TED Conversations

Marcus Cauchi

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Why do we repeatedly do what does us harm or doesn't serve us, even when we know by doing what we've done before we'll get the same result?

Self-sabotage is rife in life, in business, in sports and in families to name a few. Experience tells me that the starting point of self-sabotage comes from toxic beliefs that were never true, aren't true any more or aren't true in 100% of cases.

Can you tell me what causes you have observed for self-sabotage in your lives or the lives of those you engage with?

If you could structure your responses around the following framework:

1. Issue or presenting symptom
2. A specific example to give context
3. Impact

And if you have learned how to replace old patterns with good patterns of thinking or behaviour:

4. How did you replace your old pattern/script or work around your self-sabotaging behaviours?


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  • Sep 5 2011: Dopamine addiction.

    Researchers have discovered that there is only one addiction and it’s to dopamine, a neurotransmitter manufactured in our brains.

    The current list of addictive drugs (heroin, nicotine) and behaviors (gambling, video games) are only triggers. In all cases, addictions are about scoring dopamine. In the future researchers will (hopefully) work past the self-deception and denial (two symptoms of addiction) keeping them from extending the list to include the most destructive dopamine-induced needs and behaviors, including meat consumption and the pathological obsession with acquiring power, approval, esteem and money (which can be used to buy drugs, power, approval, and esteem).

    Addiction is a dehumanizing brain disease that increases self-deception and denial and suppresses logic, reason, and empathy. That’s why heroin addicts don’t care about destroying their health or the moral implications of lying, cheating, and stealing from friends and relatives.

    The stronger the addiction, the less addicts care about logic, reason, honesty, or truth and the more they obsess over returning to their favorite dopamine trigger(s).

    With all addictions, the first step is the hardest = honesty/admitting to addiction(s).

    Admitting to fear/power, approval, esteem and money addictions are complicated by at least three factors:

    1) Admitting to addictions = serious blow to esteem = major dopamine withdrawal = increase in denial and avoidance of facts.
    2) The last thing most addicts want to do is give up their favorite dopamine triggers.
    3) In societies controlled by addicts, many of the most destructive and addictive behaviors are considered normal, acceptable, and even admirable.
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      Sep 5 2011: Charles, thank you. I'm by no means an expert, and have only read secondary sources, but the research certainly does point to dopamine as one source to look for answers to my question.

      I'm not sure of the protocol on here, but I always appreciate a good read and value recommendations to qualified sources from others who share my passions and interests. You may be interested to read:

      Brene Brown - I Thought It Was Only Me
      Margaret Heffernen - Willful Blindness
      Hannah Holmes - Quirk
      Harriett Braiker - Who's Pulling Your Strings
      Dan Ariely - Predictably Irrational
      Nassim Nicholas Taleb - The Black Swan
      Johan Lehrer - How We Decide
      Michael Shermer - How We Believe
      Richard Wiseman - 59 Seconds
      Edward De Bono - How to Have a Beautiful Mind
      Jason Fried - ReWork

      I'm not qualified to validate the science, but the patterns throughout these books affirm what I see and experience daily in my life and in the lives of my clients and friends. Maybe I'm looking for what feels familiar myself, but I know as someone who has battled with falling prey to temptation (dopamine addiction).

      I do however have the ability to reason.

      Credit cards are toxic for this reason. Low short term interest followed by crippling interest for many years is a bad deal. But can my need for instant gratification (amygdala) be rationalised away (neocortex). It seems to depend on how I ask myself the question.

      If I buy this on my credit card I can pay it off later, can't I?


      If I buy it now but can only pay for it in cash will I be happy losing the money to have this object now?

      When faced with the choice of charging my trophy purchase to my anonymous, deferred pain-payment credit card or paying with the bundle of cash, it's easy to skim over the pain later. In my work and in my life I find that my decisions are usually more strongly motivated by my fear of losing instead of my pleasure from gaining. Buying decisions seem to be routinely governed by this dynamic to the tune of 2:1.

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        Sep 11 2011: Oh and don't forget the robust work of neuroscientist Susan Greenfield.

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