Why Your Brain Lies To You About Change


I have the best of intentions to practice healthy habits every day. Going for a run, eating plenty of veggies, finishing reading that book and so many others are on my list every morning. Sometimes, I’m happy to report, I do them and I feel a sense of accomplishment.

What about the rest of the time?

Recent research has shown I’ll make better decisions if I get the proper amount of sleep, stay informed, and automate as many easy decisions as possible. There are millions of suggestions similar to those that come with the assumption that we are rational creatures.

As one of those supposed creatures, I had always thought I made decisions in a rational fashion. When I am presented with an idea, I weigh all of the data needed to evaluate my options and then make a decision based on that data. Just like we all do, I hope.

Why is it then that we make different decisions based on the same data?

Our Brain Lies to Us

According to “The Control Heuristic” by Luca DellAnna, it’s because the decision-making process is wired in reverse. When we are presented with a decision, the subconscious determines that with which we are most emotionally comfortable. Before any information is collected or any rationality is applied, the choice is made. When our brain recognizes this, it fills in the gaps as to why we feel this way without telling us the truth.

In other words: our brain lies to us.

If we are not emotionally comfortable with an activity, the brain literally invents an excuse not to do it. Our brain attempts to establish or regain control over a situation through a variety of behaviors. This is why those considered “bad” become easily explained, such as not going to bed until midnight to have more time to relax, or not buying vegetables because they spoil easily. We don’t like bad behaviors, but exhibiting them makes us feel in control and therefore improves our comfort level.

My skepticism crept up when I first learned this. If my brain steers me to emotional comfort, how was I able to lose 20 pounds last year? Why do I still wake up on time and get my job done? What is the point of self-help books if our brain is going to avoid change anyway? Does that mean hiring a coach, for fitness or professional goals, is a waste of time? All that is explained in DellAnna’s three basic steps to adjust your control heuristic.

Read the stories of success by others we trust

It would be easy to feel discouraged from learning healthy habits or acquiring positive behavioral changes we want in our lives. We can be forgiven for thinking self-help books or coaching is a waste of money. To the contrary, I believe these are still helpful.

Step one in the book is believing a decision is truly good for you. Getting into bed earlier could improve my sleep and thus make me more productive at work the next day. Sticking to a regular running schedule over the course of the year helped me lose weight.

If we don’t believe it will benefit us to do so, though, we won’t be motivated to do it.

That’s why many doubt the usefulness of self-help books. If I read the stories and advice of others who I don’t know from Adam or trust in, how am I to believe they will improve my life?

This explains why celebrity cookbooks and diet books work (or at least convince people to buy them). We see someone attractive and in shape whom we spend money to see in theaters, and we are more likely to think their book will be good for us.

Making change smaller can help you believe in yourself

The need for control never goes away, even during this time of changing our beliefs. Which is why it’s not enough to think this behavior will make us happier. I truly believe losing more weight will make me happier. The little I’ve lost in the past couple years is enough to show me its benefits. Deep down, I also don’t believe I am able to lose more weight. Losing a lot of weight seems like a gigantic task.

The Agile practitioner in me knows this is because I see weight loss as this huge process that can’t be accomplished overnight. When I view behavioral change as this giant rock that I have to push up a hill, I’m more than likely willing to forget it altogether.

However, if I embody an Agile mindset and believe in my ability to complete small tasks that serve the larger behavior I want to achieve, I’m more likely to succeed. Something I know I can do is track what food I eat every day and go running 3 times this week. If I do this, I’ll most likely increase my metabolism and decrease the calories consumed, and lose the weight.

By breaking down large changes into smaller and more achievable pieces, we believe we are capable of accomplishing them. Once our subconscious knows the behavior makes us happy, we believe we are capable of doing it.

Get impediments to our emotional comfort out of the way

Even after you have taken the first two steps towards change, it doesn’t mean you won’t encounter hurdles. Despite my belief that I can accomplish what I’m trying to do, if something gets in the way, I may just get frustrated and go back to thinking I’m not capable. When this happens, the change stops.

We must be on the lookout for roadblocks, but there are tools at our disposal. Things like changing our surroundings, our perspective, or simply giving yourself permission to change can help.

This is why coaching is super beneficial to change. Independent third parties can see when our environment is getting in the way of our happiness or belief in ourselves. Transparency and accountability remind us of the mission at hand and our belief that this is possible.

Coaches also have access to information to aid in transformation. Despite the ability of our subconscious to ignore rationale, if we listen to the ideas of others, it can make change more comfortable. When I share my previous experiences or information from a book I read with teams, it acts as a way of giving them permission to change.

Hopefully, I also have earned their trust. If teams believe that the behaviors I’m encouraging benefited me in previous situations, I can encourage them to believe they can do it too. If you are desiring change in your life, it’s possible to change the mind of your subconscious to fuel positive change. However, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for help if you get stuck too.



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