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© NOVA FEBRUARY 2010
The Case for 'No'
While it's always nice to say 'Yes', learning to say 'No' can be very empowering. That's the
advice of Eric Harrison.
We usually can't exert much
control over our thoughts. They
come and go as they will. Our
sense of self control comes at the level
of action, not thought. Jesus was being
typically provocative and absurdly idealist
when he said that a man who lusted after
his neighbour's wife was committing
control their thoughts in the way that
guilt-mongering spiritual leaders feel we
should. Ultimately, it is what we choose to
do, rather than what we happen to think,
I've always imagined my thoughts as
being like independent lifeforms within
my brain. I see them as the equivalent of
lions and wildebeest, birds and reptiles,
bacteria and viruses and even fungi,
exploiting their niches and competing for
their place in the sun. I regard my brain
as an ecosystem similar in complexity to
that of the African savannah or rainforest,
and the s
and teamwork apply. It is a Darwinian
battle for survival in there.
Just like an animal, each thought,
and the particular circuit of brain cells
that support it, needs food to sur vive.
A ny thought that catches our attention
is saying, "I'm important! Feed me! Give
me glucose and oxygen and the high
s that will m
strong." And that is exactly what we do
when we pay attention to a thought.
Thoughts are messengers. Every
thought, however minute, is a call to
action. It says, "My message is important.
I think you should do this." If a thought
were too passive or value-free, it wouldn't
have the emotional force to push its way
into consciousness against competing
thoughts. The purpose of thought is
not the disinterested pursuit of beauty
or truth: it is to imagine our personal
future and prepare for profitable action.
The purpose of thinking itself, and the
over-riding function of the prefrontal
cortex of the brain, is to prepare for "goal-
Yet we couldn
't possibly respond to
the demands of every individual thought.
Our thoughts are lightning fast and
highly speculative ("Do this! Do that!"),
while actions are more cumbersome and
constrained by physical practicalities.
Thoughts outnumber actions by at least
10 to one, so we have to choose which
ones to respond to. Even this is asking a
lot so we usually take the easy way out.
We don't so much "choose" which thoughts
to act upon, as go along with the ones
that feel most familiar and reliable.
We make most of our choices semi-
automatically. We "choose" according to
routine, rule-of-thumb, formulaic, pattern
recognition principles. Some formulas are
instinctive, such as "see food, eat food".
Others are learnt routines, such as getting
dressed when naked or answering the
n it rings
thousands of potential points of decision
each day where in theory we could do
something different. In fact, we rarely even
consider the possibility. We could have
champagne or ice cream for breakfast, for
example, or wear pyja mas to work, but
we save a colossal amount of energy by
following our well schooled routines.
We can talk to people, ha ndle emails,
do the shopping and deal with problems
in this conscious but semi automatic
fashion. Even a weary doctor can still
give exactly the right advice to a patient
by automatic pilot. In a six minute
consultation, without much corroborating
detail or time for empathetic listening, he
can still recognise that his patient is in
the "incipient heart attack" category. He
can then make the textbook, rule-of-
thumb, good enough response, and so
save a life. We don't have to reinvent
the wheel for every little thing we do,
and not even the doctor needs surplus
information. Our days run quite efficiently
on this substrate of semi automatic
Yet sometimes recognising categories
and responding by for mula s isn't good
enough. If the situation doesn't fit the
usual category, the standard formula
won't work. There may be a conf lict
between competing decisions.
chocolate" may clash with "lose weight".
Some choices feel deceptive, or cloaked
in rationalisations. "Eat chocolate and
feel really good" may clash with our
knowledge that it is more likely to make
between equally good, but mutually
exclusive, options. "Live for the moment
and go to the beach" may clash with "Go
to work and earn money."
Our habitual responses don't work
well in situations of uncertainty,
inadequate information, or conflicts in
motivation and goals. At these times, the
quality controller in the brain says, "Stop.
Pay attention. Semi automatic processing
is not good enough for this one. The
workers on the floor can't handle it. Send
it to the boss!" It then bumps that issue
deliberately. Since conscious choice is
definitely not our default position, and
there are fewer guidelines in non-standard
situations, we often find this quite hard
However, the first, the best and the
most powerful choice that we ever make
is likely to be "No!" (or its close relatives
-- "No Longer" and "Not Now"). Impulse
restraint is the ability to hold back from
an action, or to stop an action that is
already under way. This ability to
voluntarily inhibit an emotional urge is
what distinguishes humans from animals,
and mature adults from criminals and
children. Selective inhibition is also crucial
for the attainment of excellence in almost
any field. Everyone should have a strong
"No" in their arsenal.
"No" says "Stop and look. See what
is going on before you act." It decouples
the response from the stimulus. It
neutralises the railroading effect of our
automatic responses. It stops wastage
and clears the space for intelligent action.
This is particularly important because
we typically need to make conscious
choices when things are going badly, or at
least, not as well as they might be.
Important as it is, even the simplest
"No" decision can be quite unpleasant.
It invariably carries a sense of fr ustration
and loss. You're stopped in your tracks.
You were about to do or get something,
and now you're not. There is now a void
in its place with nothing else in sight.
You may need to indulge in some
congratulatory self talk to compensate for
the sense of deprivation (something like,
"That was a good decision. This is why
it was a good decision. That was better
than what I did last time etc"). And the
final stage of a "No" decision, to stop you
reneging and buying that piece of junk
anyway, is to resolutely turn your attention
'Everyone should have a
strong "No" in their arsenal.'
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