Counteracting Certain Human Weaknesses By Choosing Not To Act



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   2-14

  ABSTRACT:  Human beings have certain inbred characteristics that if followed are sometimes harmful to the individual and can be harmful to society.  Awareness of these weaknesses and choosing purposely not to act on them can avoid these negative effects.

KEY WORDS:  evolution, desire, self-control, awareness, choice, free will, self-harm, self-destruction

Human beings are amazing organisms, whether one views them as having evolved from single cells or as being created.  We have certain motives and tendencies which seem to be fundamental to our “human” nature, and at our current moment in time, some of these very motives and tendencies are impairing the happiness and functioning of individuals as well as threatening the continued existence of the species!  Chief among these human tendencies are aggression, maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, always taking the easiest way, and minimizing fear and insecurity.  These will be explored, followed by reflections on several cognitive “bad habits.”


Human beings are fundamentally fearful in their approach to the world, but this fear can change quickly to violent aggression when we feel threatened, which is probably an evolutionarily selected response to impending injury or death.  In the momentary grip of this aggression and in the right circumstances, we are all capable of murder and other atrocities.  As long as this violence does not extend beyond a few individuals, it is probably tolerable for the species’ ultimate adaptation, but when it extends to large numbers of people, it can be a threat to the future of the species, as well as violating what most of us believe in regarding human dignity!

Wars are obviously one of these threats, although so far in history, warring groups stop fighting and killing when they get tired of it or perceive it to be too destructive to their groups.  Nuclear war, however, raises the possibility that once it is started, so much damage is done (depopulation, environmental and genetic degradation) that the damage cannot be stopped or even mitigated.  Putting such immense power in the hands of fallible human beings, even with extensive system safeguards, is a danger to our future, both as individuals and as a species.  The alternative to war would be not to act on our impulses to punish, to get revenge, or to take resources away from another group.

Efforts at genocide are motivated by hatred and blaming others for our situations.  We want to punish someone, and we make up “reasons” why that should be a whole group of people who are different from us.  These genocidal efforts can be carried out with intense effort (Nazi Germany, Rwanda), which probably relates in an evolutionary sense to the value of eliminating other groups with which our group is competing for food and other resources.  Of course, this violence would be a solution of sorts to a problem of lack of resources, but it also preserves a system in which we ourselves could equally justifiably be eliminated by some other group someday.  It can be argued that there would be greater overall benefit to endorsing an ethic that says that all human beings are entitled to all of the resources of the world, which would lead to finding other ways to solve the resource problem.  This approach would enhance another side of our humanity—that of helping those in need, which we already do within our own groups.  If we choose, we can expand our sense of “our group” to include other human groups and indeed even all of humanity.  The “answer” to genocide is not to act on our frustration and desire to punish someone, anyone, for our problems.

Obviously, defending oneself against harm or violence must be permitted, but there are aspects of our functioning that make it difficult to limit the damage that we can do.  A flurry of reactive aggression, as a response to sudden terror, can kill someone without the aggressive person even knowing what he is doing, and we make some adjustments for this in our legal system.  However, on a larger scale, if our nation were being attacked with nuclear weapons and our leaders and military commanders knew that they would very probably die shortly, along with much of the nation’s population, the reaction of most leaders and military commanders would be to launch our nuclear weapons and destroy the enemy, even though those leaders and commanders will be dead and the nation will be unable to benefit from this counterattack.  The rational choice, for the species, would be not to launch the counterattack, but the emotional response, which would probably carry the day, would be to get back at the attacker.  The major point in this essay is that the better response would be not to act, but this is quite difficult for human beings to do.


Human beings are “built” to avoid and escape from pain and to laud and enjoy pleasure, yet our adaptation (our “normal” and habitual response) is not always the best thing for us.


We label as “addictions” repeated behaviors that are potentially harmful to oneself and that in most cases the individual cannot reliably refrain from doing.  We are most familiar with drug and alcohol addictions, but people can be addicted to food (compulsive over-eating), sex, and many other things.  The key to understanding addictions is that the person feels and perhaps believes that doing the behavior is desirable, because it leads to feeling good.  His pleasure system is telling him that it is good, when he could know with his rational system that it is not good for him even if it produces pleasure.  This point must be emphasized, because the major purpose of this essay is to point out that there are a number of circumstances in which one part of us evaluates the behavior as good while another part of us evaluates (or could readily evaluate) it as harmful.

Dealing with addictions requires allowing and empowering the part of us that knows what is truly best for us to have control and following the advice of that message.  If that part of the person that should be able to evaluate potential benefit versus harm is too weak or is purposely disempowered, then we are likely to believe that the immediate pleasure of the behavior in question is what is truly best for us, when in fact repeating that behavior in an addictive fashion will almost certainly lead to very bad consequences for us.

Another key human problem becomes apparent as we look deeper into these decisions.  Human beings are wired in our brains to be biased toward immediate pleasures when compared with future harm (or benefit).  People will usually prefer an immediate pleasure over a greater future pleasure for which they would have to wait (just look at the rush to immediate pleasure that the electronic revolution is promoting), and they usually prefer an immediate pleasure even if it is likely that there will be a significant cost to be paid in the future.  We “know” that our efforts at predictions of what will happen in the future are often wrong, so it seems better to take the known and surely available pleasure and hope that our prediction of a future cost turns out to be untrue.  In order to “just say no” or to resist acting (like not sending the nuclear strike), we must learn to balance our bias toward the immediate pleasure by taking the future harm more seriously, so that we can counteract our “natural” bias toward taking what we can get right now.


We know that being overweight is likely to cause us health problems (as well as appearance problems), but eating and food are so valued and pleasurable that many people overeat.  Most of them are responding to the physical pleasures of eating things that taste good (sugar, fat, salt), though a fair number of people overeat to gain a sense of OKness or support, probably because our earliest eating experiences are tied to feeling comforted and taken care of by their parents, so that eating in the present can give them (and us) some of those same feelings.

Once again, our “natural” desire can mislead us if it is not balanced by our knowledge of what is truly good for us.  To control our eating, we would need to pay greater attention to that part of us that can gauge our actual need for food, instead of giving over control completely to what tastes or feels good.  Once again, the ability to not act when appropriate can save (or extend) our lives.

People with anorexia provide us with another example of control gone askew, as they become convinced that the consequences of eating for them (usually (1) feeling out of control, (2) feeling controlled by parents, or (3) being overweight and unattractive) are so dire that they restrict their eating so much that their health and even their lives are threatened.  These beliefs seem unrealistic to other people, but those afflicted believe them with great force.  These convictions are difficult to change but must be changed in order to “cure” the disorder, because the person must rebalance his or her sense of the pros and cons so that sufficient but not excessive eating can seem OK.

Drugs and Medicines

There have been great advances in healthcare over the last fifty years, including more and more medicines that are used to allay psychological pain.  These treatments for depression, anxiety, and other problems help some sufferers, but our society has adopted the attitude that drugs in general are an acceptable means of seeking certain emotional states.  There is a general assumption that pain is bad, that all pain should be minimized, and that we “should” always be able to be in a good mood.  States are starting to make marijuana legal.  Emotionally-related sexual problems are addressed through drugs.  Children’s disruptive behavior is being controlled by medicines.  Young people are using drugs and medicines to enhance academic performance.  More states are making it legal to force some persons with mental disorders to take medications that supposedly will keep them sane enough that others will not be annoyed by them.

This trend demonstrates ignorance of the fact that the human organism depends on pain to guide and protect itself.  Those few persons who for physical reasons lack pain sense are in constant danger of physically harming themselves inadvertently because they do not have the guidance of pain, and persons with painful emotions are placing themselves at greater risk by ignoring the warning and informational value that psychological pain contains, which causes the person to ignore changes in behavior or lifestyle that are necessary for his or her well-being.  To use medicines to enable one to stay in a bad marriage or a debilitating job is to compound the problem instead of solving it (even though, of course, making those changes involves a certain amount of pain).  Once again, our impulse to get away from pain is sometimes destructive to us, and in most cases the better course of action is to not use the drugs and medicines and acknowledge the reasons for the pain and do something about them.


To expand on the point made above, human beings have “emotions,” which are signals to ourselves that indicate what things are important and prompt us to act with regard to those things.  Some aspects of emotions are for the most part “hard-wired” in, such as fear and terror, but some of these as well as other emotions are affected by conditioning from our experiences in the world.

The difficulty that emotions pose for us is that to act solely on their prompting is often destructive and not in our best interest.  In acting on jealousy or despair, for example, we may harm ourselves.  To act on the embarrassment of being disrespected or the shame of being rejected by a loved one can lead to murder.  To act after using our cognitive capacities to plan our actions is more adaptive, but to do that requires first “doing nothing” (not acting on our emotional impulses so that we can reflect and plan), and this is a learned skill, which many human beings do not learn adequately.  “Freezing” (being still to avoid being seen by an enemy) seems to be part of our built-in systems, but purposely not acting on jealousy or despair is a learned ability.


Sex is obviously very important to human beings, and our almost constant sexual awareness and stimulability has no doubt ensured our survival and growth in numbers as a species.  However, in organized societies we have determined as a group to consider some sexual behavior, such as sex outside of marriage, as potentially destructive to the social fabric and therefore to prohibit it.  Presumably such rules seem necessary to ensure proper raising of children, although the outcomes of modern single parent families are calling this into question.

The stories of sexual attraction to and behavior with persons other than those to whom we are committed are constant in the media and in movies, illustrating over and over how such behavior can be destructive in terms of betrayals and violence, but this does not seem to change the incidence of such behavior.  This could only happen if we can better manage to “not act” on our desires in this area.


It has become clear that the human body requires use to maintain health and successful functioning.  Persons who are confined to bed for several days start losing muscle strength.  If hands are not stretched every day, they stiffen up and cannot unbend.  If adults do not get enough exercise, they lose function gradually in various ways, which speeds them on their way to the end of life.  This loss of function is gradual enough that we rarely notice it, and our ignorance is enhanced by the fact that most people don’t exercise enough, so we presume that our deteriorating state must be OK since it is the same as that of most other people.

Our “natural” tendency as human beings is to avoid “work” if we don’t have to do it.  Leisure is touted as the ultimate good, but since most of us no longer work manually, most of us are, without knowing it, only weakened versions of our potential selves.  The boom in gyms and exercise groups is of some value, but it is motivated more by the wish to be attractive than the wish to be healthy, and most people give it up in mid-life.  In order to maximize health, 95 percent of the population needs more activity, yet this is not happening because we unthinkingly honor our “natural” tendency to save our strength by avoiding strenuous activity.  In this case, my adage to “not act” would translate to not accepting a life without sufficient exercise to keep us in a healthy and energized subjective state.

Keeping Everyone Alive

Our compassionate desire to help those who are ill or disabled to have the best lives that they can is ethically laudable, but it is unavoidable that to make it more possible for those with chronic illnesses and disabilities to have children acts to weaken the total species genetically and to make us less able to survive.  Our natural tendency to want to help others and to want to “fight” against limits to our complete functioning are, to a small degree at least, harming the species.


In order to function smoothly and efficiently, human beings need to be in an environment that is familiar to them, with only small variations, since we are easily confused by and fearful of unfamiliar things.  This includes people who are “different” from us, in dress, language, skin color, mannerisms, beliefs, customs, etc.  We like to be able to anticipate everything that’s going to happen, and we don’t know how to predict what those who are “different” will do.

Our first impulses in response to difference are annoyance and distancing, or, if the threat seems greater, to destroy the “different” person.  We readily classify people as either “in” and part of our group or “out” and not in our group, and the loyalty of most people is only to people in their own group.  The impulse to destroy is enhanced by the fact that we can easily view those who are different as being not fully human in the way that we are human.  When the issue seemed crucial to one’s welfare and eternal soul, these differences have led to wars and terrible atrocities.

These issues point out that adjusting to difference takes effort and does not come naturally, which is the reason that living in a multicultural society takes more effort than if everyone is more similar.  People would have to believe that the benefits of such multicultural environments were greater than the required adjustments if they were to continue to tolerate difference and work to get along with those who are different.  In this case, the adage to “not act” would translate to not acting on our initial impulse to be annoyed and to distance ourselves but rather to reflect on our belief (if we believe) that adjusting to difference leads to more rewards for us than not adjusting.


Another major “natural” inclination of human beings is to do whatever is necessary to minimize fear and insecurity.  If we fear something or feel insecure in regard to something, we “naturally” seek to change that something so that we won’t feel fearful or insecure.  Fear is the most far-reaching emotion that we have that pushes us to avoid or eliminate perceived dangers to us.  In the modern world, though, we have created opportunities for gain that require the toleration of a certain amount of fear and insecurity. 

In our push to better our lives, we have made our society more anonymous, with neighbors not knowing each other and families having little interaction.  This means that more of the time we are around people that we do not know and therefore naturally fear (even if only a little bit).  Our “natural” reaction is to stay distant from those whom we do not know, which has resulted in the formation of internet groups of people and radio audiences who all see the world the same way (liberal, conservative, Christian, etc.), and this has resulted in a greater sense of difference and conflict in our society.  If we knew people belonging to each of these various groups and lived among them in the same neighborhoods, we would be more tolerant of them and more willing to get things done as a total group by compromising.  Application of the adage to “not act” in this instance would be not to isolate ourselves by seeking out only those to whom we are similar.

We view gaining wealth through investments as a good thing, but in order to gain from investments, we must risk losing our money, and while we wait for the hoped for gain from our investment, we must tolerate a certain amount of fear (of losing) and insecurity (regarding trusting the investee to handle our money responsibly and successfully).  This and many other similar developments would seem to require more tolerance of insecurity today than hundreds of years ago (although hundreds of years ago we might have had more insecurity in terms of wars or crop failures impacting our lives).

Economists believe that expanding markets through globalization will bring more wealth to all participants, but it is also clear that in the process of establishing these expanded markets, established economic relationships are disrupted, and individuals can suffer, sometimes greatly.  If your product can now be made more cheaply in a foreign country and sold in your country, you may lose your business if you cannot, within your own society, lower your production costs sufficiently to compete.  Many people have suffered around the globe from this effect, mostly in the wealthier countries.  In order to potentially benefit from this globalization, we must all tolerate a greater amount of fear and insecurity, because things are not yet established and predictable.  Expanded opportunities are offered in this as yet unpredictable globalization, but we have less security in our livelihoods.  The implication of this for our behavior is that while we may have an impulse to reject globalization and keep our markets to ourselves, this would mean losing access to some raw materials (for making computers and cell phones, for example) and, according to economists, to lower total wealth for everyone in our country.

The discussion of fear of difference above is relevant here also.  We are tempted to destroy or change those who are different from us, but this course of action would harm those others greatly and would result in enmity and hatred for us from those other groups for decades to come.  It would be possible for all to agree to less interpenetration of cultures (prohibiting travel and restricting business transactions to being done in only one certain way), but this would go against our human inclination to freely explore and use what we find for our own benefit, and according to economists, it would lead to less total wealth for everyone in the world.  Once again, we may choose to do the work of tolerating difference instead of going with our impulse to reject or destroy.


Immediate vs. Long-term

As described above, human beings have a marked tendency, “learned” through evolution, to value immediate rewards over rewards in the future, since rewards in the future are always somewhat less certain than immediate rewards.  This tendency makes it more difficult to us to work toward longer-term rewards, such as getting advanced education, saving for retirement, or sharing with others, which involves sometimes letting others have something or have their way as part of the process of taking turns or building a trusting relationship.

In order to pursue more long-term goals, it is necessary for us to thoughtfully identify all of the potential consequences of both choices (the shorter-term and the longer-term) and to make these future consequences all appropriately “real” in our imaginations.  For instance, we must include in the consequences of our shorter-term choices the predictable impact of our behavior on others—something that many people prefer to ignore so that they can choose to do what they want without conflict or guilt, and we must honestly assign likelihoods to both the positive and the negative consequences of our longer-term choices, rather than using the understandable uncertainties of future events as an excuse to totally ignore them.  When we have honestly identified all of the potential consequences of our choices and assigned appropriate likelihoods to them, then we have the best basis for making the choice most likely to give us maximum desirable results.  In this circumstance, the adage to “not act” means to not act on our immediate impulses but to weigh all the facts before acting.

Taking Advantage of Others

As infants and children, we generally “want what we want, and we want if now.”  We come to view parents not only as providers but also as withholders, and we try our best to figure out what to do to get them to give us what we want when we want it.  We view siblings and newly found friends as competitors, since at that point all we can see is the immediate future, in which there is only so much pie or so many toys, which will go either to us or to someone else.  This experience and this view of others leads many to work lifelong to sharpen their abilities to get others to either give them what they want or get out of the way, and this usually means trying to take advantage of others in some way, either through lying or deceiving to get a bigger share of things than others or through emotionally manipulating others into giving us more (acting weak, sick, or more deserving than we are, or threatening, blackmailing or extorting others).  This view of trying to get everything one can in a world of limited resources can also lead to a hoarding mentality.

The antidote to this anti-social behavior is to discover and come to truly believe that we can get more out of life in the long run by cooperating with others, treating others fairly, sharing appropriately, and in general not taking advantage of others.  This requires a longer-term view of life and events and the capacity, in sharing, to sometimes let others get what they want while we wait to get what we want (wait for our turn).  This is not conceptually difficult, but for people who view others as taking away from what they can get and therefore as competitors, it may be hard to step back and give this other view a chance.  It is a question worth asking, of course, whether it is in fact true that we can get more out of life by cooperating, sharing, and treating others well, and each person must come to this conclusion on his or her own.  One thing is certain, though, which is that if you live a life of cooperating, sharing, and treating others well, you will be liked and loved by more people!  So, don’t act on your impulse to always go after what you want regardless of the impact on others, but be willing to share and take turns.

Going Along with the Crowd

Another thinking error that we are prone to is to adopt the views and opinions of others without fully evaluating them.  Doing this is easier than carefully evaluating things for ourselves and coming to our own conclusions.  This does, however, lead to some unfortunate behaviors, such as lynch mobs and electing Presidents without considering their abilities to do the job!

Going along with the crowd does create some of the conformity and similarities in society that are needed for society to work smoothly and for citizens to have a sense of security and belonging, but we would do well to guard against its more negative consequences.  Declare independence for you mind, and think for yourself!


Although evolution (or the Creator) has equipped us well for many of the dangers and stresses of life, we can see that doing everything by instinct or first inclination can in some instances be destructive to ourselves and to others.  Will power is often enlisted in efforts to go against our inclinations, but it often fails because we have divided loyalties, both wanting to do what comes naturally and wanting not to do what comes naturally.

The more effective solution to this dilemma is to thoughtfully determine what is truly in our best interest, which will enable us to put all of our strength behind the path of our choice.  This means convincing ourselves completely, without reservation, of what will be truly best for us.  The examples above have shown that doing what we initially “feel like” doing may not be the best thing for us, but to believe without reservation that a different course is better, we must look at it carefully, get others’ input, and be willing to give up the rewards of doing what we “feel like” in return for the greater benefit of doing something else. 

Stepping back to look at this scheme for creating the best outcomes for ourselves, we can note that we are using one “natural” capacity of human beings (observing and understanding our own behavior and choosing subsequent behavior according to our predictions of total outcomes) to counteract the unhelpful effects of another “natural” aspect of ourselves (doing what we initially “feel like” doing).  Both are “natural” to us, and we are choosing which to follow in order to reach our chosen goals.  If our chosen goal was to maximize immediate pleasures, then we would simply follow our inclination to do what we felt like doing.  If our chosen goal was to maximize the total pleasure in our lives, then we might choose to interfere with “doing what we feel like doing” and instead do what we view as “truly best for us” in view of this second chosen goal.  We would be using our ability to reflect to formulate goals that are somewhat different from our simplest and evolutionarily earliest goals, and to choose behaviors that would best help us to reach those goals.

If eating too much is a problem, then you must know why you would prefer doing something different (health reason?, appearance?, self-respect?, etc.).  Once you have identified the reasons for the altered behavior, check with yourself to see if that really seems better to you.  Think about all of the consequences of each path, imagine them clearly, and weigh them against each other in your mind.  If you decide to change, then every time you want to eat but think that it might be excessive, you must re-weigh those consequences.  If you are to change, you must be able to see clearly that you would prefer the total package of consequences of not eating at that moment (feeling some continued craving, losing weight, feeling better about yourself, etc.) to the total package of consequences of eating at that moment (satisfying your craving, feeling good from eating, gaining weight, feeling bad about yourself, etc.).   Fortunately, repeated evaluations of this question that lead to the same conclusion will over time make it easier and quicker for us to come to that same conclusion again.

What you choose to do shows you what you truly believe is best for you, because you will always do what you, in total, think is best for you.  If you choose to eat, it tells you that you don’t believe that it is better for you to eat than not to eat, because if you truly believed that it was better for you not to eat, you wouldn’t eat.  Again, you must become of one mind on the matter, even if your habit of eating still gives you some feeling of disappointment for not eating.  That feeling habit will change in time if you stay consistent with your chosen path of change.  The biggest problem in changing is thinking that one path is best for you while your feelings are still telling you that another path is better.  You are the only one who can convince yourself of what is best for you.