What The Hell Were You Thinking?

What the hell were you thinking? Ever thought (or said) that as you interacted with someone? Anyone ever said that to you? I bet at least one person thought it because we’ve all done things without thinking.

There’s lots of research that clearly shows the vast amount of our behavior is driven by non-conscious forces. Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, believes 85% of what we do is driven by our subconscious. I’ve seen other stats that put that number closer to 95%. Bob Nease, author of The Power of 50 Bits wrote, “of the ten million bits of information our brains process every second, only 50 bits are devoted to conscious thought.” Wow, that’s not much!

Bottom line, we don’t always know why we do what we do because we don’t devote much effort to thinking about it. Henry Ford famously said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” Using our brains in conscious thought takes a lot of energy and humans were built to conserve precious calories for survival – for activities like hunting, running or fighting off enemies. We may not need those precious calories for those same reasons in today’s world but the human brain has not evolved as rapidly as society.

I recall a time when Abigail was five years old and she overheard Jane and I talking about a couple that was going to move out of the neighborhood. Abigail asked if her friend Jordan was leaving and when we said yes, Abigail cried. It wasn’t the cry of a five-year old that wanted a toy or candy; it was a cry from a deeper place because she knew she was losing her best friend.

During the next week Jane told me Abigail had been acting like a brat. I said I thought it was because Jordan was moving. Jane didn’t agree but I said, “Think about how often we’ve said or done things and not known why. She’s five years old and knows her best friend is moving but doesn’t know how to process that so it’s coming out in bad behavior.”

During a drive I told Abigail that mom said she’d been acting bad. There was a guilty look on her face because she knew it was true. I told her I thought it was because Jordan was moving and explained why. Abigail is 20 years old now and still remembers that conversation.

One more story. When I was in high school I was expelled for three days for inappropriate language towards a teacher. The teacher and I disagreed on something and when she said, “If you don’t like it you can leave,” I responded with, “Fine, I don’t give a damn. I’ll get the hell out of here.” She tracked me down in the hallway and to her credit she gave me every opportunity to apologize. Being an angry, testosterone-filled teenager, I refused and suffered the consequences.

Here’s the reality. My parents were going through a divorce and that certainly was having an impact on me but I had no clue. If you would have tried to tell me the divorce was impacting my thinking and behavior I would have denied it and insisted the teacher was an expletive. There’s plenty of research to show something like divorce has a huge negative impact on kids but as an angry teenager I didn’t know what the hell I was thinking or feeling when I responded to the teacher in an uncharacteristic way.

Why am I writing about this? When it comes to influencing others you need to understand where they’re coming from, why they’re doing what they’re doing even if they might not be fully aware. It’s not easy, especially if someone says or does something that offends you, but if you’re able to step back for a moment, trying to understand why they said or did something, you’ll probably respond in a different, better way. Seldom does matching intense emotion with intense emotion lead to a better outcome.

That teacher wasn’t an expletive. She was a good teacher and a good friend to my older sister. As I mentioned earlier, she gave me a chance to apologize and I didn’t take it. The result was a three-day suspension and I suspect loss of being a National Honor Society student as a junior.

What the hell was I thinking? I didn’t know then but I do now. I encourage you to give more thought to why you do what you do and a little more grace to others when you wonder what the hell they’re thinking.

2 replies
  1. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Brian – This is a great post. I always love Lindstrom’s take on things, but I do think he may have underestimated. We do, but we rarely know why. Taking a step back is definitely the first step if we want to communicate effectively and understand the motivations of others… in everyday life and in marketing.

    • Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
      Brian Ahearn, CMCT® says:

      I’m glad you liked the post. I agree that he may have underestimated. In the book The Power of 50 Bits the author contends that out of every 10 million our brains process every second only 50 bits are devoted to conscious thought. Pretty incredible! Thanks for reading and sharing.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.