Last “Mind-Reader’s” was about floodlighting, a technique for overcoming both rashness and indecisiveness on soft decisions. Floodlighting is the alternative to spotlighting the options you’re for or against. To floodlight is to illuminate all the available options at once, that is, to explore your full decision space rather than swinging your spotlight from one isolated choice to the next.

I argued that options generally fall into an array of basic categories, and while you never can explore all the possible subtle variations within them, they nonetheless define the outer dimensions of your decision space. I gave one example of an array—the three options for dealing with a persistent problem. You can take it, leave it, or try to change it. For example, if your romantic partnership is frustrating, you can live with it as is, you can move out, or you can stay and try to improve the situation. Within each of these option categories, of course, variations abound. There are 50 ways to leave your lover, and vastly more ways to try and change things within your partnership. But the fundamental rules apply. Take it, leave it, try to change it. That’s the array of basic options.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

This time I’d like to embellish on that categorical array and, in the process, make a connection to the theory of universal psychology, a nascent field of legitimate academic research in which we try to identify which of the behaviors life exhibits here on Earth would be exhibited anywhere life emerged. Our work is connected to what is now being called “general biology,” which explores the general conditions life would have to meet anywhere. Both fields make distinctions among kinds of life forms. Just as plant, animal, and human behavior patterns differ here, we would expect alien behavior to differ depending on the kind of life form we look at.

To start I’d like to point out a distinction between us and our fellow living creatures here on Earth. Anti- Darwinists who bristle at the thought that we are just another midsized mammal do so with good reason. Physically, we are just an ape, but mentally we are a new creature entirely. There’s a lot of interesting speculation about what makes human minds so different from those of other creatures, and about how they became so different. One central difference is that humans can construct and retain complex pictures of things that aren’t right in front of them. We make mental movies far more elaborately than other creatures. We play out detailed scenarios in our heads.

One effect of this is that we can aspire. We can picture a goal a long way off and strive for it even against very significant odds. In doing so, we’ve added to our repertoire of behavior a capacity to make paradoxical moves, selecting a presently unpleasant option in the hope that it will bring us to some greater good some time in the future. Having this option in our repertoire is often nerve-racking. It sticks us with the dilemma of how much to sacrifice. It makes us the speculative investors we are, sometimes holding, sometimes folding; sometimes taking the immediate gratification, sometimes holding out for delayed uncertain gratification, often experiencing white-knuckle doubt about whether we’re doing the right thing. In nature, only humans have a highly evolved capacity to commit to paradoxical options, chosing paths that feels bad because we picture them eventually leading someplace that will feel good. Only we can go down in order to go up.

Last month scientists discovered that female great white sharks migrate from South Africa to Australia and back in nine months, a trip of more than 12,400 miles—which for us would take a whole lot of aspiration. Does it for the shark? The anti-Darwinian would say, “No. People are different!”—and the Darwinian would agree. Instinct guides all sorts of labor-intensive and self-sacrificial behavior. It’s unlikely that the sharks are inspired to travel by a notion among notions, a mental travelogue among mental travelogues that somehow makes the Australian coast exceptionally enticing and therefore worth the migrational effort.

In contrast, we humans very clearly act upon selected notions among notions. We choose the future states we would like to reach from arrays of mental representations. Even those who would argue that we have no free will—that the choices we think we make are foretold somewhere, somehow—would have to admit that a distinctive human behavior (maybe even a predestined one) is imagining arrays of outcomes and acting with only certain of these outcomes in mind.

When we act with an outcome in mind, I count three imagined elements: our plans, expectations, and goals. The plan is the imagined path we’ll take. The expectation is our imagination of what the trip will be like. The goal is the imagined end point.

So simple it’s boring, right? Plans, expectations, and goals sound as empty as bullet points in the PowerPoint presentations you get in business training sessions.

They’re anything but simple and boring in two important ways, however. First, that no other creature in Earthlife’s four billion years constructs elaborate imagined plans, expectations and goals the way we do. Second, when our plans, expectations, and goals don’t jibe with each other, when the expectations aren’t being met or you can’t find a plan to get to the goal—the tension between them is positively riveting. In the abstract, they’re boring. In real life, they’ll tear your heart out.

You thought you’d be in Australia by now. You expected to be more accomplished by midlife. You expected your kids to be out of the house by now. You want to be able to feed your family, but no plan seems feasible.

Dissonance between our plans, expectations, and goals throws us into doubt. And, simplifying for the sake of clear delineation, in doubt we face three basic options: change one and hold the other two constant for each of the three combinations.

Change your expectations; hold your plans and goals constant: I guessed wrong on how long it takes to get to Australia. Plan A, full steam ahead, Australia here I come . . . eventually.

Change your goal; hold your plans and expectations constant: This isn’t working. I should migrate to India instead.

Change your plans; hold your expectations and goals constant: I was supposed to be in Australia by now and I still want to get there. I’ve got to try a different route.

Notice that these correspond to “take it, leave it, try to change it.” Changing your expectations to match circumstances is taking it as it is. Changing your goal is leaving it. Altering your plan is trying to change things within the context of pursuing the same goals.

“I know what the problem is. I’ve had unrealistic expectations about marriage . Marriage is difficult. I’ll stay and try to be more accepting.”

“I know what the problem is. My plans are good and my expectations are realistic. They’re just not being met. It’s time to quit this marriage.”
“I know what the problem is. My marriage is worth saving and my expectations are realistic. I shouldn’t settle. To save our marriage, we’ve got to try something different.

Each of these options implies alternatives— alternative plans, expectations, and goals. So, more accurately, it’s not just that in pursuing a goal we imagine plans, expectations, and goals, we imagine arrays of them and selected options among them. Focus, determination, commitment, obsession, stubbornness—all these qualities are a function of how much of our attention goes into the selected options as compared to the alternatives. And when we’re focused, we’re not thinking about the options. The sweet spot in marriage or any pursuit is that place where you’ve gotten over questions about what else you could be doing because what you’re doing feels good—and in fact is good.

Sharks, we can guess, are less troubled by dissonance between their plans expectations and goals. They don’t consider alternatives to Australia. To a limited extent they can take alternative routes but probably don’t beat themselves up over unmet expectations, for example when they find themselves in the slow lane to success. Here on Earth, we’re the only creature who shows any signs of beating ourselves up trying to figure out with respect to plans, expectations and goals, when to change what. But in the Universe it’s unlikely we’re alone. Any creature anywhere that acquired the ability to imagine in depth alternative routes to alternative futures would struggle with the same floodlighted array of options. So there’s some comfort. If you find plans expectations and goals tearing your heart out, you’re not alone. It comes with the territory and not just of terrestrial life but of any lives anywhere as imaginative as ours.