We Are Mere Animals

One of the greatest fallacies that we’ve been fooled into thinking is that we’re so different from animals.  Sure an animal can’t drive (or can it?), do long division, or understand the complex social interactions in Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but we’re not as far from them as one might think.  We still share many of the same characteristics of animals like eating, sleeping, mating, and socializing.  We potty train our young just like we potty training our dogs, yet just because we have a higher level of reasoning we think we can ignore the same basic biological instincts that all animals (including us) share.   Let’s take a look at at some examples of how our “higher level” of reasoning supposedly help us overcome our more basic instincts.

Many people want to stay at a healthy weight1.  What are the two ingredients we need to solve this problem?  Easy, regular exercise and a balanced diet.  How many people do you think follow this “obvious” solution?  Probably a lot fewer than those who overeat and live a sedentary lifestyle.  It’s not easy for your brain to turn down a deliciously engineered fast food meal with a side of sugary soda pop2.

How about smoking?  It has been clearly established that smoking can dramatically reduce your lifespan, cause lung cancer and a whole bag of other nasty things such as heart disease, infertility, and among other things nasty teeth.  So you think those most informed would definitely swear it off?  Yet, you can walk down to any major hospital and see a surprisingly high amount of doctors and nurses — professionals who treat patients for the deadly effects of smoking on a daily basis — smoking outside the building.  It’s so easy to say you should quit smoking because it is bad for you and causes cancer but it’s something every single smoker already knows (it’s written on the label).  Even for the most enlightened of thinkers, the biochemical processes of addiction are usually too strong to overcome.

What it all comes down to is not that we have big brains, thus we are not animals.  But more like we are animals and have big brains.  Taleb put it eloquently in way that really struck a chord with me:

“One of the most irritating conversations I’ve had is with people who lecture me on how I should behave.  Most of us know pretty much [know] how we should behave.  It is the execution that is the problem, not the absence of knowledge.  I am tired of the moralizing slow-thinkers who pound me with platitudes like I should floss daily, eat my regular apple, and visit the gym outside of the New Year’s resolution… We need tricks to get us there but before that we need to accept that fact that we are mere animals in need of lower forms of tricks, not lectures.”
Fooled By Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb has the right idea here of how we can deal with our “animal”-selves: tricks.  In other words, playing off our built-in biological and psychological tendencies to accomplish what we should be doing.  Understanding our natural tendencies can go a long way to overcoming many difficult problems — large and small — that we deal with in our lives.  One example that stands out in my mind is weight watchers.  Weight watchers doesn’t use some fad diet to cause some sudden onset of weight loss.  Instead, among other things, they act as a support group (i.e. a means to utilize influence tactics such as consistency and commitment, liking and social proof) to ensure that their members follow the common sense guidelines that we all know.

So know you all know what you should be doing, whether or not you actually do it is another story.  As for me, I’d better finish this post off soon because I should be cleaning up, doing laundry and washing the dishes today; translation: I’m going to take a nap.


  1. As a side note, I just joined Twitter for a project at work and this type of problem is what is colloquially known as a #FirstWorldProblem.  Funny enough, it seems that this hashtag is used primarily by teenagers who, by my estimation, have so little worldliness that it seems unlikely they understand the full depth of this phrase. []
  2. Not to mention the positive psychological associations that mass marketing has programmed in you.  In a similar way, we ignore (or are ignorant) of how effective this marketing truly is. []