I’m hurt, no doubt about it. I’m not worried about the pain. I don’t care about the pain, don’t even feel it. I’m not even worried about hurting myself anymore than I already have—no, I’m worried about hurting the team.
—Ray Lewis, former NFL linebacker, I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory
Rock-paper-scissors is a hand-gesture game played to settle childish disputes (or so I thought until three days ago). As it turns out, the millennia-old game helps explain a lot in the world. Rock-Paper-Scissors is surprisingly well represented in academic literature—alternative male-mating strategies in lizards, antibiotic-mediated antagonism, protecting public goods from the tragedy of the commons, and that’s just getting started. The New York Times even has an online version of the game to play a computer, which pulls from over 200,000 previous rounds (p.s. It will probably beat you). But why is this simple game so ubiquitous?
We often think of win-lose games in terms of two teams battling head to head; however, nature (including human nature) rarely works in such a direct way. An action in one area often has unintended consequences in another. Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game of checks and balances. And with only three variables, it is the simplest version. If the goal is, for example, to reduce the amount of Scissors in the world, then Rock should be thrown time and time again. Throw a lot of Rocks and we’ll get rid of the Scissors, but with less Scissors, more Papers survive—leading to trouble for all those Rocks we threw. This is the basic premise for what scholars call “circular dominance,” otherwise known as Rock-Paper-Scissor dynamics. And this concept helps explain much of the human experience.
While we all have different personal motivations, there’s a universal internal tug-o-war—a motivation triad—that can either get in the way of or optimize our goals. The balance between our physiologic needs (Body), our emotions/feelings (Heart), and our logical reasoning and processing (Mind) are what create the diverse range of behavior we see everyday. Being human may not be simple, but let’s take a closer look at a simple game to see if we can improve our performance:
- Body—like Rock, it’s solid, dependable, strong, and can be used like a weapon.
- Heart—like Paper, it can be written on, read, shared, crumpled, or torn.
- Mind—like Scissors, it’s sharp, precise, specialized, but can be dangerous.
Heart beats Body. What motivates a person to push through the pain, in order to run one more lap in practice? What about staying awake all night to finish a project with an impending deadline? What possesses a person to start a fight despite obvious physical danger? Or to charge into enemy territory, bayonets at the ready? Human emotions can push our bodies beyond comfort. They transcend our normal physiology, creating adrenaline rushes to push through the pain, get passed the tired, or forget the hunger. Depending on the circumstance, this can be an advantage or disadvantage. Professional athletes, like Ray Lewis (quoted above), use their “pumped up” emotional state to achieve a high level of physical performance. But there are instances when emotions can put our bodies in jeopardy—like fighting for pride, love, or anger. And we can all relate to those sleepless nights, tossing and turning over emotional stresses at work, arguments with a significant other, or any number of other feelings.
Mind beats Heart. When we’re up at night, working ourselves up into a sleepless, emotional frenzy, only a calm mind can put our anxiety into perspective. Emotions can cloud our understanding of the big picture, making us feel like the emotion we are experiencing at that moment is the most important thing in the world. By adding context and perspective, our Minds can neutralize our irrational side. This concept of primitive and evolved brain is represented in different ways throughout the literature; the Heart/Mind dichotomy goes by different names—Think vs. Blink, System 2 vs. System 1, Analytical vs. Intuitive—but essentially it’s this: We all have an immediate reaction brain (Heart) that is fueled by basic emotional needs (ex. love and respect), and when we feel those needs are in conflict or under attack, we tend to react. Only our level-headed Mind can defeat the negative side of emotions.
Body beats Mind. Obviously, the Mind does not always beat the Heart, but perhaps it’s because the Mind has already been defeated. Graduate education is rife with unhealthy study behavior—caffeine binges, all-nighters, a diet consisting of power bars and skittles. But the lie of this type of behavior is thinking that the Body doesn’t matter—that if a student can cram for one more hour at 3 A.M. then he will perform better on an exam. There is an eventual breaking point, a point where our minds starts to get cloudy, our work starts to slip, we begin to forget things, and have trouble sayings words. That point is when the body is forcing a shutdown. Being chronically fatigued, having insufficient nutrients in one’s diet, even physiologic sexual frustration can all play a role in how clearly our thinking is. Being deprived of physiological needs wears down our willpower and pushes us from a mind-deciding person to an emotion-deciding one. And taken to the extreme—extreme hunger, extreme thirst, extreme sickness—we become physiological-driven creatures.
It is helpful to recognize the interrelationship between the three parts of ourselves—Body, Heart, Mind. Knowing how they interact, we can buffer known problems. For example, after starting a business, launching a product, or quitting a job, there are a lot of unknowns; the task at hand has just begun. That reality can be an emotional time, but it’s a known emotional time. To get through challenges like the stress of not yet finding a new job, we require clear thinking about the big picture, and doing so requires our bodies to be well fed, well rested, and somewhat active. And that’s just one example.
Body-Heart-Mind dynamics are as important for interpersonal relationships as they are for self-improvement. Often, we are not able to see our crazy while we’re in the crazy. That’s why it’s important to recognize it in others—friends, family, spouse, colleagues, etc. Reacting emotionally when faced with someone that’s emotional is rarely the right course of action—”Don’t fight fire with fire.” Instead, helping an emotional friend see the rationale side of a situation, a different perspective, and adding some context to an emotional and confusing time is what will help. Knowing ourselves and others—having an awareness of what’s going on—that’s the first step. What we do with that information is up to us.
Semmann, Dirk, Hans-Jürgen Krambeck, and Manfred Milinski. “Volunteering leads to rock–paper–scissors dynamics in a public goods game.” Nature425.6956 (2003): 390-393. (Source)