The Law of the Rational Spotlight, and a Proper Way to Train the Behavior

March 14 2021

This is my law that I had the idea for based on an intense amount of observation and reasoning. About how unreasonable I really am, most of the time. This is related to the other idea, The Great Privilege of Our Perceptual Window.

The Law of the Rational Spotlight says that our rational or executive faculty has a little bit of a flaw: it presumes that we will always see the world the way it does. This is the same flaw that we almost always seem to have (if I am depressed, it seems like I will always be so; if I am in an enlightened state, it seems I will always feel that way, etc.). The funny thing about the rational state though, is that we think we see so clearly; and yet what we don’t see, is just how un-clearly we will probably see again, at some later time.

Of course, it is the rational mind that I could use to figure this out. But only via its ability to record experiences over time, and reflect upon them. Not by accessing its own common sense. In other words, the rational mind’s common sense is that we will always be rational, because we are feeling rational now.

Examples of this:

  • I make an exhaustive plan for self-improvement, mapping out all of the steps very neatly; but on the very first morning that I don’t feel like it, I find a way to sabotage the entire endeavor
  • I presume that my careful observation of how I operate will somehow cause me to operate differently (but I won’t, necessarily—because those behaviors I don’t like aren’t driven by rationality, they are driven by emotions, cravings, avoidances, etc.)

The only way out of this trap is for us to be rational enough that we can predict that we will not always be rational. If we do not recognize our own flaws as part of our nature, then we are in for a very tough ride, because every time we see that we have exhibited a flaw, we are incredulous. “How could I have done that—again?” Well, we did it because we have an executive intelligence, combined with any number of animal urges and instincts, packed somehow into the same psyche, and all operating on our awareness.

This is the essence of Ray Dalio’s Principle 4.3a, Realize that the conscious mind is in a battle with the subconscious mind. A little bit later, he expresses what I consider to be (now) the wisest approach:

4.3e. Train your “lower-level you” with kindness and persistence to build the right habits. I used to think that the upper-level you needed to fight with the lower-level you to gain control, but over time I’ve learned that it is more effective to train that subconscious, emotional you the same way you would teach a child to behave the way you would like him or her to behave—with loving kindness and persistence so that the right habits are acquired.1

I feel myself—as the executive intelligence—as the parent. The custodian. The caretaker. But also, I possess an attitude of humility, and cultivate the appreciation of diversity. From this growing attitude, I realize that these other levels or “selves” can have many different things to teach and offer me. At the same time, I am not going to expect them to be able to do things such as game out future likely scenarios, or reflect upon the past. That will have to be my job (as the rational spotlight).

In other words, our presumption that we are wholly rational, but somehow flawed, can cause us tremendous pain. It is far better to use these moments of reflection, of high-level think time (as Peter Drucker put it) to develop strategies to operate effectively. And these strategies had better take into account these other parts of ourselves.

Our “lower-level you” is also so easily trainable. Fight with it to do something that seems hard; use lots of willpower and effort, and moral thinking; and it may battle with you the whole way along, as if you were battling with a baby who can’t have a something that grabbed its attention. And yet, trigger its attention without turning it into a battle; make it mildly distracting and engrossing, and four seconds later, your lower-level you is focused on this other activity; just as a baby can be easily diverted—one moment crying and shrieking, and the next moment delightfully engaged.

If we keep banging at the door, as though our lower-level self were just a disobedient robot, or somehow just a defective version of our higher-level selves, we will continue to suffer and struggle.

Mich MIchalowicz, in the book Profit First, describes this impulsive self, when run rampant and without guardrails, as the monster. Out of necessity, he developed a system for self-employed people to manage their money that was not purely rational, purely logical—but was actually designed to anticipate our lived experience and behavior:

With your very best intentions, changing your human tendencies to operate your business tased on how much cash you see in y our account would take years. I don’t know, you tell me—do you have years to make your own transformation before your very own monster destroys everything? I sure as hell didn’t.

Profit First, p. 22

Ray Dalio also expresses it here:

Instead of expecting yourself or others to change, i’ve found that it’s often most effective to acknowledge one’s weaknesses, and create explicit guardrails against them. This is typically a faster and higher probability path to success.

—Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work, 4.3


a. Manage yourself and orchestrate others to get what you want. Your greatest challenge will be having your thoughtful higher-level you manage your emotional lower-level you. The best way to do that is to consciously develop habits that will make doing the things that are good for you habitual.

—Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work, 4.5 a.

  1. Also, Ray Dalio’s Principle 2.6: Remember that weaknesses don’t matter if you find solutions. ↩︎

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© Alexander Feller 2018