Helplessness vs Adaptability

Question Gus was asked on Quora today: How is helplessness a learned behavior?

Reply: Learned helplessness is simply a habit of avoiding difficulty.

If you are rescued every time you start to manifest the frustrations and discomforts of experiencing difficulty and disappointment, then you will soon learn to fold quickly all by yourself without any prompting from anyone else.

On the other hand, if you are expected and encouraged to persist in trying to overcome difficulty whenever you encounter it, then you will end up with a superior ability to adapt and thus be set up for life.

One caveat to this is, however, that it is much more helpful to prompt people to overcome difficulty in the areas of their strengths (naturally high aptitude areas) as contrasted with their weaknesses (naturally low aptitude areas). Continuing to demand that someone persist at activities he or she genuinely has no aptitude or passion for can be quite soul-destroying and destructive of self-esteem.

The kid might not be the “chip off the old block” you’d like to think they are. You need to learn how to recognise their natural inclinations and encourage them to develop in those directions.

It’s never too late in life to start doing this with anyone—regardless of their age they will immediately begin to benefit .

Only a few of Gus’s answers on Quora have been copied to this blog. To see more of his material on Quora click here.
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Posted March 20, 2019 at 4:11 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

State of the Art

How Instinx Performance Coaching harnesses brain plasticity.
Nature's Ladder of Learning - how to measure a person's potential to improve at any given activity.
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Posted January 9, 2019 at 4:32 am by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

The Benefits of Instinctive Bias

Last year I wrote a lengthy comment on an article about confirmation bias because I felt the author dwelt too much on how to overcome bias instead of how to harness it. I came across this comment recently and realised that it covered an aspect of how our instincts function that I hadn’t described before. So it really belongs here on the Great Instincts blog …

The article I was commenting on can be found here:

My comment:

It is great to point out confirmation bias, especially when it’s done in such a charming way. It’s important for people to know about this.

However, when it is presented as a flaw or something to be overcome, its greater value is being overlooked. Looking at this from an evolutionary perspective helps to reveal the utility in this natural instinctive response in humans. If we are all influenced by confirmation bias on a daily, hourly basis, then surely it must have been selected for its survival value. If it happens for a good reason, then perhaps it is something which can be harnessed rather than suppressed.

As pointed out, “seeing” what you expect to see can work for you or against you. An upside, for instance, is recognising opportunities because you expect them to show up. A more fundamental truth is that what we see is always a product of our imagination. Our senses take in the available information and our brain processes the data into a conception of the whole. If this conception reasonably resembles objective reality then we don’t bump into walls, get run over by busses or needlessly rub people up the wrong way. But it is still and inevitably our own unique subjective version of reality, for better or worse.

It takes time for the brain to build up the layers of integrated information needed to ultimately make up a conscious and functional view of the world. This interval is measured in milliseconds, not seconds, but in neurological terms we are still talking about fifty iterations or more needed to tweak what we are seeing into something really worth thinking about. And while this mental constructing is proceeding (roughly within the blink of an eye), it is up to our “unthinking” instinctive reactions to keep us alive and our relationships intact in the meantime. Here’s where confirmation bias comes in handy.

It helps to look at instincts as “preconscious” responses. They are the rapid-response faculty of the mind, happening faster than conscious thought. In the same way that firemen “expect” fires to happen, or police expect crimes to occur, specific instincts also anticipate things happening “out there”: so your system is primed to respond instantly and effectively when they do.

Whenever you undertake something new and unfamiliar, like yoga … or a first date … or asking for a raise … or snake-handling … it is your danger instinct (fear/preventing) which is cued for instant response. It may be your curiosity or your appetite for risk or opportunity that has prompted you to venture into this unmapped territory, but as soon as you do, it is your native caution that comes to the fore to protect you while your brain is busily processing the extra load of identifying new patterns and matching them with familiar ones.

That’s why our confirmation bias often seems negative at the beginning of things. It is — it’s hyper-alert for the unsuspected danger. The unfamiliar is guilty until proven innocent. This bias has protected our particular branch of evolution through millions of years of exploration and experimentation, while other branches have become extinct under the same conditions.

If actual threats don’t materialise in due course, giving the conscious mind enough time to identify value in the new activity/terrain, then your instincts automatically “switch gears”: cuing up a more accepting attitude which seeks and finds ways to “fit in” instead (as opposed to being poised to “bug out” at the first excuse). As further conscious experience is gained, then the “bias gearshift” switches again, cueing up a more assertive approach to mining value here — and so on through a hard-wired sequence of instinctive biasses (automatic unthinking/intuitive precedents) prioritising the natural learning process as familiarity grows.

In all, 15 different instinctive human biasses (prompting filters) may be preconsciously adopted in this way. This is much more than any other animal possesses and accounts for the sophisticated learning and adapting of which humans are capable.

So that’s why confirmation bias actually exists in humans (or any other organism, for that matter). It is our NORAD — our early warning response system — which goes through a series of “alert phases” while our conscious mind finds out what it wants to find out. This only becomes a problem when a particular instinctive response becomes habitual — mistakenly applied all of the time to a whole class of situations, instead of appropriately to the current situation. Phobias, addictions, compulsions — any hangup really — all fall under this heading.

Only then does confirmation bias truly get in the way. The rest of the time it is helping us through the day.

I thought this might be of interest. As a Performance Coach, I have been investigating how to harness and troubleshoot confirmation bias (instinctive responses) to permanently improve performance for the past 27 years (

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Posted August 1, 2018 at 9:13 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

Building Trust

Question from Quora today: What’s the one, single thing someone has to keep in mind to become a good adult?

I’ve just reached 18 years old and I’m starting to get real, big life problems. So, I need to know that one thing that you adults always keep in mind when you’re facing hard times to help you get through it. I don’t want to end up having thoughts that make people say “Dude, stop being a child!”

Answer from Gus:

Looking at the other answers so far, none of which give you the “one single thing” you asked for, I’m tempted to say: Listen! Hear what people actually say, not what you want to think they said.

But I’ve got a better one than that, which is: build trust.

Here’s some pieces about trust that I teach to managers and others:

You could call this collection a little primer on building trust. I hope you find you can do something with it.

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Posted November 26, 2016 at 2:49 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

When “flight” looks like “fight”

Question from Quora today: Psychology: What are some good examples of “fight or flight?”

Answer from Gus:

(Photo credit: not identified yet)

At first I passed on this question – examples are too easy to find for oneself. But then I remembered an interesting example of this in most snakes which isn’t well known.

Most people who get bit by snakes are stupidly attacking the snakes at the time. So you can hardly blame the snake for attacking back. But not all of these people were being as stupid as you might think. Sometimes it looks like you don’t have any choice but to get the snake before it gets you – which is actually caused by a common misunderstanding.

Looking closer you will find that almost all snakebites occur because the person was preventing the snake from running away in one way or another (even when they didn’t realise this is what they were doing). That is what really got them into trouble. In other words, flight is the first option of most snake species when they feel threatened, not fight. (Not all species, though: a few, like the mambo, are just mean mofos.)

However, most snakes are not “running from” in their attempts to flee; they don’t just flee “away” from the threat in whatever seems the easiest direction. Their instincts are not flexible (adaptable) enough for that.

They are actually “running to” their home. Yes, their flight instinct is specifically to run away to their safe zone which is their lair. So their particular flight instinct is fused or conflated with their homing instinct. This particular survival mechanism has been serving most snake species well now for millions and millions of years.

But snakes aren’t real bright: they have a very limited capacity for adapting their instinctive reactions to circumstances. So “go home” to a snake doesn’t mean “find your way home by the easiest means” or “keep going in the general direction of home but detour around threats and obstacles on the way”. No, they haven’t got the brains for that level of sophistication.

Therefore, if you happen to be situated between the snake and its home when you accidentally (or deliberately) make it feel threatened, it will appear to be attacking you even when it is actually trying to get away from you. It can only go straight home and if “straight home” is on the other side of you, then it will try to go through you to get home. So it’s particular form of “flighting” makes it look like it’s “fighting”. Of course, the flighting instinct does switch gears to the fighting instinct at the moment it can no longer obey the “go home” command. Fight is the alternate command when flight seems impossible.

In this situation, many people think they have no option but to fight back – and so many of them end up getting bit. Which they could have avoided easily, if he or she only knew that just a little bit of “snakely courtesy” was in order. All the attacked person really needed to do was step to the side and the snake would have slithered past with relief on its direct path home.

Something to keep in mind the next time you go out bushwalking. Even more useful than a compression bandage and a cellphone.

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Posted November 22, 2016 at 8:04 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

Biting into the easy center of a “hard” life

I answered this question on Quora some 19 months ago, but for some reason neglected to also post it to this blog. As it contains insights of interest to students of Instinx, here it is now:

Question from Quora: Why is my life so hard?

Answer from Gus:

You don’t give much to go on, but let’s see if I can help:

Looking over the 12 answers given so far, I wonder what makes it so difficult for people to appreciate that there are levels of mental capability just like there are levels of physical capability. If the question was “why do I find it so hard to climb trees?” then most answerers wouldn’t respond with “you just think it’s hard for you” as they have done here. They would take the questioner at their word and explore the specific competencies involved.

The fact is he or she is finding life “so hard” and that means it is more difficult to be living their life than it is to be living your life, unless you feel life is that hard too.

For whatever reasons, the questioner is finding it more difficult to cope than most other people they are aware of. For the questioner, that is reality, regardless of its cause. We can be sure of this without knowing anything about their circumstances.

Difficulty is an attitude or emotion that behaves rather differently from most negative emotions. Take fear as a comparison. I used to be so claustrophobic that I couldn’t receive an MRI. The panic would rise in me until it felt impossible for me to lie still inside that bloody donut. But I always knew the fear was inside me, that it was my problem, not somehow emanating out of the machine.

However, if I felt that riding a bicycle was difficult, then it actually feels like the difficulty is “out there” in the bicycle. It is not as immediately obvious that I am “difficultying” the bicycle, like I am fearing the MRI. It feels more like the bicycle is making me feel incompetent.

And yet the truth is that feeling difficulty is exactly the same as feeling fear or anger or grief or despair or any other negative emotion. It’s happening “in here” and not “out there”.

So this is the first step to answering your question: Why is my life so hard? Recognise that you will find the reason it feels so hard within you, not out there. In other words, life isn’t doing anything to you, it is the feeling of difficulty within you that’s making it feel so hard.

Thus, a more practical question to answer would be: Why does my life feel so hard?

(It may seem like I’ve used a lot of words to make a very simple point, but I have to make sure it is understood first or everything that follows is useless.)

To answer that question, let’s first look at the opposite: when something feels easy, why is that?

The common denominator of everything you find easy in your life is that you find it easy to put your attention on it. You find it easy to think about and focus on the things you are good at and you find it difficult to focus on the things you aren’t good at. All problems of difficulty are actually difficulties in attending to things.

In simple terms, a person’s attention is always in one of three states. Just like H2O is always in a solid, liquid or gaseous form, a person’s attention is always either attending, avoiding, or obsessing about something.

Attending is the state that feels easy. We are freely and instinctively able to give the appropriate amount of attention to these parts of life without much conscious effort: it just happens. Avoiding is what usually causes a feeling of difficulty. The more something feels difficult, the more you want to avoid it. Apparently.

But remember what I pointed out before: you don’t want to avoid something because it is difficult, it actually feels difficult “in here” because you want to avoid it. That’s the illusion of difficulty and why it’s not always obvious how to make things easier. (In business, billions of dollars are wasted every year making things physically easier when that is seldom the real reason why they aren’t being used.)

You have to reduce avoidance in order to reduce the illusion of difficulty. In military boot camp, for instance, you are forced to do things that may at first seem very difficult. You are not permitted to avoid it, over and over, so eventually your mind stops trying to avoid it so strongly and thus you find it much easier to do. You may never get to the point where you actually want to do it all by yourself, without outside pressure to do it, but it certainly gets easier to the exact degree that your avoidance of it reduces.

Yes, you are also getting fitter physically, but that is only part of the reason why your training feels easier as you go along. Your mind is also finding it easier to attend: to think about and focus on the activities involved.

Obsessing will also make things feel difficult, but it does it in the opposite way. Instead of feeling like your attention is being repelled, it is being grabbed. When you obsess about something, your attention is being robbed away from other parts of life until it feels difficult to give anything but the obsession an appropriate amount of attention. By default, you end up “avoiding” the other parts of life simply by not giving them the attention they normally require, which makes life in general feel more and more difficult to live.

This is what happens to a drug addict, for instance, but it doesn’t have to involve substance abuse. I coached a person recently who was letting his business fall apart because he was determined not to give up one more dollar in his divorce settlement than he had to: that was his obsession. When we freed up his attention from that obsession, he went back to happily creating what he wanted in his life.

From this you can see – if a person is seriously asking the question: Why is my life so hard? – there’s a good chance he or she is obsessing about something that is robbing attention away from everything else.

So – life will be feeling so hard because you are avoiding big parts of it for one reason (avoiding) or the other (obsessing). The way to make it feel less hard is to improve your ability to focus on whatever you do want to focus on.

Any meditation or mindfulness technique will help you to improve that ability to some degree, you can read about the one I use here: Attitude-First-Aid

Right now you may not know what you want to focus on, but that doesn’t need to be a problem. The more able you become to direct your attention (by doing the exercise given), the more you will find yourself focusing on what you want to without really having to think about it at all. Certainly, life will begin to feel easier, bit by bit, right away.

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Posted November 20, 2016 at 3:09 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

The eensy weensy building blocks of happiness

Question encountered on Quora today:  What is the most under-rated pleasure?

Gus’s answer:

Is this one under-rated?

Not sure about that.

Under-noticed after a certain age, that’s for sure.

We celebrate it when we see it in children, making a big fuss about it. But that tapers off as the years progress and it becomes more taken for granted. It becomes “Oh that’s nice” instead of “That’s fantastic!”. And eventually it ceases to be remarked on at all.

And yet it always, always, always gives pleasure.

And as we get older, it also happens less often. From noticeably occurring dozens of times a day when we’re very young, by the time you crack 60 it could make your day – or even your week – just happening once.

I’m talking about improving your ability to do something, anything.

Whether it’s a huge “Aha!” or just the littlest “Huh” moment, it never ceases to give pleasure.

From gripping the can opener at a slightly more effective angle – to using a more effective tone of voice with your pet (or your Presidential Chief of Staff) – to noticing something about the timing of traffic lights in a new neighbourhood: your life is built bit by bit from these little lego pieces of improved competence.

And the more attention you give to them – the more you take time to appreciate them whenever they happen – the happier they will make you. They are what you build your life out of.

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Posted October 24, 2016 at 3:25 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
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Keeping bullies at bay

Asked of me on Quora today: What is your best one-line zinger or just best zinger of all time regardless of length?

I see zingers as a way to enact justice into an unfair situation of a person trying to grab unfair control.

My answer:

If you’re talking about something that’s going to have a disciplining effect, but doesn’t open the door to escalating conflict, then I recommend no words at all.

Whatever misbehavior is going on, if you simply stand overtly silent and give them a meaningful look, and continue to do so, this usually puts an end to the irresponsibility or unkindness and allows people to “come back to themselves”.

In most cases, except for really severe situations, this is absolutely the most effective way to express your disapproval. Much more potent than whatever “zinging” words you might have tried to use.

Most people only require this kind of light touch. And for those who need more, you’ve given them no ammunition. You’ve done nothing at all for anyone to use as a pretext for taking offense and thus escalating the conflict.

If that doesn’t bring things back to normal and you do have to do more, then this question asked of the main culprit is sometimes useful: So what effect are you trying to have right now?

He or she may ridicule the question or pretend not to understand it, but if you persist in simply asking it, without further elucidation – like holding out a cross to a vampire – at the very least, everyone else involved will see your point and so the destructive influence is brought into focus for all concerned. Hopefully, at least it will isolate the real instigator of the situation (the true bully) and strip them of the support they’re relying on and feeding from.

I’ve actually chased people out of the room with this question as they bizarrely kept on trying to avoid answering it, probably terrified inside of actually confronting what the answer might be.

I wouldn’t get too keen on using it with hardened sociopaths, though. Not unless you have other Bruce Lee skills as well … or a bodyguard. You could test the waters with the question, and then persist with it or not as seemed prudent. No sense in trading places with the victim … unless, of course, martyrdom is your thing.

I hope this is the sort of stuff you were looking for.

By the way, this question also has the added advantage of not putting you in the wrong if you have misread the situation. If someone is genuinely trying to bring things under control or improve the situation so more is accomplished, then they will simply answer your question and you can respond as seems appropriate. (Thus you won’t have to pack up your sanctimoniousness and leave the party.)

I’ve also written more about giving pointed looks and other ways to keep people in line here: Gus Griffin’s answer to What are common mistakes that new or inexperienced managers make?

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Posted October 7, 2016 at 6:37 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

Self-sabotage: we are all very good at it

Asked of me on Quora today: Have you ever sabotaged your own life? Knowingly or unknowingly?

Though it’s hard for people to do it knowingly, but then there are all types of people. And how did you recover from that? Also, if it’s not you and you have witnessed someone close doing the same, you can share their experience too.

My answer:

On average, people do something to sabotage their own lives at least once every waking hour or so – and that’s only when they’re alone. The number goes up steeply when they are interacting with other people.

The amount of time you actually spend acting in alignment with your conscious intentions is a small fraction of the story you are telling yourself. Your attention is really like a pinball being bounced around by constant instinctive reactions to stimuli that momentarily distract you from following through on your intentions.

Don’t believe me? Sit down, close your eyes and try to concentrate on feeling your lips (without moving them) for just 20 seconds.

Did you do that? You didn’t succeed though, did you? How often did your attention wander away from your lips? (Something triggered that each time.) For how many seconds did you manage to actually sustain concentration on that single simple physical location? I bet it was less than 10.

That level of distractability is going on all … of … the … time … while you are making your way through life … every minute of every day.

What do you think would happen if you could extend your ability to stay purely focused where you want to by just 10%? How many points higher would your IQ be? How much more would you accomplish?

Your distractability is a product of two things: 1) how good you are at concentrating (not obsessing), and b) how many instinctive triggerings are happening to interrupt that concentration.

Practising meditation or mindfulness will improve ‘1’ – my favourite technique is this: Attitude First Aid. And learning how to harness your instincts (rather than fighting them) and morph those reactions into more useful responses will permanently improve ‘2’. For more info on the latter, see my other answers about instincts on Quora , my website and my blog.

_    _    _

Aha! So you need more convincing, do you? You think I’m exaggerating when I equate these little moments of distraction to self-sabotage. You know you’ve got your shit together much better than that, do you?

Ok, try this on for size – ask yourself this: What’s stopping me from making my ________ more successful? 

Put whatever you like in the blank space: career, business, job, marriage, financial life, family, community, fitness, health, social life, sex life, you name it. Then answer the question honestly.

Whatever your answer, you are avoiding doing that or avoiding dealing with it. No, it’s not lack of knowhow that’s stopping you. I said: be honest – at least with yourself. You do know what needs to be done, and you’ve known it for a long time. But you are simply …not … getting … it … done.

In other words, you are self-sabotaging.

Enough with the denial and laying blame – wear it – do something about it.

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Posted October 6, 2016 at 2:39 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc

What is the hardest concept to wrap your mind around?

I was asked the question above on Quora today.

My answer: 

Interesting question. My contribution is not the hardest, but it is definitely up there as one of the most influential concepts that almost everybody has difficulty wrapping their wits around from time to time.

Namely, that what is obvious to you is not obvious to the next guy.

It doesn’t take long before a toddler discovers that other people have some strange ways at looking at things … or not seeing things. So we should be used to the idea by the time we reach adulthood; but we seldom are.

Intellectually we do know that other people don’t think “like I think”, but that doesn’t stop us from routinely being amazed at their purblind obliviousness.

The funny part is that the very same people whose stupidity (which literally means dimmed perception) you are sputtering about are looking back at you and being utterly dumbfounded at your pig-headed obtuseness.

Why we all aren’t naturally drawn to see the advantage in each other’s differing awarenesses – so we can benefit from it – is a question for the ages. Such is the divine comedy.

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Posted October 4, 2016 at 5:05 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Misc