Do thoughts cause actions, or do actions cause thoughts? Or does causation flow back and forth, more like a tide than a one-way river?
It’s easy to see how thoughts cause actions. You think about reading a book, so you go pick up a book and start reading. It’s so easy to see the causation flow this way that it feels like thoughts must precede actions. How can you act, if you haven’t decided what to do?
But that’s not right. The adage “think before you act” implies that it is possible to act without thinking, and the context of the phrase (acting on bad impulse) shows the distinction: something has to choose the action, but that doesn’t need to be your conscious, purposeful thoughts.
Actions can come from impulse and intuition, what Kahneman and Taversky would call System 1. It’s tempting to call these thoughts, and in the broadest sense of “information processing” they are, but that doesn’t feel quite right. They don’t carry the deliberate nature that “thinking” conjures up.
(Feels like the above two paragraphs are out of place. They don’t actually address the question of the direction of causation.)
Regardless, many thoughts follow actions in turn. When you cook a meal and it tastes good you learn from that. You form beliefs about what spices you like and in what combinations. Those lessons become your thoughts. And so, suitably defined, actions can both be caused without thought and go on to cause thoughts.
In my head “acting → thinking” feels like a path of discovery. I take an action and learn something new. I take a walk and feel a pleasant warm breeze and form a belief that says “I should go on more walks.”
By contrast, “thinking → acting” feels like the meaning of agency. I recall how much I enjoy walking in good weather, see the Sun shining outside, and decide to go for a walk. This is agency.
By default both paths of causation are hard to walk.
It takes effort and practice to notice the thoughts and feelings that an action elicits. To notice that that bagel this morning was really good, that the last project felt unsatisfying, and why, that it feels good to help a stranger. Often we just miss these things. This is much of what mindfulness meditation does; it makes concentration easier, so that we notice more of the things we experience.
It also takes effort and practice to take those thoughts and feelings and act on them. To eat more good bagels. To change jobs when we’re unhappy. To help others more. Exercising agency is hard, and goes beyond just deciding to do something.
If either path feels easy, or obvious, maybe it is for you! That’s awesome. But maybe it just sounds easy, and isn’t actually.
New Years resolutions are a great example. It’s easy to say “I want to exercise more”, but almost no one who says those words actually ends up exercising more in the long run. There seems to really be something difficult in going from thinking to acting.
Maybe resolutions are an outlier, but it doesn’t look like it. There are lots of structures built to deal with precisely this problem. That’s why companies default people into saving for retirement, why we ask friends to hold us accountable to our diets, and why habit trackers and gamified todo lists are on all of our phones. Somehow it isn’t enough to think it, we need something that bridges the gap into action.
Going from acting to thinking is also hard. It’s tempting to ignore the voice that says “This is no fun.”, because that might get in the way of getting work done. It’s easy to miss the voice that says “This is exhilarating!” because you’re exhausted from hiking many miles. It’s less painful to turn away from the voice that says “Those words hurt me.”, because then you’d be hurt.
For whatever reason really feeling what’s going on and learning from actions seems to be an active process, something that requires “tuning in”. It’s not automatic, but missing it means missing out on so much learning about who we are and what we’re about.
I don’t have any grand conclusions here, other than that there seems to be an actually-no-really very important feedback loop between thinking and acting, and that by default both links in the loop are broken. It takes intention and effort and experimentation to forge those links, make the loop whole, and make it work for you.