The Puppy and the Puppy Trainer

There's a world of difference between a dog that is off the leash
and a dog that is trained to be off the leash

 —  Don Sullivan

To explain why people act counter to their own interests, Freud proposed a Psyche motivated by Conscious and Unconscious forces. I will use a model proposed more recently by Epstein to help make sense of the challenge we face.

According to this model, all animals have an Experiential Processing System by which they learn to follow paths that lead to pleasure and avoid those that lead to pain. But unlike other forms of life, humans also have access to a Abstract Processing System that enables them to use a new faculty — abstraction — to problem-solve and predict the likely outcomes of alternative choices.

The attributes of the two processing systems are contrasted in the table below:

Experiential Processing System
[The Puppy]
Abstract Processing System
[The Puppy Trainer]
Pleasure-pain oriented: What feels best now Rationally oriented: What yields the greatest net benefits
Primarily influenced by immediate stressors and temptations Primarily influenced by your core values and motivations
Associations determined by the principles of classical conditioning

Associations determined by the principles of logic

Long evolutionary history and operates in animals as well as humans Brief evolutionary history, operates only at times of cognitive surplus
Holistic Analytic
Determines the salience of a stimulus Determines the meaning of a stimulus
Encodes reality in concrete images, metaphors and narratives Encodes reality in abstract symbols, words and numbers
Behavior driven by the local environment —  the PIG Behavior driven from within — Core Motivation
Rapid processing: Oriented toward immediate action Slower processing: Oriented toward future action
Slow to change: Change requires repetitive or intense experience Rapid to change: Changes with the speed of thought
Emotionally reactive Detached, Dispassionate
Experienced passively, outside of conscious awareness [one is seized by one's emotions] Experienced actively and consciously [one deliberately thinks through problems]
Certainty is self-evident [seeing is believing] Certainty requires justification via logic and evidence
Perceives events from the Associative Perspective Perceives events from the Dissociative Perspective
Perception, motivation, and response tendencies are state dependent The rules of inductive and deductive reasoning are independent of local state

The difference between how these systems arrive at their conclusions can be observed by comparing your rational approach to problem-solving with other people's mindless approach:

Experiential vs Abstract Processing : How many fingers on 10 hands?

The correct answer, of course, is 50. Now that you know this objective truth, your perspective is irreversibly changed and you become less vulnerable to an error you can reliably induce in other people:

Hold up one hand with the fingers outstretched and ask, "How many fingers on one hand?" [answer: 5] Then hold up both hands with the fingers outstretched and ask, "How many fingers on two hands?" [answer: 10] Then, while keeping all the fingers outstretched ask, "How many fingers on ten hands?"


Most people will answer: "100." The default reaction tendency in social situations like this is to produce a fast, automatic reaction of seeing 10 fingers raised and hearing an instruction to multiply by 10 produces the obviously bogus conclusion.

Simple multiplication is an easy challenge for the Abstract Processing System. So, when you ask the butt of this trick to think about it another way, they usually get the right answer pretty quickly — although some people take a little longer.

The Abstract and Experiential Processing Systems interpret the things that happen from different perspectives and so can have different reactions to the same provocation, just as they produce different solutions to the "how many fingers in 10 hands" problem. The abstract solution is the one that maximally promotes your interests and principles, while the experiential solution may be counter-productive.

When it comes to solving complex problems, abstract processing is greatly superior to experiential processing, but it is only available under the right conditions:

  • Abstract processing can produce rapid change (e.g., “I used to believe in the tooth fairy, but then I realized that it was my mother and since then have never relapsed to the earlier view.”) This is contrasted with the many repetitions and erratic progress associated with housebreaking a puppy or changing a habit.
  • Abstract processing is only possible when there is a surplus of cognitive resources. It is not available when cognitive resources are otherwise occupied by complex cognitive demands, strong emotional states, or diminished by fatigue or intoxication.
  • Abstract processing is too slow to influence behavior in real-time. It is best used to choose the goals of puppy training and to plan the training process.

Once you have used your Abstract Processing System to figure things our, the task becomes training the puppy to react to the things that happen in ways that promote the outcomes you want. It is important to prepare the creature for the challenges that lie ahead — in the same way as the athlete trains and prepares herself for an upcoming competition. This is so, because we cannot count on the Abstract Processing System to be available during times of crises.


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