If you think you have full control over your decisions, think again
Pause for a moment and try to recall what you had for breakfast. Was it a savory, protein-rich pan of bacon and eggs, a hearty bowl of cinnamon-honey oatmeal, or did you opt for the quick and light cup of coffee instead? Keep that thought glued into your mind for a bit.
Now ask yourself this: how much control do you think you have over something as banal as your choice of breakfast? If you think you have complete, unquestionable control over your morning provisions, you’re not alone. However, you’d be mistaken. External factors play a much larger role than we like to appreciate.
You see, breakfasts are actually quite unique. Your breakfast options are likely more habitual than your afternoon and evening meals because of the strength of morning routines. There’s a good chance you had the same thing for breakfast yesterday, or the day before. People want something quick and convenient on their tables in the morning — they subconsciously seek to remove as much decision fatigue as possible in order to preserve their brain space for other more important things in their life.
This is part of the reason why the cereal industry is a colossal contributor to the customer goods economy in the US. In 2013, the supermarket industry generated approximately $620 billion in revenue — of which $11 billion came from the cereal market. Kellogg’s is the archetype example of this phenomenon, whose products are ubiquitously known worldwide. This has even been backed by research, with several studies noting that consumers have strong brand loyalty to breakfast foods like cereals.
Ads by the chicken lobby may convince people to eat a bit more chicken, but an avalanche of Tony the Tiger ads can get tens of thousands of children to eat Frosted Flakes every morning for years.
Shocking? I’ll let you in on something else I recently discovered about the cereal industry. How many times have you heard breakfast being eulogised as “the most important meal of the day”? I’m guessing close to a million times by now. Have you ever wondered who came up with that term? Nutritionists? Doctors? Health experts? No, they were advertisers. The origin of this ode to breakfast came from a marketing campaign launched by General Foods in order to bumper their cereal sales in 1944.
Surely though, the statement is true and it was just a coincidence that a marketing campaign took leverage of it? Cause if everybody (your mother, most of all) thinks it’s true, then by design, doesn’t that mean it is true? Take the example from money — which is probably one of mankind’s greatest ever inventions. Intrinsically, money is valueless. You can’t eat it, you can’t drink it, you can’t protect yourself with it. If a catastrophic event were to suddenly occur one day, and people just stopped accepting money as a form of payment, then you’re doomed even if you’re the richest man on Earth. Money only works because everybody thinks it works.
Breakfast is only ‘the most important meal of the day’ if everybody decides that it is. The reason behind the decision — whether scientific or propagandistic, is often deemed unimportant and therefore overlooked. To take this a level further, science has proven the benefits of diets such as intermittent fasting, which often requires skipping breakfast. This is still a highly debatable subject, but it shows that there is more the reason to question the veracity of this breakfast claim.
But I know you did take that pack of cereals from the shelf. You were the one who ordered the Sausage McMuffin from the McDonald’s counter. You made that bowl of cinnamon-honey oatmeal yourself. It was all your conscious decision. Doesn’t that mean that it was ‘free will’ in the act all along? Well, not entirely.
The box of cereal that you took and brought home was probably located on the shelf at eye-level. I’m sure it also came in an attractive packaging and was laced with clever advertising terms such as ‘healthy’ and ‘organic’. Brands pay tons of money to market their product to maximise sales, which includes attractive packaging and eye-level placements in store shelves, which guarantees the most attention from customers (at least subconsciously).
Your McMuffin order? There’s a good chance there was probably some kind of ‘value’ deal on it — à la carte for $3 or pay a dollar extra and you get free fries! — or perhaps it was their scrumptious-looking menu displays (which you know looks nothing like the real thing), that got the better of you. Secretly, you know it’s all marketing gimmicks.
And then theres’s you with your bowl of warm homemade oatmeal. By going through this route, you’ve added an extra step of conscious-doing into the frame — you had to wilfully cook the oatmeal. Once again, perhaps that’s you enjoying the cooking process — your morning ritual — more than the actual consumption of your boring porridge. Time and time again, we recognise that it isn’t entirely free will, even when we like to think that it is.
David Perell, in one of his Monday Musings newsletters, ponders about the possibility of a world in which there is a total absence of free will. “You’re 100% programmed by your environment”, he says. “Your inputs creates your outputs. You become what you read. And you act just like your friends.” But aren’t we all subconsciously already doing this?
Psychologist John Bargh, as written in Daniel Kahnemann’s best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, once performed an experiment to test this theory about priming, or as I like to personally call, subconscious brain-washing.
For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young participants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others.
The whole concept of free will is still slightly hazy, but the classic definition of being in complete control over everything you decide to do just isn’t true. It would be completely naïve to think that you have complete, unrestrained free will. Author Yuval Noah Harrari captured this peculiarity beautifully in his article for The Guardian.
He says, “Humans certainly have a will — but it isn’t free. You cannot decide what desires you have. You don’t decide to be introvert or extrovert, easy-going or anxious, gay or straight. Humans make choices — but they are never independent choices.” He then jumps into a simple analogy that can easily distinguish the line between what’s ‘free’ and what’s not.
“I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc — and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.”
To look deeper into this means we need to dive into the most basic of human biochemistry — the neurotransmitters and chemicals that make up our thoughts. In his book titled Free Will, Sam Harris says that thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. If I tell you not to think of a red elephant, you will instinctively think of a red elephant — it’s just the way our brain works. In that sense, free will doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion, and the illusion of free will is in itself, an illusion.
But if we really have no free will, then we couldn’t actually prove it, because our very reasoning processes depend on our ability to freely choose between options.
As author Doug Smith put it, “When we evaluate whether something is true, we should go through a process of logical reasoning. In that process, we seek to understand competing options, evaluate each option in the most reasonable way we know, and based on our evaluation, we make a decision about what we believe is the best option.”
The crux about this all is that the process itself requires free will, which is the ability to consider options and make a reasonably choice based on whatever criteria someone believes is best.
You may inherently think that your açai berry granola bar is the best option for you in the morning, whether or not that decision has been meddled with by the hands of marketing ploys. And really, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you’re happy with your morning bowl of whole grain muesli, then does it really matter where that thought came from?
Objectively, you cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.