Breaking Our Patterns: Behavioral Economics and T’shuvah

Breaking Our Patterns: Behavioral Economics and T’shuvah

This is a sermon delivered at East End Temple on Rosh Hashanah 5778 / September 20, 2017. 

It is said that every rabbi has only one or two sermons to give in a lifetime. We just give them in different ways at different times. If I might give away a bit of a trade secret, I think that my sermons go like this:

I went somewhere exciting;

I met someone fascinating;

I learned something interesting;

And I haven’t looked at this passage of Torah the same way since.

People are really cool.

One of my professors used to joke that in many congregations you might as well have a book of prewritten responses to different topics:

  • Please turn to interlude 12 to bemoan the state of contemporary politics.
  • A call for justice can be found in meeting 35.
  • We return to the responsive readings about the warmth and love of our community on page 2.

Even the most charismatic rabbis and the most vibrant communities can get stuck in patterns that serve our purposes just well enough.

And then there are our relationships. Need I even say more? I could probably just tweak my usual sermon formula ever so slightly:

I went to the same place;

I met the same person;

I did the same thing;

And I have looked at the same passage of Torah exactly the same way ever since.

Out of ease, comfort, or inertia, our lives are made up largely of patterns. Some of these patterns are positive and keep us safe. Always remember to tie your shoes, “look both ways before you cross the street,” and wash the vegetables before you chop them for the salad. But a lot of patterns limit our potential. We accept these artificial limitations simply because it’s easier. Too often, following these patterns ends in injustice.

She seemed so young and inexperienced that we couldn’t hire her.”

He seemed so tall and menacing that of course it was a reasonable use of force.”

The question of how these patterns develop and why they recur has become one of the fastest-growing areas of research – and is at the heart of the burgeoning field of Behavioral Economics.

Behavioral Economics studies why people make non-rational choices so often in life. Over the past few years, a series of books, like Nisim Taleb’s Black Swan and Michael Lewis’ Undoing Project, have brought Behavioral Economics into popular discourse – not only about questions of economics, but everyday life.

It is because of two maverick Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, that the field exists at all. Their own story is one of non-rational behavior, as their relationship oscillated between intimate friendship, fierce rivalry, and intellectual partnership. All the while, they gathered data set after data set that studied the non-rational ways in which we behave – and explored how it is that people make choices at all. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his contributions, and both received countless accolades throughout their legendary careers.

Central to their research is the theory that people use two entirely different mental systems to make decisions. The difference between making a good decision and a poor one can come down to the interplay between the two. The recent bestseller, Nudge 1Nudge was written by Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. puts it most concisely: “…[System 1] is your gut reaction and [System 2] is your conscious thought.”

System 2 is slow-moving and based on careful thought. We use a great deal of energy to reason our way through a situation. With painstaking logic, we deduce how to solve a math problem. A lawyer presenting a case, a scientist testing a theory, a principal running a staff meeting, a student taking a test, and anyone trying to figure out what their apartment lease actually says, are all using System 2.

Much as we want to rely on the logical, deductive, and precise System 2 all of the time, it’s really exhausting to do so. Our minds are taxed easily, and we can’t engage our conscious thought at every moment of the day.

Imagine what it would be like to try and walk around Union Square if you needed to analyze everything you saw, heard, or felt.

Wow – what a street sign. I wonder what it says? Who put it there? What are its social implications? What are the penalties for not following the street sign? Are there particular groups to whom the street sign exclusively pertains? Look at its coloring and striations. Was it made in an environmentally responsible way? Is it through progressive taxation that the city paid for it, or a flat tax on income above a certain level?

And that’s just a single street sign! What about the cars? The bikes? And the train – forget about it. It would be impossible to function or live in New York City if we only used our analytical System 2. We just need to do most things automatically most of the time.

That’s where System 1 comes in. System 1 is fast-moving, effortless to use, and based on our intuition. We automatically move across the platform from somebody acting strangely on the subway. We speak our native languages without thinking about how to string together a sentence. We smile at babies as soon as we see them, because we are innately drawn to their cuteness. Professional athletes have trained so much that they can throw a baseball, shoot a basketball, or catch a football instinctively. Experience and reflex guide us in System 1.

Yet it is our automatic, intuitive, unconscious decisions that often lead us astray. I usually get a piece of cake at a party before I actively think about it. And by the time it’s already on a plate in my hand – it’s difficult for my conscious mind to stop me from enjoying it.

More seriously, we decide intuitively whether to like or dislike other people. Perhaps our instincts are good. Maybe the person makes us feel unsafe. But we are also exhibiting unconscious bias – which is rooted in the automatic system of our minds. When we think actively about a person or an idea, we could be the most equitable, anti-racist, anti-sexist person on earth. But when we’re just going on intuition, we can be fundamentally unfair.

A robust study indicated that students could correctly select the winning candidate for public office 2/3 of the time simply by taking a quick look at the pictures of the candidates and choosing whichever one looked more competent. These students literally knew nothing about the candidates at all – except based on appearance and all that they associated with the features of the candidates. 2Nudge, page 20. I’ll leave it to your imaginations how women and people of color and young people and older people fare in superficial judgments of competence.

Similarly, when we get stuck in patterns of behavior – arguing with loved ones, procrastinating at work, or avoiding physical activity – it is probably System 1, our intuitive, reflexive system at play. Maybe sometime long ago, our System 2 helped us develop our patterns, but the patterns have long since become wired into our System 1. Our conscious mind aspires to more. Our unconscious just wants to help us get through the day on autopilot.

The challenge lies in aligning System 1 and System 2 – conscious and unconscious, knee-jerk and considered, head and heart. This is the work of ethics and religion, the work of civilization itself. We aspire to live so that our gut urges us to do what our considered judgment tells us is right. Our means of training our System 1 is the sacred process in which we are engaged today. It is not surprising that two Israelis founded Behavioral Economics – because it is another way of approaching t’shuvah. 3T’shuvah is the process of self-reflection and atonement for wrongdoing that Jews take on during the High Holy Days.

T’shuvah is about turning, returning, renewing, changing, and becoming better people. Often understood simply as repentance, it is about acknowledging our wrongdoings from the past year and ensuring that we do not commit them again. It is about studying those moments when our System 1 overpowered our System 2. It is about painstakingly studying our relationships. It is about looking for societal assumptions that we carry out unconsciously – and making sure that those assumptions do not inflict harm upon others. It is about greater awareness in all moments and recognizing when our automatic self is not our best self.

So let us turn to tomorrow’s Torah portion about the Binding of Isaac, 4Genesis 22 and look at it both as a parable of t’shuvah and also of the interplay between System 1 and System 2.

The story begins with a description of Abraham’s subconscious cultural assumptions about serving a Higher Power. Many other ancient Near Eastern civilizations engaged in child sacrifice as a means of placating a deity. Abraham readily assumes that this is what God is asking of him.

Abraham arises early in the morning and takes his beloved son Isaac to the land of Moriah – to the place that he thinks is appropriate for a sacrifice of this sort. He builds an altar, arranges firewood to immolate the sacrifice – and then draws out the knife to take the life of his son. He is in a trance, a daze, a fugue state – or a state of religious fervor, normalized by the brutality of other Bronze Age cultic rituals.

Then, as Abraham raises his machete high to take his son’s life, an angel from God calls out,

Avraham, Avraham. Al tishlach yadcha – Abraham, Abraham, do not send forth your hand.

VaYisah Avraham et einav – and Abraham lifted his eyes.

Abraham then saw a ram caught in the thicket and sacrificed the ram instead of his son.

It was a moment of spiritual enlightenment and remarkable connection. Abraham felt at one with himself, God, and the world around him. In that moment, he saw his son not merely as an object, but as a subject and outright protagonist in the story of his family – and the Jewish people.

Va’yashov Avraham – and Abraham returned.

Our ancestor was shaken from his automatic assumptions with a burst of insight from his System 2. Something did not make sense, and his reason halted his intuition mid-swing.

Hopefully none of us have ever literally come close to sacrificing a child because of social expectations. But how many of us have sacrificed the well-being of a loved one due to ambition or fear or, worst of all, habit? How many of us have hurt others because of the unconscious tropes running through our minds, which normalize harmful actions? How many of us have used words that we later come to lament because we have been so used to hearing them about particular individuals or particular groups? How many of us live out subconscious scripts and let them determine the arc of our own stories?

All of us, in one way or another, have been Abraham. All of us, in one way or another, have undermined the well-being of someone else, even someone we really love. Our System 1 was in overdrive, and our System 2 was sound asleep. Our unconscious mind was making all of the decisions.

Va’yashov Avraham. Abraham lamented his actions, repented, and returned to his fuller self. Abraham began the process of t’shuvah by turning a moment of vice into a moment of virtue. The angel who called out Abraham’s name twice, the angel who stopped Abraham just before he took the life of his son, was not an external being but the Divine presence within: his conscious mind, his witting self, the part of his brain devoted to reason that shook him awake from his societally induced slumber.

VaYisah Avraham et einav. Stunned in amazement, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw with renewed clarity that he never needed to put his son at risk at all.

Al tishlach yadcha. Do not send forth your hand.

These are words that end wars. These are words that resolve conflicts. These are words that change lives. These are words that begin the process of t’shuvah – of turning and returning to our best selves.

The secret to Abraham’s t’shuvah, his process of return, is the secret to our own. That in bringing conscious awareness to our actions and challenging the assumptions on which they rest, we can open our eyes and finally see the world around us for what it is.

The angelic voice is of our System 2, our reasoning minds, reaching out to our unconstrained hearts and making clear that both can act in unison.

But how does it happen? It is all well and good to talk about bringing System 1 and System 2 into alignment, but how do we actually make it happen in our lives?

Aristotle – a pioneer in the study of human behavior millennia before Behavioral Economics – has an answer. It’s all about practice. Excellence, Aristotle says, is not an act, but a habit. We are what we repeatedly do.

Like Abraham, we will be caught in the patterns and ruts of System 1. We know that the consequences of letting our guts run unchecked can be devastating. So, we practice.

We work to incorporate System 2 into our decision-making. We stop and think, bringing our principles and learning to bear on more of our decisions, especially those that we haven’t made so well in the past. Even if System 2’s wheels are rusty, we drag it screeching into daily use. So that when we really need it to kick in and save us, it’s in perfect working order.

The essence of t’shuvah is training our hearts to readily follow our minds and creating habits, patterns, ways of living that adhere to our highest values. Our hope, our possibility, our potential as individuals and as a community comes from the turning of head and heart together.

There’s a reason that t’shuvah – repentance – comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for return. We return to the same challenges again and again, until our instincts urge us to respond the way our considered judgment knows we should.

The great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides asks,

“What constitutes true repentance? If the sinner has the opportunity of committing once again the sinful act and it is quite possible for him to repeat it – and yet he refrains from so doing, because he has repented.” 5

When we find ourselves in the exact same situation as the one in which we erred before – and we manage to do the right thing – that is the fullest sign of t’shuvah. Whether by dint of an empowered System 2 or a System 1 that has been painstakingly trained to choose what is right, we have reprogrammed ourselves and made righteousness automatic.

So if on this Rosh Hashanah you are thinking about the same issues as you were last year – you’re actually doing it right.

Our sages knew that t’shuvah would be a long and arduous process. By its very definition, it takes time and practice. No one gets it right the first time, except by lucky accident.

Jewish ethics does not penalize us for sinful thoughts or uncharitable instincts – but calls us to awareness of them. It is understood that System 1 and System 2, head and heart, often are not aligned. What matters is what we ultimately do. We praise Abraham because he ultimately did not kill his son Isaac. We don’t demonize him because he almost did.

Our High Holiday liturgy tells us that the gates of repentance are always open, waiting for us to complete the process of t’shuvah and to do the right thing, even if we have to force ourselves.

In other words:

I learned something interesting;

And I haven’t looked at this passage of Torah the same way since.

People are really cool.

May our year ahead – this New Year of 5778 – be one in which we heed our System 2 and use it to develop the right habits of our System 1. May our minds guide our hearts – and our hearts become virtuous even in the moments when we are least aware of how they move us.


Ken y’hi ratzon.


Photo © Derek Mayes (cc-by-sa/2.0)


1 Nudge was written by Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
2 Nudge, page 20.
3 T’shuvah is the process of self-reflection and atonement for wrongdoing that Jews take on during the High Holy Days.
4 Genesis 22


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