Aristotle, Pop-Psychology, & Mental Habits

*Written on January 16th, 2019.

What does pop-psychology and Aristotle have in common? The answer is an obsession with habits. This is evident from the recent influx of literature on the power of habit that fills most bookstores today. Our culture seems to be obsessed with becoming habitually fit, habitually intelligent, and most importantly—habitually successful. I don’t see this newfound emphasis as being bad per se, or at least, I don’t have the time to address my problems with it. On the other hand, I do think more credit should be given to the founding fathers of psychology than is often given in these books. Most schools of later Greek and early Roman philosophy wrote on habits including the Epicureans, Stoics, and Peripatetics (i.e., Aristotle’s posse). Although each of these schools mentioned habits frequently, no one made habits more foundational than Aristotle, who made them central in his Nichomachean Ethics (a book that everyoneshould read). Aristotle argued that virtue is not something that you possess. Instead, it is something that you repeatedly do. The virtuous person is therefore someone who repeatedly acts virtuously and actually enjoys it. The bottom line is that Aristotle made habits the means to living a fulfilled and ethically responsible life.

Our understanding of habits today is much more complex and is usually approached from a behavioristic standpoint as opposed to an ethical standpoint. Habits are distilled into a basic formula that consists of a trigger, routine, and reward. We see something or someone that triggers a routine; we run through a routine; we get a reward at the end of the routine, and a habit loop is created. While understanding this formula is helpful for changing our physical habits, not many people consider the fact that we also have mental habits or “habits of thought.” I ran across this idea in an article I read recently, and I wanted to share it with you all. I believe the implications of it would be relevant and worthy of discussion.

Habits of Thought

Here’s how they work. Just as physical habits help you become more efficient by using less of the brain’s executive function, mental habits or “habits of thought” serve the same purpose. Our “pattern-seeking brains” will use the same processes, patterns, and frameworks to help us interpret the phenomena that we experience in an efficient manner. In essence, our brain is like, “that makes sense; let’s use this again!” These mental habits are quite useful and lead us to spend less time needlessly pondering. They enable us to think efficiently and make judgements quickly when necessary.

Although these mental habits have a lot of utility, they also make it difficult for us to see things from multiple vantage points. This is the reason why it is so difficult to change our minds. It’s like kicking a nasty habit like smoking at times. Once our brains learn to savor giving preference to a particular mental pattern, the likelihood of it continuing to use that pattern is high.

Evolutionary Psychology & Biology as Mental Habit

Although I’m not sure about the legitimacy of this idea from a psychological standpoint (maybe this is something that Rebecah can comment on), I do think this is worth exploring. The first example that comes to my mind are the theories associated with evolutionary biology or psychology. The evolutionary framework or pattern can often help us makes sense of why the world is the way it is. It could even help us explain this very phenomenon that we are discussing. Once you become aware of the concepts involved in evolutionary biology or psychology, they can easily become a mental habit and therefore could be misappropriated.

Let’s say you’re at a party and someone asks why women statistically care more about the potentiality of men than men do of women (i.e., why are women choosier in their mates). There you are at the edge of the conversation, sipping your drink. All of a sudden you experience a eureka moment and jump into the conversation. You explain the evolutionary argument for why women are more selective in their mates than men. The argument goes that because women face greater risks and “reproductive costs,” over time they have become pickier in their mates. After this sentence leaves your mouth, you experience a rush of pleasure. Once this happens a few times, you’ve successfully created a mental habit. You’ve got the que—the question. You’ve got the routine—you explain something according to the biological or psychological evolutionary framework. You’ve got the reward—the satisfaction of the coherence of your way of understanding the world and the satisfaction of sounding intelligent. Now, I don’t want to get into the discussion about the legitimacy of evolutionary psychology here. What I do want is to show that explaining phenomena according to theories of evolutionary biology or psychology can easily become a mental habit and be misappropriated. Yes, it may have helped you understand why humans’ brains are much larger than primates, but this doesn’t mean that it should help you explain all phenomena. The person that goes around saying that everything is a result of evolution would sound like an obnoxious pseudo-intellectual. He or she would be someone possessed by an ideology.

Mental Habits & Ideologies

At this point, it’s becoming clear that habits of thought could be the reason for the irrational dogmatism that we often experience in others and in ourselves. We learn some new way of understanding the world and then apply it to similar situations. A problem arises when we step out of the environment where that mental habit was initially useful. When we misapply that mental habit or pattern, we distort our reality. It’s like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. If we are true ideologues or are addicted to our mental habits, we’ll probably get frustrated and angry when the peg doesn’t fit. We may even become sensitive about questions that impinge upon our “squareness.”

These are all unproven hypotheses at this point. I’m sure there may be books or studies done on this. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of them. I’m out of my depth in this area to be honest. Regardless, I believe this gentleman’s articletouches on some insightful ideas. Before concluding, we should consider some next steps if his hypotheses are indeed true.

The Solution: Exposure 

Now that we’ve considered the implications of habits of thought, we should concern ourselves with a solution to this problem. The author of the article argues that the solution is to expose yourself to new ways of thinking. This can be done through reading or immersing yourself in different environments. Reading books that span across different disciplines and perspectives can familiarize you with different patterns, models, and paradigms of thinking. Relocating yourself into cultures or communities that believe differently than you can do this as well. These activities can liberate you from those mental habits that you rely on. They can help you to view phenomena from multiple vantage points instead of a singular one. This creates the potential for you to be less of a foreigner when traversing mental lands away from your own. We all know the feeling of being in an unfamiliar environment. We are often clumsy, confused, and irrational. When in situations like this, it’s easy to rely on our mental habits to help us map our way through the unknown when in reality they may not equip us for such situations. The more mental frameworks or patterns that we can draw from will help us better interact with the data presented to us. It could help us act more rationally whether we’re in the streets of Los Angeles or in the jungles of Tibet. Maybe this is just another essay on why you should read more books and travel more. If so, I’d be happy with that conclusion.

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