Why Goals Fail

Occasionally, I still testify as a use-of-force expert in homicide trials, where I explain the nuances of violent fights to attorneys and juries. 

Courtrooms are contentious, so it’s not my favorite work, but it is interesting. I stumbled into this by accident, but the roots of my expertise began twenty years ago. 

During my early years in law enforcement, I spent a lot of time teaching cops and civilians about combat shooting and martial arts.

As I look back at the arc of my career, it’s interesting that I didn’t fully grasp the mental side of combat until after I had retired from law enforcement and had become a coach.

When I started my practice, I primarily helped couples manage their personal finances. Back then, it was frustrating to hear clients say they wanted to do one thing, but, they often did something different. 

For example, a client would say they wanted to save money and pay off credit cards, but what they would actually do is spend from their savings and increase their debt.

My frustration as a young coach turned into an obsession to understand human behavior. I realized that the best money and business advice was worthless unless I could also learn how to influence my clients’ behavior.

I studied everything ranging from behavioral economics to cognitive behavioral therapy, but the fascinating discovery came when I dug deep into neuroscience. That’s when I realized that my two seemingly different careers, law enforcement and coaching, were very much the same. 

The light bulb went on when I discovered that the physiological changes in the brain during violent fights are virtually the same changes that occur when a husband and wife make financial decisions. The same forces influencing financial mistakes, marriage disputes, and business decisions are also driving human behavior during life-and-death altercations.

This seemingly simple discovery was a game changer. It enabled me to help my business and personal finance clients by using some of the same strategies I had learned as a trainer that help Navy SEALs and SWAT officers thrive in combat. 

I promise to keep the science light, but let me provide an oversimplified explanation of the human brain. There are two parts of the brain involved when our actions contradict our conscious desires. 

The amygdala is a primitive part of our brain that processes emotions. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain where we experience conscious awareness of our decisions, logic, and reasoning. 

When humans face danger—a tiger in the jungle or a masked intruder—your primitive brain perceives the threat and automatically triggers your survival response long before your reasoning brain gets a chance to debate your options. 

Unless you plan on getting in a gunfight, this may seem irrelevant, but here’s the fascinating part. 

In MRI studies, participants were read politically charged counterarguments to their strongly held beliefs. During the study, the same part of the brain that responds to a physical threat, the amygdala, also responded to an intellectual one. 

We are wired to respond to threatening information the same way we respond to a predator. 

We develop a core set of beliefs from our experiences and we feel threatened when they are challenged. Since we are driven by our deepest fears, our brains reject ideas that conflict with our worldview. 

(To explore this idea further, click here)

The primitive part of our brain is not accessible to our conscious awareness, so without the help of a coach, therapist, or psychedelic drugs, it’s virtually impossible to understand how our subconscious controls us.

For example, stop reading for a moment and tell your heart to stop beating. Your heartbeat is controlled by a different part of the brain, but it still illustrates the point that not everything is within our conscious control.

Our defense mechanisms cause us to interpret helpful criticism as an attack, even when the logical part of the brain understands that it’s good for us.

The distinction between the conscious and unconscious parts of our brains explains why we often make choices that conflict with our stated desires.

So the next time your spouse comments that you ate that piece of chocolate cake even though you’re on a diet, explain that your prefrontal cortex was at war with your amygdala, but the amygdala won. 😉 


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