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The Control Heuristic Book Summary – Luca Dellanna

What you will learn from reading The Control Heuristic

– How to take action, especially with things that we often make excuses for.

–  Why we procrastinate, make excuses and justify lazy behaviour.

– How our brains work in relation to our environment in terms of pain and pleasure.

The Control Heuristic Book Summary:

The control heuristic touches on a lot of the core principles of human behaviour. Starting with our ability to take action, Dellanna brings a whole new light to why we find it easy to take action with somethings but struggle to do it with others. 

He also dives into the world of pain and pleasure and describes how we act in response to our environment… or what he describes as our ancestors environment. 

This book has a lot of hidden gems and is definitely a refreshing read as it talks about a lot of habit concepts in a way that I haven’t heard put before. If you’re struggling to take action or just want to know how to be efficient, this book will provide you with the means to hijack your brain in order to optimise it.



When I like the sound of an outcome but not the action to acquire it, we end up making excuses and justifying ourselves.

Motivation is built by having positive associations with the action you want to take.


Volume I The Nature of Actions

Part 1: Taking Action


The Neurology of Taking Action

Theres a difference between making the right decision and acting on it. Too often we know whats right for us but we end up choosing a different path, the one that is comfortable.

The cortex is an area in your brain which is responsible for coming up with your thoughts.

The Basal Ganglia is a different area in your brain which is responsible for taking action on those thoughts.

Think of the Basal Ganglia as a gate or a club bouncer which if they let in a thought it becomes an action. However, just like any club, requirements are needed.

“Unless we understand how the basal ganglia operate the gate, we cannot truly understand ourselves or take effective action to influence our habits.”


The Gate to Action: Our Basal Ganglia

There are many reasons why we think certain thoughts should be turned into actions, however, it isn’t so much about the logic of the thought but the feeling of the expected outcome that matters when being considered by the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia require a high enough expected emotional outcome (EEO) from the proposed thought. Our basal ganglia only accepts actions with a positive EEO.

What does this mean? Well say I think of buying an ice cream, my cortex creates the thought, sends it to my basal ganglia which then weighs up whether the emotion that I will receive when I eat the ice cream was worth the action… it normally always is (I love Ice Cream).

EEO relates to the action itself and the actions outcome. For example, if I have to run 10 miles to get an ice cream, I’m probably going to pass.

On the flip side of this, when we conjure up thoughts a lot of reasoning comes into play… is it good for me to have an ice cream, when was the last time I had an ice cream, etc. This is called Expected Material Outcome (EMO), it is essentially our brain weighing up the pros and cons. Our cortex uses EMO to decide whether or not it should send a thought to our basal ganglia.

“The Expected Material Outcome determines whether we say we should do something. The Expected Emotional Outcome is what determines whether we actually do it.”

When a proposed action has too low of an expected emotional outcome it gets blocked by our basal ganglia and this is what leads us to come up with justifications, excuses, procrastinate or become lazy.

The thoughts that are allowed through can then reach the areas of the brain that will execute them.


When the Gate Stays Closed: Inaction

When the basal ganglia refuses to let a thought through, we end up making excuses for why that was the case. Decision paralysis, procrastination, laziness, excuses etc. are not the cause for not taking action but the symptom.

Although we know that the reason for inaction is that we have to low of an EEO, we look past this and create confabulations. Confabulations being rationalisations comprised of fragments of truth and the sense of self to make them believable.

Decision paralysis comes about from having a task with too low of an EEO. Procrastination occurs when we have other tasks that are more attractive because they have a higher EEO, thus we put the original task off till later. This normally occurs when the action makes sense but the EEO is too low.

“Laziness is the symptom of a too low EEO with the action one should take.”

Excuses occur when we fail to act on something and therefore our status, reputation, money, trust, or other resources have been effected. We don’t like to paint ourselves in a bad light so excuses are a perfect way of justifying our inaction without feeling bad about it.


The Flow and the Gate

Both the cortex and the basal ganglia need to be in sync for action to take place. The cortex is unable to feel and the basal ganglia is unable to think, therefore they are both symbiotic (they rely on each other).

For action to occur two conditions are required:

  1. Being prompted to think about it
  2. Having a high enough EEO associated to it.

One must come across a cue for them to conjure up a thought, weigh the pros and cons and then send it on its way to the basal ganglia for the final test.

The idea is to create positive associations with an action so that it increases its EEO and thus makes us act on it when we come across its cue.

As Dellanna put it, If we don’t take on board these two conditions “We will live in a world that reminds us and expects us to do actions we will not be able to take.”


Thoughts are Actions Too

Although we associate actions as physical, thoughts are actions as well. So like physical actions, mental actions have to go through the basal ganglia too.

An example of a mental action would be to choose to put your attention on something. Read a book rather than watch TV.

“it is our muscles that execute physical actions, and it is our pre-frontal cortex that executes our mental actions, at least the most complex ones.”


When The Gate Stays Closed

Our basal ganglia’s goal is to pursue effectiveness and happiness. The problem is with this is that it can’t think about the future repercussions, it only has access to past data belonging to our past emotional experiences.

Our cortex being logical and all has the ability to look into the future and weigh up the best decision. Our Basal ganglia on the other hand is all about immediate gratification and so can only feel the current moment. This can make it hard when the cortex tries to plan for something ahead but it isnt what feels best in the current moment.

This means that even if a proposed action has a positive long term effect, it can still have a low EEO.

“Driven people do not actually delay gratification. Instead, they find gratification in taking a necessary step towards their long-term objectives.”


Opening the Gate

“The EEO is not whether you think that the action is useful, nor what you think others would feel when doing that action. It is how you feel at the idea of having to do the action.”

Because people can have different anchors to certain experiences, it means that EEO is subjective. One might love riding a bicycle because they have a fond memory of riding around a park with their family, another might have a bad memory because they really hurt themselves the first time they tried to ride.

Experiences hold positive and negative associations, but for the basal ganglia to let a thought become an action, the positives must outweigh the negatives.

“EEO depends on what we feel when faced with action. Not on what we think about the action.”


Prioritising Actions

The cortex proposes a bunch of thoughts which are then put through a rigorous test to see which ones offer the most potential. These are then sent to the basal ganglia to be confirmed or not, however, the most rational might not have the highest EEO, if not, then the next thought on the list is sent through.

“Change your schedule or your environment so that you have fewer prompts for your cortex to propose distracting actions to the basal ganglia.”

The more we analyse our thoughts that our cortex conjures up, the more aware we become of taking action. If not, our cortex and basal ganglia are left to run on auto-pilot.



When the EEO of an action is low but the risk of repetitional damage is higher, we tend to assort to busy work, doing the least uncomfortable action which maintains our social status.

The best way to counteract this is to act on real work and build positive associations to it.

If we learn to build positive associations with the long-term solutions, then we are more likely to act on the more rational choice.

“Build negative emotional associations with the short-term shortcuts that do not work.”

The more you associate negative associations with quick fixes, the more you’ll run out of them and therefore have to go with the real long-term solution.

Sometimes an action may not be good for us such as self harm, but if it has a higher EEO then the other alternatives, then it can lead us to act on it.

When our basal ganglia gets it wrong and allows an action through that is not good for us, we tend to justify it through the emotion it creats.


Part 2: Its All About Risk


The History of Desire

“What our genes are, and thus who we are, has less to do with our current environment, and more to do with the environments our ancestors evolved in.”

The paradox of adaptation is that it is incredibly slow, yet we are living in an environment that is constantly changing at an incredibly fast rate, a rate which we can not keep up with.

So there seems to be a lagging effect, one which we react to our current environment with the reactions programmed in us for our ancestors environment.

Our DNA has programmed us with 2 forms of adaptations:

The ability to learn to desire things that feel good and avoid things that feel bad (pain and pleasure).

A list of already saved good and bad sensorial feelings

Calibrating our Desires and Aversions

Actions that increase our chances of survival release neurotransmitters such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. An increase in neurotransmitters leads to an increase in EEO.

“We act to produce feelings that remind us of the outcomes we seek, not to produce these outcomes.”

This explains why we may engage in useless acts which feel like useful ones. Acts that aren’t quite the real thing, e.g. masturbation (mating), busy work (real work), social media (socialising).

A high amount of EEO suggests convinces us that the action is low risk and vice versa. However, people may engage in self harm or suicide if the EEO is higher than any of the alternatives… logic is over ruled.

“We do not desire survival, but what feels like survival.”


The Curse of Modernity

“Whether something is bad for us often depends on its dose.”

We still have the same things in our environment that our ancestors did, but in a much higher concentrated volume.

Sugar, for example, is a high source of energy. Considering it used to be scarce, when our ancestors came across it would’ve signalled an increase in survival.

In todays environment, sugar is very accessible, and not only that but it comes in much more concentrated doses. For example one coke would amount to a great deal of sugar cane, which realistically wouldve made you full by that point.

Unfortunately our brains still think we are living in our ancestors environment and so sugar is still programmed as a sign of survival. This can lead to addiction as every time we have a coke or a biscuit our brains re getting confused and telling us we are increasing our rate of suvival.

We are all very capable of knowing that too much of anything is bad for us and that addiction can lead us down a dark road, but to our brains, when we deprive ourselves of something, it thinks we are at risk of survival and so craves it even more.


Risk Homeostasis

“We respond to increased safety by taking more risks – a phenomenon called risk homeostasis”

When we feel confident and safe in a particular circumstance, we tend to take advantage of it in order to reap the benefits. E.g. If we have been driving for a while and haven’t come across any accidents, we might speed in order to get somewhere quicker and thus gain more resources.

We constantly come across risks to do with time, money, energy, reputation and focus, so to deal with this we take advantage of some in order to reduce the risks in others.

“People do not act based on the real risks of an activity, but on those they perceive.”

People assess risk by the amount of emotionally charged events they have had. The less negative events they have experienced the higher the likelihood of them taking a risk, and vice versa.

“The less risky an activity appears, the more risks they take”

“Risk homeostasis: people exposed to multiple risks adjust their exposure to each in order to maximize overall survival to their experienced environment.”


The Control Heuristic

We adjust to risk rather than eliminate it because it offer resources that we can take advantage of.

The way we do this is by interpreting what feels like survival (although regrettably may not actually be good for us, e.g. sugar).

“The Control Heuristic People behave to feel like they are controlling the risks their ancestors were vulnerable to.”

For example, When I buy an apple, I am essentially saying I am willing to risk bankruptcy as food is a priority. Vice versa, when I decide not to buy an apple, I am risking starvation as money is now my priority… A little extreme I know.


Part 3: Beating Resistance to Change


Immediacy Matters

When we act on something, it is the emotion that we receive curing or directly after that gets associate to it. We can still associate emotion to them later on, but it is the immediacy that takes priority.

“Slow feedback creates awareness. Fast feedback changes habits.”

The best way to make positive associations to something is to ensure that some of the benefits are immediate.

For example, although we all know the benefits of brushing our teeth, to make experience more likeable the toothpaste companies added mint flavouring to give the association of freshness, therefore increasing our likelihood to brush our teeth.

Its best to reward an action with something that can’t be detached from the activity. E.g. You wouldn’t reward yourself for going to the gym by having a chocolate bar as you could easily have the chocolate bar without going to the gym.

If rewarding yourself after taking action, make sure to do it straight away as you may do something in between and then associate the reward to that action rather than the original one.


Positive Experience First

The best way to become good at something is to find joy in it first.

Before trying to be effective at something, build positive associations for it. However before jumping straight in, learn the basics/ fundamentals first.

The step process:

  1. Learn the basics
  2. Build positive associations
  3. Apply it to be effective

For example, learning to ride a bike. Before you get on and cycle away you need to know the basic principles first. Once you have those down, you can ride around and build the positive associations. Then you can start to apply what you have learn to a more challenging terrain and excel from there.

During this whole process, awareness is key. Being aware of your improvement allows you to praise/ reward yourself which helps you build even greater positive associations as it is a form of positive reinforcement.

“It is much easier to acquire passion without technique than to acquire technique without passion.”


Avoiding Shortcuts

Shortcuts aren’t going to get you where you want to be any quicker.

You need to associate a positive EEO with the process rather than just the product.

“Either you desire the actions that would bring change, or you won’t change. Desiring the outcomes of change doesn’t count.”


Experiences are Subjective

Our DNA dictates what is more likely to feel good, and therefore which behaviours are more likely to be reinforced. However, what really matters is the emotional context in which they’re experienced.

Although we may be programmed to like certain things, if the context is not right, we might end up disliking it completely.

Context is highly subjective and therefore the feelings we associate to actions are ours alone.

There a three types of ways associations can be built:

  1. Items
  2. Sensations
  3. Actions


Second Hand Experiences

When we experience an action for the first time, the feelings we associate become the anchor to that action. However, a lot of the time we our introduction to something is through someone else. This means that the way that they describe it becomes the anchor until we actually experience it ourselves and can make up our own minds.

First hand experiences are much stronger, however second hand experiences can be a great way of being introduced to an experience. They may give you the emotional association required to take action.

When we are apprehensive to something, second hand experiences work perfectly as a type of exposure therapy, slowly building small positive associations until we feel comfortable to take action.


Helping Others to Change Might Be Dangerous

The 80 20 rule suggests that 20 percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your results. Therefore, advise someone on something, it is best only to do it if you think your advice is in their top 20 percentile.

If so, then their return will be greater than their decrease in reputation and therefore worth it. However, if it isn’t you may just irritate them.


The Way Forward

To really achieve at taking beneficial action, try to reframe what failure means to you. Every action has positive and negative aspects to it, so by emphasising the positives and suppressing the negatives you’re more likely to take action.

For actions you want to get rid of, do the complete opposite, emphasise the negatives.


Volume II The Nature of Perception


Fragmentised Perception

Our perception is made of independant fragments. When we don’t consciously think about our actions, coherence is only checked on at the fragment level, meaning it is easy for us to miss the whole picture.

Our actions aren’t held up to rationality until we focus on them.

Hence, why it is very easy for someone to hold incompatible beliefs because it’s not until we focus on them that we realise they’re incompatible.


Perception in the Distributed Brain

Our brain is split into multiple different areas and although they can talk to each other they don’t have access to each other’s inputs, only their outputs, this makes it hard to verify somethings validity and so it is assumed as true unless incoherent.

Because regions of the brain are incapable of seeing each other’s inputs, they aren’t able to assess them to see if they are true or not, this means they have to estimate it from their outputs coherency.

“Confabulations occur because regions have only access to the output of other regions, not to the raw data that determined it.”

Illusions occur when a region of the brain trusts a faulty output of another region.

“There is no such thing as a region of the brain with a full overview of what is going on.”

Our brains aren’t able to tell us if something is true or not, so instead, it tells us if something is coherent to us.


Truth and Coherence

Sometimes regions of our brain can misunderstand its inputs and therefore create an incorrect output. The brain being incapable to assessing this, continues on functioning as if nothing is awry, which in turn creates a knock on effect eventually causing an illusion/ delusion.

A belief that costs to express socially or financially generates more loyalty with the few that share it.

People who choose to be ignorant attribute a high negative EEO of wanting to know.

Some people choose to be ignorant as it is not so costly. Having one point of view on something shows where you stand, however, holding multiple points of view on something makes you seem unsure and therefore opens you up to social accusations.

Simple statements are general statement which are low resolution concepts. Complex statements are multiple statements in one, they’re more specific about the actual topic at hand and therefore are high-resolution concepts.

Rarely can we ever describe something so generally. Normally the more we zoom in on a certain topic the more details we come across and therefore the more complexity.

“Truth is resolution dependent.”

Subjects that are rigorous and precise use complex statements, whereas subjects dealing with generalisations such as politics use simple statements.

Coherence happens at three levels:

  1. Local
  2. Emotional
  3. Between resolutions

For something to be considered coherent, it has to be true for all three levels.


Global Coherence

It is possible for us to hold beliefs that are incoherent with eachother.

Stories/ narratives allow us to connect incoherencies in order to restore coherence. Basically filling in the parts so that they can coexist in the same story.

The problem with this is that we automatically connect the incoherencies without checking if the story is true or not. The more incoherencies in a story the less we need to fill in the gaps and therefore the more likely it is to be true.


Made to Act

Our brains are notorious for jumping to conclusions. However, they only do so when they think there is room to be wrong. If there is a chance our survival is at risk, it will try and look for more information before making a conclusion.

“Nature necessarily prioritized avoiding being wrong when doing so would threaten survival.”

We need our brains to be on the look out for risks in case there genuinely is something afoot. However, sometimes it can go into overdrive and lead to phobia or addictions.

We need moderation to be able to perceive danger but also to act appropriately. Both perception and action are so entwined that they could almost be thought of as one. A cycle of theory and action, constantly improving eachother.



“Confabulations are not only false memories about what we did, but also about why we did it and what we felt at the time.”

Confabulations occur so quickly that we aren’t even aware we have made something up.

So far we know that if we think of something to do and it turns out that the EEO is too low, we won’t act on it. Interestingly, if we are questioned about it, we conjure up the most believable confabulation.

“Identities are confabulations. They are not the cause of our behaviour, but its effect (or, more precisely, the effect of its outcomes).”



Our consciousness and imagination act as a simulation device in which we can use to simulate experiences and come up with our interpretation of them. This comes in particularly handy when we need to solve a problem or asses an actions EEO.

“Consciousness is a tool for simulating actions whose outcome cannot be determined intuitively”


Volume III Emergent Behaviours


Part 1 Adaptation to an Ever Changing World


Mimetic Societies

When we don’t know what to do, we look to others in order to copy their behaviour. By copying others we improve our likelihood of survival.

The individuals who exhibit behaviours that reduce their chances of survival end up dying out, meaning the successful candidates are left standing. This creates a perfect environment in which to imitate.

“The intellectually independent take risks. If they succeed, they will get imitated.”



Moods are our brains way of making us expend or conserve energy in order to react accordingly to our environment.

A few examples:

Excitement: leads us to expend more energy than usual on a task that we deem to have higher rewards than usual.

Discouragement: makes us conserve energy when the prospects of a reward from a task are lower than usual.

Anger: allows us to react with strength when strength is needed.


Fear and Disgust

“Fear is our emotional reaction to indicators of danger. Disgust is the same but applied to health risks.”

Our sensitivities change depending on our current needs (food, water, shelter, etc).

Fear and disgust if held onto can lead to anxiety and trauma.


Part 2 The Self



Indulging in our egos gives us a feeling of safety. It gives us confidence and therefore signals that we are further away from risk of survival.

However, saying that, flaunting our ego’s can be arrogant and selfish, so we do it in ways that don’t break the norms of society.

“Whenever we do something that makes us feel safe or feel good, we automatically invest a bit of our ego in it.”

“If instead, our ego is invested in our Future Self, then we take long term decisions.”



“Values are buckets in which we categorise actions and, more importantly, the people who took them. They are not the reasons people took those actions.”

Identities are the confabulations we create when we ask why we acted in a positive way (honestly).



Happiness can be represented by:

Performing actions whose completion brings us pleasure.

Performing actions with high EEO

External events distancing us from existential risks.

“A person will delay happiness if and only if it will result in feeling like distancing from existential risks.”


Part 3 Pain


Pain is a Signal of Vulnerability

“Pain correlates more solidly with a probability of future physical harm than with physical harm itself.”

Pain has evolved in order to prevent us from future damages.

Pain indicates a movement towards vulnerability whereas EEO indicates a movement away from vulnerability.

As well as physical damage, we can also be affected by social, psychological and financial damage.

“Pain should appear whenever a behavioural change is needed, not whenever the body is physically damaged.”

“We might feel pain at our extremities if we stand too long in the cold, even before actual damage such as frostbite.”

Chronic Pain

We can suffer from two types of pain

  1. Physical
  2. Psychogenic (mental)

Stress is not the trigger for chronic pain but a catalyser.

“Feelings of vulnerability stack with each other.”

It’s all about the accumulation of stressors, if you are suffering in many different areas, combining them all can be overwhelming and therefore can lead to increased pain.



“Placebos are permissions; suggestions that it is safe for us to take actions which we know would be good for us, but are afraid of taking.”