Behavioural ScienceJane Goldthorpe

‘The mind is flat’ - learnings from Warwick University’s online course

Do our minds have hidden depths? Or do we make things up as we go along? What really influences behaviour?  At 2CV we're always exploring questions like this. Some members of 2CV have recently completed an online course taught by the controversial Nick Chater, Professor at Warwick Business School - he argues that the mental depths that many of us think shape our behaviour are an illusion; in reality, 'the mind is flat'.

The Mind is Flat

We wanted to share the top 5 takeouts we learnt from the course:

  1. Inner mental depth is like a rainbow - "just like rainbows seem to be very deep things, as you move around the rainbow seems to move with you, but nonetheless you have a strong sense that the rainbow has a depth and a real point in the ground. But we know they don't really have depth". The mental depths that many of us think shape our behaviour are in fact an illusion.
  2. Our mind is an improviser - An ever-growing body of research shows that we make up our beliefs and desires in the moment. They are not stable over time, nor do they generate behaviour. We invent them to rationalise our behaviour, after the fact. This means our explanation for our own behaviour may be no better that that of an outsiders due to the 'distorting lens of self-perception'.
  3. Everything is relative - The brain cannot measure anything absolutely. It makes decisions only relatively, by considering the options in the context they are presented. For example, people are more likely to make risky financial decisions when the options are presented among a more risky choice set; a medium strength electric shock is perceived less painful when presented against a stronger electric shock, than a mild one. 
  4. We're all natural storytellers - Weaving together a narrative of the decisions we've made is our way of making sense of the world. It helps us explain to ourselves why we acted in the way that we did, and helps us predict what we'll do in the future. Although we are making up our own narrative as we go along, our personalities appear stable. This may be because although we're actually changing a lot, we still manage to come up with a story that is coherent.
  5. We're more social than we think we are -Rather than existing independently as individuals, we heavily influenced by those around us, and alter our behaviour according to verbal and non-verbal cues. As such, in societies we have been successful in developing extremely complicated interactions, resulting in languages and cultures that cannot be explained or justified - they just happen. This is because the brain is very clever at reading situations, and co-ordinating our behaviour in line with the situation - we act that way because we always have and because other people expect us to.


However much we like to think that we're rational decision-makers, behavioural science shows that the mind is flat - much of what we do is driven by automatic thinking, and factors that lie outside of conscious awareness. For information on how we work this into the way we approach research, please contact 2CV: Behavioural Science


By Emma Johns, Amy Jones & Jane Goldthorpe

2CV London