A reader writes: “I’m in a bind. My partner has chosen a risky option and wants me to go along with it. I want to be helpful, but I can’t tell whether it’s more helpful to support or oppose his decision. It’s his choice, really. Still, if it turns out to be a mistake, it will cost me, too — and, besides, I don’t want to have to live with regret for having either supported his decision when I shouldn’t have or not supporting him when I should have.”

That is a bind, indeed — a classic one, actually, with features well worth examining. It gets right to the heart of something related to another Mind Readers Dictionary essay, about firewalls, semi-permeable membranes that stand between feelings, thoughts, and actions. That model of the mind is, I admit in the essay, as simple as you’d find in an Anacin ad. This model, however, is only a tad more sophisticated, but, even with few added nuances, the complexities it suggests are almost overwhelming.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


I mention in the essay about firewalls that feedback loops — vicious and virtuous cycles — form between feeling, thought, and action. A simple example: Sleepless worry is the product of a vicious cycle between feelings and thoughts. Maybe it starts with a feeling: You feel agitated because you had too much coffee. Feeling agitated keeps you from falling asleep, so you have time to think. Worried thoughts arise, making your body feel more agitated, which, in turn, keeps you up to think even more worried thoughts.

Or, conversely, maybe it was a thought that started the loop: You were nodding off just fine, but then your mind drifted to something you forgot to do, which caused an achy feeling that woke you up to think an expanded array of worrisome thoughts about falling behind at work, at home, or in life in general.

With such feedback loops, which comes first, the thinking or the ache? Once the loop begins, it almost doesn’t matter.

Psychologists refer to the feeling/thought feedback loop as rumination. In cows and other ruminants (sheep, goats, llamas), the term refers to moving stuff from one stomach compartment to another in order to digest, to extract nutrition. In people, however, rumination is the act of mulling things over, as if passing notions from hand to hand as we come to terms with them.

Feedback loops form between thought and action, too. We think, then act, but the reverse is also true. Sometimes, after we take action, we think about why we did so, a process we call rationalizing. This term is often used in a pejorative sense, as if these after-the-fact explanations are always wrong, but they can’t be. It would be impossible for all action to emanate from conscious decisions. Who among us hasn’t prayed, “Oh, good Lord, give me one good reason for what I just did.” The prayer is usually answered.

And then, of course, feedback loops form between people as well. Tell your partner that you’re thinking about leaving the relationship, and you’re likely to get a reaction that will certainly cause you to do more thinking and feeling, including thoughts and feelings about whether you should have said anything.

Feedback loops are everywhere. Notice how they practically redefine what it means to think or feel. We talk about our thoughts and feelings as though they are concrete things we either have or don’t have. But we don’t think or feel anything constantly. We cycle through them with varying degrees of regularity.

The trick in life is to promote the useful feedback loops and dampen the harmful ones. This sounds easy, and it generally is. But with tough judgment calls, it’s extremely difficult. When the stakes are high, and it’s hard to tell which option is going to work best, and you can’t hedge by taking multiple options simultaneously, it becomes extremely difficult to know which are the harmful feedback loops, and which are the helpful ones.

Not being able to hedge is the crucial issue. It’s not just that the options are different; it’s that they’re mutually undermining. Your partner has made up his mind, but you haven’t. For him, it’s time to dampen the cycles of doubt, because they’re harmful to his ability to move forward on his decision. For you, it’s time to amplify the doubts, because they’re necessary to deciding what to do. One person’s virtuous cycle is another person’s vicious cycle. On person’s pat answer is another person’s reason to question.

Whatever option your partner ends up taking, it is more likely to be effective if you can dampen the mutually undermining feature. If possible, go along gung ho with his decision, because it’s his. It may or may not be the best bet. It’s speculative, and you can’t know yet whether you’ll live to celebrate it or regret it.

To act on a decision, we often assume we must cast all doubt aside. Doing so means treating a decision as a certainty. But if you convince yourself too well that your decision was a no-brainer, you’re setting yourself up for deep regret if it fails, or profound hubris if it succeeds. A better design would be to support your partner wholeheartedly without convincing yourself that his decision, and your decision to support it, is certain to succeed. Is there a way to act with certainty even though you know your action is just a bet?

Here’s where having multiple compartments separated by firewalls becomes a great though underexploited advantage. In action, be wholly committed, but harbor your dinghy of doubtful thoughts anyway. To do so, you’ll need to employ that firewall between thought and action, or else your doubtful thoughts will trigger ambivalent actions.

We humans can’t get nutrients from eating grass, but cows, thanks to their multiple digestive chambers, can. Because our minds have multiple “digestive” chambers, we humans can digest insights from experiences in ways a cow never can. Be thankful for rumination, even if it sometimes causes indigestion.