America – We Have a Problem: Smart people acting like squirrels!

What follows is a section of Levinson and Grieder’s book: Following Through:A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start p. 35 & 36 (2007).  I am fascinated by their example of how a squirrel’s brain is ‘hard wired’ to accomplish certain very specific tasks.  

Mr. Squirrel collects acorns for the winter because he’s pre-programmed to react automatically to certain environmental conditions by gathering and sorting nuts. The mere presence of these conditions triggers the right behavior.

An instinct-based guidance system is simple and reliable.  Expose Mr. Squirrel to the right conditions, and he’ll start gathering nuts.  It will happen every time because he was programmed at the factory to function this way.  The knowledge that gathering nuts for the winter is the right thing to do is hard-wired into his guidance system.

Having hard-wired knowledge means there’s no need for Mr. Squirrel to watch a video on how to prepare for the winter.  No need for him to check with the Squirrel FDA before planning his menu.  No need for him to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Pueblo, Colorado, to request a pamphlet on the best way to store acorns.  Mr. Squirrel doesn’t have to figure out what to do. The knowledge he needs was installed at the factory.

Automatically knowing what to do is not the only feature of instinct-based guidance system that distinguishes it from ours.  Besides automatically knowing what to do, Mr. Squirrel is automatically motivated to do it.  If he should collect nuts for the winter, he will collect nuts for the won’t. 

Being hard-wired to act means that there’s no need for Mr.  Squirrel to listen to a motivational speaker on a lecture from his mother-in-law about being a good provider.  He doesn’t need any inspiring.  He’s always psyched up to do the right thing.

There’s only one drawback to having a guidance system that operates largely on the basis of built-in knowledge and preprogrammed responses: It’s not very flexible.  It doesn’t allow it’s owners to tailor their behavior precisely to the circumstances they face.  And this can sometimes be a real problem.

For example, I once watched Mr. Squirrel’s cousin make the mistake of storing nuts in a tree that the power company was about to cut down.  I watched. The power company survey the area and then paint a yellow stripe on each of the trees in a long row.  As soon as workers started to cut down the first of the marked trees, I knew exactly what was up.  The squirrel didn’t have a clue. Operating on automatic pilot, he continued to fill a pantry that would be gone before winter.

Living things that are guided primarily by instinct pay a price for the convenience of always knowing what to do and always being motivated to do it.  They follow through even when they shouldn’t!  Yes, the price of hard-wired absolute confidence is sometimes automatically doing the wrong thing.

As I reflect on this “hard-wired squirrel” story I am thinking about how some humans act like they are “hard-wired” related to decision making.  Even though they could think critically about a topic or issue they don’t.  They respond with a point of view that they see as being absolute, so “why consider any options?”

Sadly, many of of elected leaders are acting a little like squirrels.  They are acting like they are “hard wired” wired to “put the nuts in a tree even knowing there is a yellow stripe on the tree”.  In other words these individuals are willing to ‘loose their nuts’ – so to speak – rather than listen to and seriously consider other options.  As I think back to the Super Committee that congress formed this summer and how it failed to work together in the interest of the common good this fall – I think about smart people acting like they were squirrels.


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