We spend a lot of our lives on automatic pilot. We act out of habit, without thinking about what we’re doing.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we had to think our way through everything we did, we couldn’t get most of it done.
Suppose that you’re driving to work and another car abruptly cuts in front of you. You don’t have time to think through the correct reaction. You just react. Your automatic pilot knows what to do.
Sometimes, our automatic pilot even knows things that we don’t know consciously.
This morning, I needed to say something in Spanish but couldn’t remember how to say it. So I just started talking, and the right words automatically came out of my mouth. Then I remembered the idiom I’d forgotten — because I heard myself saying it.
Our automatic pilot can also help us be better people.
Every time we act in a certain way, we strengthen our habit of acting that way: Honesty. Kindness. Forgiveness. Courage. Rationality. Optimism. Serenity.
We can even practice actions and attitudes just by thinking about them. That’s an important benefit of religious observance, such as worship services, daily prayer, study, and meditation.
Olympic athletes supplement their physical exercises with “mental practice” that helps them improve their performance. We can do the same thing. Such practices remind us that there’s more to life than what’s in front of us at the moment.
Then, when a crisis arrives — the moral equivalent of a dangerous road situation — we don’t need to think about what to do. We’ve already practiced it. Our automatic pilot can take over and guide us to safety.
Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital.”