The Mathematics of Language and Thought

A copy of my recently published book, “The Mathematics of Language and Thought”, is now available for free download on this website. Click here or go to “Menu Options”, “My Books” and click on the links.

The topic covered is mathematical logic. The book describes a new and innovative system which is axiom based, can be manipulated in a similar way to algebra, and which unites the various conventional logics, mathematics, and natural language using a single form of symbolism. Furthermore, it improves significantly on conventional tense and epistemic logics. It also replicates causality and natural human reasoning, which is, of course, probabilistic.

I have had the advantage of access to a word processor. Nevertheless, this work has taken 23 years to complete. I have the greatest admiration therefore for earlier innovators, such as Cantor, Frege and Russell, who had nothing but a fountain pen or a quill and inkpot to work with. Clearly, it was impossible for them to investigate the subject as deeply as they must have wished. What might they have achieved with present day technology?

b. General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory

In this article, I will describe a branch of science known as General Systems Theory. I will do so because it provides an extremely powerful set of tools for understanding human nature and society.

The aim of General Systems Theory is to provide an overarching theory of organisation which can be applied to any field of study. It aims to identify broadly applicable concepts rather than those which apply only to one field. It can, therefore, apply in the fields of mathematics, engineering, chemistry, biology, the social sciences, ecology, etc. One of the principal founders of General Systems Theory was the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901 – 1972), although there have been many other contributors. To date, its principal application has been in the popular fields of business, the environment, and psychology, but it is equally applicable to human nature and society.

A system comprises a collection of inter-related components, with a clearly defined boundary, which work together to achieve common objectives. Within this boundary lies the system, and outside lies its environment. Systems are described as being either open or closed. In the case of a closed system, nothing can enter it from, or leave it to, the environment. It is a hypothetical concept, therefore. In reality, all systems are open systems comprising inputs, processes and outputs to the environment. In a closed system, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics applies, entropy will steadily increase, and the system will fall into disorder. However, in an open system, it is possible to resist decay, or even to reverse it and increase order.

In summary, an open system comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. In the case of an individual human being, our inputs are satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, our processes comprise our needs, contra-needs and decision-making, and our outputs are our behaviour.

The basis of General Systems Theory is causality. Everything we regard as being a cause or effect comprises components, which can also be regarded as causes and effects. Ultimately, causality has its foundation in particle physics, therefore. Furthermore, every cause or effect is a component of yet greater causes and effects, up to the scale of the universe in its entirety. Similarly, General Systems Theory regards everything from the smallest particle to the entire universe as a system. Thus, every system comprises components which are also systems, and every system is a component of yet greater systems. A system, a cause, and an effect are all one and the same thing, therefore.

In causality, events of one type cause events of another type by passing matter, energy or information to them. These are the equivalent of the inputs and outputs of a system. As Einstein explained, matter is organised energy. Information is also conveyed in the way that matter or energy are organised. So, causality is the transfer of energy, in an organised or disorganised form, from one system to another. This transfer can be regarded as an output from the cause, and an input to the effect. Causes and effects form chains or loops, and so create recurring, and thus, recognisable patterns of energy flow. It is such recognisable patterns that enable us to understand and predict the world in which we live, and which are of interest to General Systems Theory.

Causes can, of course, be necessary or sufficient. For a system or system component to carry out its function, several inputs from the environment or other components may be necessary. Only together may they be sufficient for the system to function. Furthermore, inhibitors also have a part to play in preventing effects on processes. Thus, the relationships between a system and its environment, and the relationships between the components of a system can be complex and chaotic.

A feature of systems is that they often display emergent properties. These are characteristics that the component parts of a system do not have, but which, by virtue of these parts acting together, the system does have. In other words, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. This concept dates to at least the time of Aristotle. The classic example is consciousness. A human being experiences consciousness, but his or her component cells do not. Similarly, systems also display vanishing properties. These are properties that a system does not have, but which its component parts do. For example, individual human beings may be compassionate but an organisation comprising such people may not. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be related to the way that energy is organized and flows in a system. They are recognizable patterns of energy flow.

Continuum changes of state occur when a variable characteristic of something alters. For example, when a child puts on weight or grows in height. System complexity is one such variable characteristic. Changes in a variable characteristic can be imperceptible in the short term but aggregate over time until we can perceive them. For example, in the longer term, a person can change his or her state from that of being a child to that of being an adult, but the changes which occur in a week are imperceptible. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be continuum changes of state which occur as the complexity of systems grow. They can be identified by comparing things that are similar, but either more or less complex than one another, e.g., a chimpanzee and a human being.

We tend to think of systems as falling into categories which are organised hierarchically, e.g., the popular categories:  animal, vegetable, and mineral. The best way of categorising the levels in a hierarchy of systems is via emergent properties. This is because with new properties, new rules also emerge. One emergent property of particular importance is self-maintenance. This appears in life, beginning with replicative molecules and moving up through viruses, bacteria, and multi-cellular organisms, to ourselves. This self-maintenance property is the same as life’s struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of entropy.

Self-maintaining systems are characterised by two types of feedback loop. One is internal and the other external. The internal feedback loop is known in systems theory as the command feedback loop. It gathers information from within the system and modifies its operation. The external feedback loops are particularly relevant to human society. They comprise the system interacting with its environment, through its outputs, to create circumstances conducive to the supply of its necessary inputs. The goal of both is, of course, to ensure the continued survival of the system in changing circumstances.

Individual human beings, organisations, and societies can be regarded as systems. So too can the natural environment in which we live, for example, the weather and natural ecosystems. However, their behaviour can be chaotic rather than deterministic. We can predict them to a limited extent, but the probability of any prediction proving correct diminishes as distance into the future increases.

a. Causality in More Detail

Causality in More Detail

We take it for granted that the universe operates according to the laws of causality. People may disagree on what causes a particular effect, but there is no disagreement on the existence of causality. This is universally accepted. But what is causality? In this and the next few articles I will attempt to explain.

We are well used to thinking in terms of causality, which we understand to mean a cause leading to an effect. However, this apparently simple concept contains much complexity. Firstly, we do not always use the word “cause” when describing causality. For example, rather than saying that a factory causes cars, we say that a factory manufactures them.

Secondly, we normally regard an effect as being the beginning of an event, object, or circumstance. However, it can also be the end, a change of state, or the ongoing event, object, or circumstance in its entirety. Thus, we refer to one event (the cause) as causing another (the effect) to begin, end, alter in state, or be ongoing in its entirety.

Thirdly, although the names cause and effect are singular, both are, in fact, plural collections of events, objects or circumstances of a particular type. Any single member is known as an instance of the cause or effect.

Causality describes the ways in which instances of these two collections can match. The Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that for a causal relationship to exist:

  1. an instance of the effect must always begin after an instance of the cause; and
  2. the instances of the effect and cause must be contiguous in space.

In other words, for a causal relationship to exist, the region of space-time occupied by an instance of the cause must contain the region of space-time occupied by an instance of the effect. The region of space-time occupied by something is the space occupied by it at every point in time during its existence.

Causal rules are derived from the way in which individual pairings of the instances are repeated. Two sets of events are described as being causally related if one of the following conditions apply.

  1. If an instance of the cause is sufficient for an instance of the effect, then the region of space-time occupied by the former always contains the region of space-time occupied by the latter. Fig.1 shows this diagrammatically. In other words, an instance of the effect always takes place in the presence of an instance of the cause. However, it is not necessarily the case that every instance of the effect results from an instance of the cause.
  2. If an instance of the cause is necessary for an instance of the effect, the region of space-time occupied by the latter is always contained by the region of space-time occupied by the former. Fig.2 shows this diagrammatically. In other words, an instance of the effect cannot take place in the absence of an instance of the cause. However, it is not necessarily the case that every instance of the cause leads to an instance of the effect.
Fig.1 A space-time diagram showing instances of a sufficient cause as white ellipses, and instances of the effect as black lines at the beginning of events shown by grey ellipses.
Fig. 2 A space-time diagram showing instances of a necessary cause as white ellipses, and instances of the effect as black lines at the beginning of events shown by grey ellipses.

If an event of a particular type occurs, then these causal rules allow us to deduce, with varying degrees of certainty, what causes have taken place or what effects will take place.

Causality can be complex, with several causes combining to produce an effect. The epidemiologist, Ken Rothman, explained that, for an effect to take place, it is often the case that several necessary causes must combine to create a sufficient cause. The combination of necessary causes of type A, B and C may be sufficient to result in an effect of type D. For example, the presence of gas, oxygen and a spark are each necessary and together sufficient to cause a gas explosion. Fig.3 shows this diagrammatically.

Fig.3 A space-time diagram showing instances of three necessary causes as coloured ellipses, which together comprise sufficient cause, and instances of the effect as black lines at the beginning of events shown by grey ellipses.

One aspect of causality which is often overlooked is the existence of inhibitors. In the same way as a cause and an effect, an inhibitor is a plural collection of physical events, objects, or circumstances of a particular type. However, it is the opposite of a cause in that it prevents an effect from taking place. Depending on its type, the presence of an instance of the inhibitor can prevent an event from beginning, ending, changing state, or occurring in its entirety, irrespective of any causes which might dictate otherwise.

In the same way as causes, inhibitors can be necessary to prevent an event or sufficient to do so. If an inhibitor is necessary but not present, then the effect can occur. However, this does not necessarily mean that it will occur. This depends on what causes are present. On the other hand, if an inhibitor is sufficient and present, then the effect cannot occur. In practice, a sufficient inhibitor can be a combination of several necessary inhibitors. The region of space-time in which the effect is prevented is the overlap between them.

Causality is, of course, a physical process. This process will be described in more detail in the next article.

p. Regret


Before moving on from decision making, I would like to say something about regret. We all experience regret over decisions we have made or failed to make. “I wish I had done this”, “I shouldn’t have done that”, “If only I had done something else instead…” and so on. This is especially the case when an opportunity seems to have been missed or a risk was not avoided.

We should admit to mistakes because this enables us to correct them or mitigate their impact. However, there are several reasons for not feeling the emotion of regret.

  1. The most obvious one is, of course, that what is done cannot be undone. The past cannot be changed. We can only act in the present and the future to mitigate the effect of any seemingly poor decisions.
  2. Decisions often have multiple outcomes, some of which are positive and others negative. In a chaotic world, these outcomes can rarely be predicted. So, although an alternative decision may have yielded the benefit we desire, it may also have yielded unanticipated disbenefits. Furthermore, the latter might outweigh the former.
  3. Most people have an optimism bias. This leads us to believe that we are more likely to be successful and less likely to suffer misfortune than reality would suggest. So, when we miss an opportunity or suffer a risk, we tend to believe, often incorrectly, that an alternative decision would have avoided this.
  4. In reality, the future is probabilistic. After an initial decision if we wish to achieve the desired outcome, then we often must make ongoing adjustments in the face of the unexpected. In practice, we often manage our way to desired outcomes over a period of time.
  5. Focusing on what might have been uses mental resources. There are benefits to be had in learning from “mistakes”. However, there is also a danger that, if we focus on them too much, we will suffer depression, neglect future decisions, or begin to lack the confidence to make them.

I recommend the novel, “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig, which illustrates this beautifully.

In conclusion, life should be lived as it is, and not as it might have been. However, we must remain at the steering wheel and make constant adjustments if we want it to take the direction we would wish.

When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

Alexander Graham Bell
o. Maintaining Independence of Mind

Maintaining Independence of Mind

To maintain our independence of mind it is necessary to avoid unconscious beliefs and attitudes that we would prefer not to have. Suggestions as to how we might do so are listed below.

  • Question the motives of charismatic leaders and role models.
  • Avoid following authoritarian leaders or being managed by authoritarian managers. They will insist that we adopt their point of view if we wish to remain in the group that they lead. Inclusive leaders and managers, on the other hand, respect, and value independence of mind.
  • Avoid following populist leaders. They will often place the blame for any difficult circumstances we find ourselves in on an “outgroup” rather than address the true reasons.
  • Avoid ideologies. If we need to join a group to socialize, then we should join one whose members have a wide range of views rather than a particular ideology. This can be checked by adding “ism” to words in a group’s name.
  • Practice awareness of our own emotions and those of others with whom we interact. Emotional contagion and emotional carry-over from previous decisions can both affect our current decisions. Furthermore, our emotions can be deliberately manipulated by others to achieve their desired ends.
  • Our conscious skills can be strengthened by practicing highly focused mental and, possibly, physical activities, e.g., a personal project or Sudoku puzzles.
  • Develop a clear personal ethic and set of values. It may need to evolve over time as circumstances alter it, but that is normal.
  • Consciously rehearsing our ethics and values can strengthen them. A strongly held ethic makes it more difficult for contradictory unconscious beliefs and attitudes to gain a foothold.
  • Acquaint ourselves with the verifiable facts around an issue before making decisions associated with it.
  • Consciously criticise our decisions, especially apparently spontaneous ones. Judge them against our personal ethic and values. If necessary, veto them and think again.
  • Avoid watching unsolicited advertising. For example, watch advertisement free channels or mute the TV when they are on. Cover the advertisements on the back of seats of buses and aircraft. If we need something we can search for it on the internet or consult a shopkeeper.
  • It is particularly important to avoid watching the same advert repetitively. In the UK it is illegal for an ad. to repeat the same message more than three times as this subliminally reinforces it. So how do advertisers get around this? By frequently repeating their ad.
  • Lobby government for greater controls over advertising. It should be factual, unintrusive, not personally targeted, not excessively repetitive, and not imply that the product has false benefits.
m. Perspectivism and Poly-perspectivism

Perspectivism and Poly-perspectivism

No-one has the mental capacity to fully understand the world. Each of us is only capable of a partial understanding. This concept is known as perspectivism. It is possible, however, to expand and improve our worldview through interaction with those of others. This is known as poly-perspectivism. To give an analogy, when we look at a statue, we see only one side or perspective. Two people at diametrically opposite positions see entirely different perspectives. However, each is a part of the truth. Walking around the statue enables us to see all perspectives and, thus, the whole truth. Individually, we lack the mental capacity to do this for the whole of reality, of course, but it can be done for relatively limited topics.

Poly-perspectivism means understanding other perspectives. It does not mean abandoning our own, but rather building on it and correcting it where necessary. Unfortunately, each worldview is partially true and partially false. The proportion varies from individual to individual, and from worldview to worldview. Thus, other perspectives will almost certainly include beliefs which are objectively false. Furthermore, beliefs can deliberately be falsified in the interest of their proponents. This means that the techniques for identifying truth, described in my previous article, must be used when considering other perspectives.

Advice on how to engage with other perspectives is given in Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement here and, diagrammatically, here. As a rule, the lower a person’s behaviour is on Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, the more defensive they are of their worldview.

One major advantage of poly-perspectivism is associated with “holism”. This term was coined by the South African statesman, Jan Smuts, in 1926, and means that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Holism is another way of describing emergent properties, i.e., properties which are not held by the individual parts of a system, but only by the system acting together as a whole. Our personal perspective may enable us to see part of what emerges from the whole, but it is unlikely that we will see all of it, or understand how and why it emerges. However, the more we adopt truths from other perspectives, the more we can:

  1. see the relevant topic as a whole;
  2. see errors in our own perspective of it;
  3. see fully what emerges from it; and
  4. understand how and why those things emerge.
l. Worldviews and Objective Reality

Worldviews and Objective Reality

Most philosophers subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth. This theory holds that there is a world external to individual human beings and that it is accessible to us. We create internal representations of this world which are deemed to be true when they correspond with it. In other words, there is an objective reality external to us, and we form beliefs about it which may or may not be true. Some philosophers have expressed doubts about objective reality, but very few would be willing to put it to the test with their lives or wellbeing.

Each of us holds a personal worldview. This is a set of beliefs about the external world which influence our perspective, values, and actions. It is established in our childhood and youth, and is received mainly from others via upbringing and culture. However, as we age, we gain ever greater personal experience through contact with reality and with other worldviews. This can challenge our own worldview and, in response, we either modify it or adopt strategies to avoid doing so.

Unfortunately, objective truth is surprisingly difficult to know. In practice, most of our beliefs lie at intermediate points on a scale from certainly true to certainly false. Our level of confidence in a belief can be assessed by asking ourselves how “comfortable” we are to make decisions assuming it to be true. “Comfort” is the absence of fear, grief, and other negative emotions. This means that the more confident we are in a belief, the fewer negative emotions we will experience when making decisions based upon it. The implication is, of course, that to improve our overall emotional state we will seek certainty in our beliefs. However, how we go about this varies from individual to individual.

We may seek certainty by defending our worldview. There are many reasons for this: changes require effort; can cause confusion and psychological difficulties; or may alienate us from our family, friends, or society. Defensive strategies include forgetting, altering, or belittling any contradictory information, rationalisation, being selective about our social contacts, etc. Thus, our worldview tends to have an inertia, and often only changes when it can no longer be defended.

There are, however, significant benefits to be had from a worldview which corresponds with objective reality. Firstly, the closer it is to reality, the better we can predict events. This, in turn, helps us to survive, prosper and procreate. Secondly, the closer our worldview is to reality, the fewer the inconsistencies that arise when we interact with the world. This, in turn, means less effort in defending or adapting it, less confusion, less distress, and a lower likelihood of mental ill health. On the other hand, cultural and peer group pressures attach to particular worldviews. The closer our own is to that of others, the fewer the inconsistencies that arise when faced with their opinions and expectations. So, the less effort we must put into defending or adapting it.  Thus, even when we are very confident in a truth, we may find difficulty in continuing to hold it.

Except in the simplest of cases, total certainty is impossible. However, some beliefs can be judged more likely true than false, or vice versa. This depends on personal experience, supporting or refuting evidence, our confidence in its source, and consistency with other information judged more likely true than false.

Looking at these in more detail:

  1. Personal experience includes day-to-day experiences as well as scientific procedures such as repeatable experiments, etc. We perceive the external world with our senses and though these are fallible, they provide us with our most reliable source of information.
  2. The universe is consistent and does not contradict itself. So, if two beliefs do contradict one another, then one must be false. It is possible for two falsehoods to be consistent with one another, but as the number of falsehoods grows so too does the likelihood of inconsistencies. The greater the body of consistent information, therefore, the more likely it is to be true.
  3. Supporting evidence is any information that is consistent with a belief. Refuting evidence is any information which contradicts it. However, it can be unclear whether our original belief or the contradictory information is false. Much depends on our confidence in the source, but to add to the complexity, this itself is a belief.

In my next post, I will describe the risks and benefits of interacting with the worldviews of others.

k. Causality and Behavioural Strategies

Causality and Behavioural Strategies

We interact with the physical world and influence events using the rules of causality. Most of us do this unconsciously, but there is advantage in understanding the process. This better enables us to verify our decisions.

Causality can be complex, with several causes combining to produce an effect. These causes can be of two types: necessary causes, in the absence of which the effect cannot occur; and sufficient causes, in the presence of which the effect must occur. The epidemiologist, Ken Rothman, explained that, for an effect to take place, it is often the case that several necessary causes must combine to create a sufficient cause. For example, the presence of gas, oxygen and a spark are each necessary and together sufficient to cause a gas explosion.

Causality also involves inhibitors, i.e., those things which always prevent an effect from taking place, even if sufficient cause is present. These inhibitors can also be of two types: sufficient inhibitors, in the presence of which the effect cannot occur; and necessary inhibitors, or those things required to prevent an effect. Again, a sufficient inhibitor may comprise one or more necessary inhibitors.

We can use this knowledge in our strategies to achieve a desired outcome. This is best demonstrated by a simple example. Suppose we know that an effect, e, occurs as a result of two necessary causes, a and b. Together, a and b are a sufficient cause.  In the absence of a, b, or both, e cannot take place. So, if we wish to prevent e, then our strategy may be to prevent one of a or b, whichever is easiest. However, the effect can also be prevented by two sufficient inhibitors, c or d. In the presence of c, d or both, e cannot occur. Thus, an alternative strategy for preventing e, is to cause one of the inhibitors c or d, whichever is the easiest.

In this example, the presence of a and b and the absence of c and d result in e. If some but not all of these conditions exist, and e is undesirable, then this is a risk. However, if e is desirable, then it is an opportunity.

Our behaviour often steers events by increasing or decreasing their likelihood, rather than directly causing or preventing them. For example, we may lack the resources to directly cause an event, and may only have sufficient to enable it. To benefit from such behaviour, we must observe our environment, identify the opportunities and risks that it presents, and intervene to our advantage.

Typical strategies are as follows.

Enablement means acting to remove any existing inhibitors. Note that sufficient cause may not be present. So, the effect may not actually occur, but only become able to occur.

Facilitation means acting to introduce necessary causes where previously they were absent. Note that not all necessary causes may be present and not all inhibitors absent. So the effect may not actually occur, but merely become more likely.

Risk Reduction means acting to reduce the likelihood of an effect. It will not yet have occurred, either because an inhibitor is present, or because not all necessary causes are present. We can reduce the risk yet further by removing more necessary causes.

Prevention means acting to introduce an inhibitor where none is present. Note that the effect will not yet have occurred because not all necessary causes were present.

j. The Creative Process and Decision Making

The Creative Process and Decision Making

To fully understand this article, it is recommended that the reader refers to my previous articles on feedback loops and consciousness.

The Creative Process

In the 19th Century, the German physicist Hermann Helmholtz identified three stages in the creative process: saturation, incubation, and illumination. The French mathematician Henri Poincarre later added a fourth stage: verification.

Saturation means consciously researching and learning as much as we can about the issue under consideration. Consciousness allows us to rehearse the skills and knowledge gained, thereby storing it in long term memory and reinforcing it.

Incubation means allowing the unconscious mind to process that information with a view to seeking some output. In the case of decision making, for example, the emotional evaluation of our options is carried out unconsciously. Our conscious and unconscious minds employ the same resources. However, consciousness regulates those used by the unconscious mind and focuses them on the topic in hand. When we relax consciousness, e.g., by sleeping, the unconscious mind operates more freely. This allows it to access knowledge and skills stored in long term memory more freely, compare it for similarities more readily, and make associations more easily. Thus, it is necessary for us to reduce our levels of consciousness to allow the unconscious to function effectively.

Illumination occurs when the unconscious mind delivers the result of its ruminations to the conscious mind. This often occurs in the form of an inspiration, e.g., a potential solution to a problem, and can be accompanied by a surge of positive emotion. These inspirations can be original because of the quantity of information that they draw on. However, inspirations can be unreliable for several reasons. For example, we may simply have the facts wrong; there may be mistakes or cognitive biases in the unconscious process; or there may be unconscious beliefs and attitudes that we have picked up from advertising, our peers, etc.

Verification, therefore, is the final stage in which we consciously check that the inspiration is valid and ethically acceptable. This is done by awakening consciousness and using logic, reason, the known facts, and our ethical schema. However, the incubation process is opaque to the conscious mind. We can only deduce what it may have been, and so, must often rationalise.

Application of the Creative Process

This process is fundamental to the way we think, and can be used in many different ways, for example:

Decisions. When making decisions we may use just one or several iterations, i.e., we may repeat the process several times. Risk/benefit/cost assessments are carried out subconsciously and then verified consciously. After each iteration we may or may not carry out further saturation.

Problem Solving. When solving a particular formal problem, e.g., a mathematical one, we may use just one iteration if it achieves a satisfactory outcome. Solving a more complex problem may require several iterations.

New Knowledge. When seeking new knowledge and understanding, we consciously research what is known by others, use the incubation process to compare it with what we already know, and unconsciously identify connections and similarities. This often gives us a hypothesis that can be tested consciously. This process often involves several iterations. The knowledge gained in one iteration may stimulate further research and it can also be compared with what we already know to gain greater insight.

Artistic Creativity. The process can be used in artistic creativity of all types, whether it be painting, music or writing, for example. However, the verification stage is often omitted, and we go directly to implementation by keeping consciousness at a low level. Any feedback is external, and we physically see or hear what has been produced. Note, however, that this applies only to artistic creativity. Rational creative processes do not omit verification.

This does not mean that we can all become artists simply by implementing our ideas without conscious verification. All artists first go through a long period of consciously learning and rehearsing their skills so that they are fully internalised and can be exercised unconsciously.

i. The Behavioural Loop or Cycle

The Behavioural Loop or Cycle

Our behaviour is always ongoing. When one need is satisfied or contra-need avoided, we move on to another. In every case, we make our decisions in a similar way, and there is, therefore, a behavioural loop or cycle as follows.

  1. Our most pressing needs or contra-needs are identified through their impact on our emotions. That is, we identify the greatest cause of dis-satisfaction.
  2. Potential options for acquiring satisfiers and avoiding contra-satisfiers are identified, drawing on individual or group knowledge and experience.
  3. The resources needed to acquire those satisfiers or avoid those contra-satisfiers are assessed, again drawing on individual or group knowledge and experience.
  4. The resources that we control are assessed. These resources may be our own or those of others.
  5. Possible courses of action are assessed for their potential impact on our emotional state, taking into account the following:
    • All affected personal needs and contra-needs.
    • All affected needs and contra-needs of significant others.
    • Whether we will receive positive or negative regard, and what is needed to enhance the former or mitigate the latter.
    • Whether we will feel psychological satisfaction or guilt, and what is needed to enhance the former or mitigate the latter.
    • If the likelihood of achieving the desired result is uncertain, we also assess the impact of not achieving it. Whether we proceed with a course of action will depend on the benefit we hope to achieve, the likelihood and consequences of failure, and our personality.  Most people, for example, will not use all their available resources in a single high risk, high return activity.
  6. Generally, when seeking a satisfier, we have two potential routes. We may wait until an opportunity arises by chance or attempt to create one. Similarly, when seeking to avoid a contra-satisfier we have the options of waiting until it arises or seeking to pre-empt it. Which route we choose depends on the net emotional benefit gained. This in turn depends heavily on the resources required to create an opportunity or pre-empt a contra-satisfier.
  7. Those actions that are within the resources available to us and which have an emotional benefit are implemented. We do not normally seek to optimise our choices, because this, in itself, requires substantial resources. Rather, we choose an option which is both satisfactory and sufficient and reject options which have an overall disbenefit. This is known as “satisficing”, a term coined by the American political scientist, Herbert A. Simon, in 1956.
  8. The outcome of the action is observed and remembered for the future. If it has been successful, then this will reinforce the behaviour, i.e., we are more likely to repeat it in similar circumstances. If it has failed, then the behaviour involved is less likely to be repeated. Repetitive failure will cause it to become extinguished.
  9. The entire process is then repeated indefinitely. However, as time progresses our needs and contra-needs alter, and different ones come to the fore. For example, the physiological needs for food and sleep increase in priority if not satisfied. We can also learn from experience and become more adept at choosing efficient and successful forms of behaviour.

Research has shown that emotions can carry over from one decision to the next without us being aware of it. These incidental emotions can be difficult to detach and can influence subsequent decisions. For example, people who previously experienced anger are more prone to blame others in subsequent decisions, and people who previously experienced sadness are more prone to blame general circumstances. Fearful people make more pessimistic judgements about the future, and angry people are more optimistic. It is thought that the best way to avoid this emotional carry over is to develop greater emotional awareness.