• Josh

Do Things That Nobody Notices

The mind is divided into parts which sometimes conflict. People put the divisions in different places: Reason vs Passion; Id vs Ego vs Superego; Left Brain vs Right Brain; System 1 vs System 2; on and on. (Of course, deep down everything is a spectrum, so I don’t pretend to be surprised that multiple choices of discrete division are possible or useful.) If you consciously identify with one of these, e.g. System 2 or the Ego, then the rest must be unconscious. The implication of this is that we don’t know all of what our brains are doing; lots of applications are running in the background and only a subset of the results bubble up to the level of conscious awareness.

It’s sort of like when you’re driving a car. There are a select few things the car is doing that you’re aware of: the wheels turn (when you turn the steering wheel), fuel is injected for combustion (when you step on the gas), etc. But the vast majority of what is going on is under the hood. If something goes wrong then you may become aware, like when the engine overheats and the mechanic tells you that you need to buy a new Johnson Rod. To the extent that nothing is going wrong, you don’t need to notice all that stuff and the car succeeds in getting you where you need to go.

There are tons of obvious examples in real life, so here’s one: you comb your hair before going out on a date. This is not so that your date will consciously think, “Hmm, nice hair, I bet he combed it.” Instead you’re counting on the existence of a background application that will notice, even if she consciously did not. That background app notices many things–your hair, your teeth, your choice of clothes–and only a general feeling bubbles to the surface, a kind of temperature gauge indicating whether she finds you physically attractive. This blends and merges with the output of other background apps, which have separate gauges of likely compatibility, physical fitness, emotional connection, among others. Often, none of this takes place in her conscious mind, but is instead going on under the hood. (And of course, very similar unconscious processes are at work in your brain too, as you look back across the table at her. You don’t know your own brain either.)

Similarly, if she visits your apartment and it’s tidy, she may have no conscious thought about it; meanwhile, the temperature gauge will report that things are going well. If it’s a little untidy, it’s the same except that the gauge will report that things are bad and her overall sense of how the date is going will decline. Only if your apartment is truly chaotic or truly stunningly beautiful will she register a conscious response.

If things do go well and you end up in a committed relationship, this background temperature gauge matters ever more. If you comb your hair neatly every day, she will likely never have explicit thoughts about it. But if you never comb your hair, day after day, she may eventually notice: “Wow, what a slob” or “Wow, what a dreamy creative awesome person” are two possible outcomes. And if you don’t clean up after yourself in your shared living space, she may develop a deep, background sense that something is the matter, even if it never gets so bad that she knows what’s bothering her. All those little, “unimportant” things matter because they shift the temperature gauge in positive or negative directions over long periods of time.

People get mad for reasons they don’t know, all the time. I think, often, it’s because we tend to overestimate our conscious control over our reactions, ignoring the background temperature gauges in our heads that are actually doing most of the work. This is also why people fight for “no reason”; they don’t even know why they’re mad, though they have a general negative sense ringing out from their unconscious mind. Sometimes, it all comes to a head in some bizarre context, like “YOU NEVER PUT THE SPOONS IN THE SPOON DRAWER CORRECTLY, I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I WANT A DIVORCE”. This is all super weird until you realize that you aren’t transparent to yourself; it’s not about the spoons, it was never about the spoons. It was about all the many things you never talked about, which were coloring your every experience negatively without you even realizing it was happening.

I used a romantic example, but I think all relationships, Platonic or romantic or other, need this kind of maintenance. It’s important to do little things that seem to go unnoticed. It’s important in part because it will make your friend happy, but also to preserve your future relationship, to help tilt their gauge of your friendship to unconsciously register how great it is to be around you. (By the way, this is not deception if you actually are being great to people!) This works even if they never “notice”, which is to say, they never become consciously aware of what you’re doing for them.

So do things that nobody notices. Comb your hair. Clean the microwave. Smile. If you go to the bar to get a drink, ask if your friend needs one. This is, of course, a very nice thing to do, and wanting to be a nice person for your own sake could be reason enough. But all those little things benefit those around you in ways that are hard to quantify. They make the world better, if only in ways so small and gradual that even you don’t realize it.

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