Fast as Usain Bolt… But dumb as a monkey

Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt: holder of multiple world records and considered by many as the greatest sprinter of all time for how he constantly dominated all of his opponent.

Let me ask you two questions. Think of Usain Bolt. Do you think he is faster than you?

I bet so. Now the second question: think of a monkey. Primates are certainly very intelligent animals. But, among the animal kingdom, no species can compete with the intellectual capabilities of ourselves, the homines sapientes, the “species who has knowledge”. So, let me ask you: do you think you are more intelligent than a monkey?

I have good news and  bad news. The good news is: you are not (necessarily) slower than Usain Bolt. The bad new is: you are not (necessarily) smarter than a monkey. And while I assure you I mean not to insult you, this  is a crucial fact  to  understand if we want to live a better life and to achieve our goals.  Let’s see why.

Let’s begin a practical example. Consider the following problem: «Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?»

Your options are: 1) Yes; 2) No; 3) Cannot be determined.

Try to find an answer by yourself before you read on, and keep you answer in mind.

The difference between potential and everyday reality

I’ll be back to the problem above and I will give you the solution soon. But let me point out something important first. We generally think of skills and abilities in an absolute way, rather than applied to a specific context or situation. In order words, we tend to make overall statements about how good we (or others) are in something. We consider it as something embedded with the reality of that person.

In fact, we could say we even judge people (and possibly ourselves) in a rather absolute way, and that this overall perception of how good or bad they are in general influences how good or bad we feel they are in a specific things (this is called the halo effect).

But let’s get back to the example of Usain Bolt, to make this clear in a practical way. Now, obviously, Bolt can outrun anyone of us any time he wants. But that does not mean he is faster than the rest of us in general. Just imagine Bolt taking a stroll through the park of visiting a grocery store. Do you suppose he would be super fast by doing so? No! He probably would not be walking any faster than any average person. Although he has the potential to move faster than virtually anyone else, this does not mean he is always resorting to it. In fact, despite that potential, until he consciously decides to unleash it, his speed is pretty much average.

So far, this is rather obvious. It is less obvious, however, that this applies to our brain as well. And, as soon as we realise that, we may never look at our choices and opinions the same way any more.

All animals are lazy

If I asked you why in the world the fastest man in the world doesn’t move any faster than average, I think you will easily come up with the answer: he doesn’t need to. It will be costly to move all the time  as fast as he potentially could. In fact, he would be exhausted and would never be able to win any race. From an evolutionary perspective, that’s even worse: any task requires energy, and that energy must be gained. In nature, starvation is one of the major risks any animal faces. The ability to conserve energy is just as crucial as the ability to gather it (in form of food). Since it doesn’t have easy access to all the calories it wants, any animal has the evolutionary drive to be, basically, as lazy as possible, in order to conserve energy. Which is also pretty much why we have an obesity epidemics: since we do have easy access 24/7 to food, this evolutionary drive to gather as much energy as possible (by eating) while simulataneously to avoid using it (being physically active) doesn’t work too well.

While humanity has shown to be capable of amazing intellectual achievements, our brains are not immune to this issue. We don’t often see it that way, but using our brain is taxing, although in a different sense. In fact, your brain is a massive drainer of energy. Although it is small (no offense!), accounting for only 2% of the mass of our body, it consumes over 20% of the total energy that makes up your resting metabolic rate. Or, if you want to put it in an other way: every day you consume about as much calories as a 30 minutes run, simply for having a functioning brain.

Using our mental capabilities is pretty much what running is for Bolt. Something we have an incredible potential for, but something that is weary. We won’t use it, unless we make a conscious decision to do so. Just as Bolt won’t go fast when taking a random stroll in the park.

The brain has evolved by adding successive layers to an already existing system

A good way to understand this is to imagine the brain as an onion, each outer layer being more taxing. The inner layers manage the simplest task (basic control of the muscles, inner organs, breathing, basic reflexes), while the outer layers progressively deal with more advanced cognitive tasks. Our brain is actually similar to that of other mammals: we just have an even more developed outer layer, which is what makes our unique cognitive functions possible. There is an evolutionary reason to this, and I will dwell into this metaphor of the brain as an onion elsewhere, since it is a very good way to understand it.

But let me just point out that it is not correct to think of our brain as being “unique” in the animal kingdom. Most of it is not. Parts of it are shared by most animals. Parts of it are shared by most mammals. Parts of it are shared by most primates. And, eventually, a small part of it is unique to us.  Which brings out the question: which parts of our brain are we using when taking a decision or trying to figure out a problem?

Of course, we would like to think we solve problems and take decision by using our unique, humane, advanced intellectual abilities. We’re smart people, aren’t we? Unfortunately, that’s not what happens most of the time.

Research has pointed out clearly that a lot of our believes and choices are rooted in simplified mental processes, which are prone to errors, and are based on more ancient parts of our brain: those we share with other animals.  More importantly, what happens when we take a “smart” decision (one that, in other words, actually takes advantage of the advanced intellectual abilities we have)? The same thing! Brain scans reveals that those ancient parts of the brain are still active, but those developed in the latest moments of our evolution kick in as well. This additional brainpower can overwrite the initial decision based on simple cognitive skills… but this additional brainpower is costly to use, it makes us weary, and we have the tendency to only resort to it when we really feel we need to.

She’s adorable, isn’t she? But… would you put her in charge of your life decisions?

I like to think of it this way: imagine you have delegated all of your choices to… a monkey. You still have full control, and at any time you can change any choice the monkey made for you. But, any time you won’t take an active effort to do so, you’ll be stuck with whatever the monkey has chosen.

So, back to the quiz at the beginning of the post, which is one good example to illustrate this principle.

«Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?»

Options: 1) Yes; 2) No; 3) Cannot be determined.

What did you answer? If you are like most people, you answered «3». If you did, just as most people, you are wrong. Before we see the correct answer, here’s why 3 is the answer most people usually give.

In short, we tend to notice that we know nothing about Anne, see that we have an option for «cannot be determined» and stop there. It’s an answer that is plausible and requires no thinking whatsoever, so we tend to take it. It is about using the least amount of resources.

This is not so much about making a wrong reasoning. Our mind simply has identified a shortcut and takes it chances. There was no actual reasoning. But does this mean most people don’t have the actual intelligence to solve this problem? It turns out they do. In fact, if you take the third option away, the typical answer most people give is the correct one (option 1).

In fact, the problem isn’t difficult in any way and there are no «tricks» or catches to keep in mind. The solution is pretty obvious as soon as you merely reason on all the options. If Anne is unmarried, then a married person ( Jack) is looking at an unmarried person (Anne). If Anne is married, then a married person (Anne) is looking at an unmarried person (George). Either way, the answer is yes. The fact you don’t know anything about Anne has no consequences. Now, if you follow the explanation, this is hardly a difficult task. Even those who got the answer wrong (I did), can clearly understand and follow the reasoning behind it. In fact, most people have the intelligence to perform this reasoning by themselves if you just tell them something like «think logically» or «consider all the possibilities». Thus, they clearly have the intelligence to solve it. But unprompted, they won’t bring their full mental faculties to bear on the problem.

People do what they need to do to find an answer: they consider the possibilities. In the first example they’ve seen a shortcut, and figured out they could go without reasoning any further. If this option is not available and they don’t have a shortcut, they are forced to reason about the problem. And when they do so, they find the correct answer. Which shows that they are capable of solving it, but also that there are cases where we’ll attempt to solve problems without using these skills, although potentially available, reaching wrong conclusions.


As humans, we do have the ability to reason and figure out complex problems and achieve feats of incredible intelligence. But, most of the time, we won’t. Again, this is pretty much the same as physical activity: the smallest and weakest muscle fibers always activate first, then you progressively engage additional fibers from the smallest to the largest according to the need (in exercise science this called the Henneman’s size principle).

Just as Usain Bolt having the potential to move faster than anyone else doesn’t mean he is doing it all the time, the fact the we have the potential to be very smart doesn’t imply we are actually being that all the time.

The problem is that, however, when it comes to our brain, we fail to notice it. In fact, it could be argued (and we will in some other post) that for most of the time the role of our most advanced cognitive abilities is to justify those (not too smart) decision we make.

In other words: the monkey makes the decision, and we use our uniquely human intelligence to make up a reasonable story of why that decision was good (even if it was not).

Although we think our choices and beliefs are reasonable and based on an accurate assesment of the facts we know, most of the time that simply isn’t true. Learning to use the Functional Mindset is pretty much about understanding the difference.

I think it is clear how worrisome this is. Sure, our quiz about Anne being married isn’t too impressive as an example, but we’ll see in other posts how this same principle results in poor choices that have practical consequences in real life, or how they will influence our ability to achieve a give goal we have.

Or, for a more dramatic example, you can read about how a U.S. president was killed because his physicians didn’t follow the Functional Mindset or how there is almost a coin toss chance that YOU (and any person you love) will die unless you learn to apply it.

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