the past either to shake things up or to leave the relationship or both. Maybe those efforts have almost worked. And in between them, maybe you’ve made quite a few smaller forays into altering the details. In this sense, “doing nothing” is normally not literally doing nothing. In reality it was probably simply not enough, not nothing. If you consider any of your “really change something” efforts followed by the lapses back into the status quo that came after—maybe that month or two when you tried a trial separation or had those couples counselling sessions—the near-miss structure can often be particularly clear. Think of all the little or not-so-little things that contributed: things like precisely how much work stress you were also under at the time; or just how well the counsellor’s approach seemed to gel with you versus your partner; or precisely how open you’d been with your partner about what was really bothering you right then; or exactly how much your children seemed to be noticing your arguments; or how often you were able to talk to your close friend about things during that phase; or how long and how enjoyable that work trip was that you took at the critical time; or where you were in your cycle on that critical weekend where everything blew up; or less readily detectable details like how your mood had been affected by the season or your diet… If just enough of these thousand details had been just enough different, that effort would have been the one that worked.
The response: When you pretend you haven’t done anything at all, you prevent yourself from learning from what you have done. Instead, you could do an audit of your work in this domain so far, mapping out rough dates and durations of things you tried and then asking questions like “what went right that time?”, “what single difference could have helped it keep going right?”, “what does that tell me for this time?”. Thus, by acknowledging that the gap has never been as enormous a gulf as you might otherwise have pretended, you make it much easier for yourself to bridge it for real this time.
8. The magic trick is just that.
The reason: Despite appearances, it’s crucial to remember that there is no mysterious abyss between understanding and doing. There are just many weighted probabilities for or against that first small action today and its repetition today and the day after and its variation next month. Insight is a product and change is a process, and the product needs to be treated as valuable primarily through its capacity to unleash the process.
Ultimately, actions are self-correcting and thoughts aren’t. You can labour under a cognitive misconception for a lifetime quite blissfully ignorant—but if you really take the corresponding actions, the world is much likelier to correct you. A prime example that springs to mind here is weight loss. The conclusion that not having achieved this is the source of one’s problems and that achieving it would solve them is one of the currently most widespread delusions there is. Of course, one sneaky survival trick this stupid meme has is that even if you do act on it, even for many weeks or months, lasting weight loss is usually not achieved, which keeps you thinking until your deathbed that your life would be way better if it were. But the belief now also comes equipped with a convenient plethora of practical and socially validated avenues for trying to act on it, and the mere believing has become so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible: of course everyone wants to weigh less, so let’s not even think of that as a question, let’s all just fixate on what the best gimmick is for making it happen.
So, bridging the gap is just as important for a false belief as for a true one. But after that, so is pausing, looking around you, and asking how life on this side of the chasm (or the puddle) compares to life on the other. If it’s worse, or not better, we can stride on into the further reaches of the territory where insight and action pose less and less as polar opposites.
The response: Practise anti-magical thinking and doing whenever you can, by honouring in your everyday life the truths that there are always options, that you always learn by trying something different—and that the insight that comes from action is (when you really pay attention to it) the kind that really counts.