When positive change in our external lives meets the strange power of Thought Inertia.
My apartment workspace was bugging me. It was mostly great, but I really needed more space for books and some out-of-sight storage. (Did you know that many flats in England do not have a single closet?) I found a gorgeous double bookcase, with shelves above and cabinets below, and ordered it. Having learned from a disastrous attempt to assemble my own blanket box (aka linen closet) earlier in the year, I hired someone to put it together.
Result: the bookcase was a perfectly assembled marriage of form and function. I loved it. My eye delighted upon it.
But pretty quickly something else started happening too. I realized that my desk looked pretty shabby in comparison to the book case. My eye did not delight upon the desk. Why had I never noticed how chipped the paint had gotten? Was I really going to let this crap desk bring down the joy that was the book case? Clearly I needed to replace the desk too.
I started to get on the Replace the Desk Train, but before I pulled out of the station, I remembered what I had recently learned about how the brain tends to respond to improved circumstances. Which is not the way you probably think. In general, we usually assume that if we don’t like the way something is and then we change it, we’ll feel better.
But this view doesn’t take into account three counter-intuitive ways that human brains work, which together mean we respond to external improvements very differently than we expect.
The first factor we tend not to take into account is what I call Thought Inertia, or the fact that brains do not like to change their thoughts. This is counter-intuitive because we know how good human brains are at learning, so we tend to assume they welcome change. There are neuropsychological explanations for thought inertia and its coexistence with our capacity to learn, but here I just want to focus on thought inertia itself and the effects it has, especially when we don’t know about it.
So in my example, the thought in question was something like, “My workspace is almost perfect.” I decided the bookcase was the reason the space wasn’t perfect yet, and so I got the bookcase. And I was right about the bookcase serving a need in my workspace and just generally kicking ass. But my brain had spent a ton of time with the thought “My workspace is almost perfect,” and it was super used to thinking it. The thought had achieved Thought Inertia.
So when the bookcase arrived, rather than thinking, “Ah yes, the bookcase has perfected the workspace; let us cease to worry about the workspace and its affordances,” my brain just kept on thinking the same fucking thought: “The workspace is almost perfect.”
In order to confirm that thought now that the lack of bookcase was no longer an issue, my brain looked around to see what else could be the difference between almost perfection and actual perfection. It settled on the desk, and started to provide me with a lot of evidence that the desk was now the barrier to my happiness. And it was really convincing. The list of reasons the desk was a piece of shit and more or less a bar to living my best life seemed pretty indisputable.
The Evidence-Seeking Function
This is where the second counter-intuitive aspect of the brain comes in. We tend to think that the human brain is a kind of truth-seeking machine— like it’s constantly weighing any information it encounters to refine its ideas and reach the truest, most complete evaluation of or explanation for whatever it encounters.
But, as we now know, brains don’t like to change their thoughts. Which means they don’t go looking for whatever evidence will lead to the truest interpretation of any situation. They go looking for evidence that supports the thoughts they already have. Which means our brains will ignore, downplay or reframe any evidence that might challenge those thoughts.
So because my brain was set on “find evidence the workspace is not perfect,” it was going to do that in perpetuity and in a very convincing way, unless or until I stopped it on purpose. If I replaced the desk, I might discover that actually I really needed a new filing cabinet or conversely that I should digitize my files. Anything to continue to support the thought that the workspace was not yet perfect.
The Missing Emotional Payoff
And here’s where the final, clincher counter-intuitive point about brains comes in. These kinds of thoughts about improvement carry an implicit promise of emotional payoff. I expected to feel great when the bookcase arrived, because something that I thought wasn’t good enough would be better. And I did — briefly. But because my brain hadn’t given up the thought “the workspace is almost perfect” I went right back to feeling like something about it was bugging me. This is key, because this is how we wind up supplying emotional evidence to support the thought.
I was ready to believe the desk was the problem because I still didn’t feel great about the workspace. So clearly there still was a problem, or I’d feel better. So I had an emotional reason to accept that I should change the desk. The lack of sustained emotional satisfaction I was expecting was the final, most convincing piece of proof that the workspace was still not perfect. The same thought that promised emotional payoff — I’ll Feel Better When the Workspace is Perfect — was actually leading to my brain creating evidence that I did not have what I needed for that payoff.
And as long as I kept thinking that thought, I would keep feeling a lack of satisfaction, and the lack of satisfaction would lead me to believe the thought must be true.
The "I'll Feel Better When X" Cycle
I had fallen prey to a really powerful and really disabling thought cycle that I call the “I’ll Feel Better When X” cycle. It starts with our misunderstanding of how our brains react to thoughts about improvement. As I mentioned when I began, most of us have an idea how positive change plays out, based on our off-base idea of how our brains deal with thoughts. In our imaginary idea of improvement, the process is:
Notice that I would feel better if X were changed
But, because of thought inertia, the evidence-seeking function, and the missing emotional payoff, what actually happens is more like this:
Think the thought “I’ll feel better when X changes”
Keep thinking the thought “I’ll feel better when X changes”
Notice that I do not feel better
Look for another way that it is true that X change is still not achieved
Find all the evidence the new version is true
Return to #1 and repeat cycle forever
And since we are so sure that the first, Imaginary Idea of Improvement is how things actually work, we just keep thinking we must not have found the right X yet. And the because our brains are so good at finding evidence and the world is an imperfect place, we can always find an issue with some X that seems believable and that reinforces the original thought.
If I hadn’t stopped the I’ll Feel Better When X cycle when my brain latched onto the desk as the reason the workspace wasn’t perfect yet, I could have replaced every item in my workspace, and then, when that didn’t work, started thinking that really what I needed to move flats. And when that didn’t work, I might have rented a workspace (in pre-COVID days), tried becoming a treadmill desk convert, who knows.
But at no point would my brain have offered the thought, “OMG, everything about the workspace is 100% great now! I feel amazing!” Instead, I would have just kept dangling the goal of “Workspace Now Fully Good Enough, Joy in It Attained” in front of myself forever, like the proverbial carrot on a stick.
When the Stakes Are High
I started with the trivial example of my bookcase on purpose, as it’s often easier to see the mechanics of this process at work when the emotional charge is lower.
But just imagine what happens when we bring the Imaginary Idea of Improvement to thoughts like, “My relationship would be great, if only my partner behaved a little differently.” Or “I’ll feel good about myself as soon as I get my degree.”Or “I’ll feel great about my body when I’m more in shape.” Or even “I’d feel great about voting for a woman presidential candidate if only there was one who believed slightly different things.” (There’s a whole category of thoughts about productivity that get caught up in this cycle really easily too.)
Let’s consider at the first example just briefly to see how the cycle looks when the emotional stakes are higher. In our Imaginary Idea of Improvement, it would play out something like this:
Think the thought “Our relationship would be so great if only Molly would spend more time with me.”
Elicit agreement from Molly to spend more time together.
The relationship is great, and I feel great!
But here’s the actual I’ll Feel Better When X cycle:
Think the thought “Our relationship would be so great if only Molly would spend more time with me.”
Elicit agreement from Molly to spend more time together
Keep thinking the thought “Our relationship would be so great if only Molly would spend more time with me.”
Do not feel better about the relationship because I am still thinking this thought.
Notice lack of feeling better. Look for another way it could be true that Molly’s approach to spending time together is sub-optimal.
Decide that when we spend time together, she does not seem present.
Find all the evidence that she does not seem present.
Return to #1 with this small shift in X, and repeat the cycle forever
The cycle is even more powerful if Molly refuses to change in the first place, as there’s zero revision of X required to keep thinking the thought. But the key thing to notice is that even when Molly does agree, my thought doesn’t change. Instead, I just raise the bar on what she needs to do. She could keep agreeing to everything I ask time-wise, and I still would feel dissatisfied with her efforts.
And if eventually it was no longer humanly possible for my brain to find any evidence that her approach to spending time together was a problem, thought inertia would mean my brain would still only change its thought as little as possible. So, I might start thinking — OK, well I guess the problem isn’t how much time we spend together, or actually it’s our sex life. Or her approach to finances.
But at no point would my brain spontaneously start thinking, “Actually I guess our relationship is great just the way it is.” It’s never going to take the carrot off the end of the stick and feed it to me its own accord.
Which means that if I don’t find a way to do that myself, I’m going to stay hungry.
Escaping the Cycle
So what can we do about the I’ll Feel Better When X cycle? Luckily, there are concrete steps we can take.
Realize that it is happening. We’re most trapped in it when are still believing in the Imaginary Idea of Improvement. When we’re hostage to that idea, we’re like a person who is trying to carry water in a sieve when they think they’re using a bucket. Our capacity for satisfaction keeps draining away and we have no idea why.
Practice not believing our brains. I’ve stressed several times here how good the human brain is at offering evidence to support our thoughts, because it’s important that we’re prepared for how convincing our brains are when we’re caught in the I’ll Feel Better When X cycle. When your brain finds new evidence that really it’s X that is keeping you from finally feeling better, it is not going to offer you facts that seem trivial or easily disputed. It is going to tell you things that seem as clear and true as the fact that up is up and down is down. And this is when you have to hold the line and remember the three key counter-intuitive facts: your brain does not want to change its thoughts, it seeks out the evidence that most supports its existing thought (not the evidence that brings you closer to truth), and it creates self-reinforcing emotional evidence to convince you of the thought. Remembering these factors will help you arrest the cycle and create some room to maneuver.
Turn the evidence-seeking function to your advantage. You can do this by setting you can set your brain the task of finding evidence that challenges your thought. So I could list all the ways my desk was already great every time I sat down at it. Or give myself a challenge to find three reasons my partner was perfect for me every day. You will be surprised how much evidence your brain can find for a thought that it insisted was pure lies just a minute ago. Seeing that in action is also helpful in reinforcing the second piece of advice, about not believing our brains.
Finally — a bonus but powerful step — you might try thinking about this all as good news. You may find it a little dismaying to learn out how little our brains actually seem to be wired for satisfaction. But you can also take heart in the fact that it’s nothing particular to you or your situation if satisfaction has perpetually seemed just out of reach. You’ve just got a human brain and so far you’ve mostly had access to a really crappy instruction manual when it comes to using it to feel better about things. Now that you know, you can get to work on dismantling whatever your personal carrot and stick system is, so you can stop chasing satisfaction and start experiencing it.