Why Did You Do That?

One of the more problematic things most of us do — and we do it routinely — is ascribe motives to people.  We can hardly resist.  Our mind seems to be wired for it.  But that doesn’t make it any less problematic.

While a person’s behavior is visible, their motives are secrets — often enough, even to themselves.  So far as Bernstein is concerned, he feeds the park birds because his departed wife asked him to feed the birds after she was gone.  But Bernstein is also motivated by a comforting feeling that he’s still connected to her when he’s feeding the birds.  And, too, he enjoys birds, and he likes to think of himself as a caring man.  Facts he overlooks when he thinks about his motives.

Because our motives are secrets — sometimes even to us — speculating about motives can take on the surreal quality of speculating about the supernatural.  I can speculate all I want about whether there is an invisible elf farting undetectable rainbows beyond my window.  But even if I guess right, I will never know for sure that I have guessed right.  In much the same way, I will never know for sure that I have guessed right about Bernstein’s motives.  And maybe not even Bernstein himself will know for sure.

So why do we worry about motives?  Could we get along just as well without ascribing motives to ourselves or others?

In many cases, we do not need to know someone’s motives to know what they will do.  We don’t need to know why Bernstein feeds the park birds each afternoon to know Bernstein will feed the birds this afternoon.  Our species is quite habitual.  And that frequently makes us predictable.

It also seems the case that ascribing motives to someone is a good way to be misled about what they will do.  That is, far from allowing us to predict their behavior, it obscures their behavior.  If I recall a while back, someone remarked on another blog (The Cognitive Dissenter) that her county had the highest rate in Utah for a certain kind of scam.  As it happened, the scam artists were officials in the Mormon Church.  Apparently, the officials would suggest to their victims that they were being offered an excellent deal due to the officials wanting to help fellow Christians.  The victims thus did not closely check what they were being sold.

I can think of times when I might wish to understand someone’s motives in order to predict what they will do, such as when I have nothing else to go on in predicting their behavior.   But guessing about people’s motives seems to me an unreliable way of predicting their behavior when compared to, say, predicting their future behavior on the basis of their past behavior.

6 thoughts on “Why Did You Do That?

  1. On a walk last night, Mr. Mature and I were discussing this very thing. We’d been speculating what motive the GOP might have for veering off the debt ceiling talks to focus on balanced budget amendment initiatives and other lower priority bills all day…JUST AS WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO GO OVER A FREAKIN’ CLIFF, NATIONALLY-SPEAKING!

    We realized it was futile to make these guesses as to what they were thinking, but that was all we could think of to talk about. Without our surmises, we would just be walking along silently, miserably, individually, lonesomely contemplating that freakin’ cliff and feeling doomed.

    I hear you. The best indication of future GOP behavior on the debt ceiling talks is their past behavior. But which past behavior? Their denial behaviors? Their tendency to get more dug into position the harder everyone else tries to get them to wake up? Or should we be looking at the GOP’s history of voting for debt ceiling increases consistently by history before they turned the high school over to the freshmen?

    Not only am I a chronic speculator, I’m an addicted motive detective. I made a living at it and I’m too far gone to fix, I fear. The human mind just needs to understand the whys and wherefores of life.

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    • I think GOP history shows they have undergone a change in behavior over the past 30 or so years and are now behaving as the arm of various factions whose interests don’t coincide with the interests of the vast majority of Americans. There have been several trends, but one of them has been towards doing anything and everything they can think of, without restraint, to make Obama a one term president. Another has been to redistribute wealth upwards from the middle and lower classes to the very rich. So I would look for them to resist any deal on the budget that doesn’t cut taxes for the wealthy, while cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits to the rest of us.

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  2. Wow…broad question.

    I guess when someone shows up on your blog, and they post an volatile or insulting comment. When you read that comment, you have to determine their motivation doing so.

    If you decide they were just there to make trouble, you can delete their post, ignore it, or otherwise not let it darken your mental doorstep again.

    But if you decide they were making a legitimate point or trying to start a fiery discussion perhaps not as well as they might, then maybe you spend significant time to consider their position, respond, look for references to support or extend the discussion.

    When you consider someone’s motives, it is part of the process of making those actions make sense to you, and giving you a chance to make an appropriate response.

    Also, if we understand motivations, it lets us potentially compartmentalize, align and even extrapolate.

    I saw this post of yours, and felt that you are were being philosophical, really looking to understand human nature, and trying to be more self-aware. Having decided that, I can guess that a response that describes why understanding motivations is part of being self aware—might resonate better than if I pulled out references to a doctoral presentation with comparative clinical views on the motivations of the human animal between Jung and Freud.

    My more callous side also says that if you can understand someone’s motivations, then you can automatically judge those actions more quickly and easily.

    “We all know that Obama is motivated by being a self-important thug out to destroy the country.”

    He wants to raise taxes…because he’s a self-important thug out to destroy the country.
    He wants universal health care…
    He purchased a hamburger…you get the idea.

    So now, I don’t have to really consider Obama’s actions…just apply the filter and I know the real meaning to anything he does–from speeches to meetings to vacations. He did it because it furthers his goal of using his thuggish personality to destroy the country.

    I guess in all three cases, understandings motives makes it easier to understand other people. Whether it’s knowing how to more appropriately react to their actions, developing a better understanding them, or simply making it easier to process facts without as much work.

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    • Thank you for an outstanding comment, JethricOne. I appreciate the time you put into it.

      I would agree with you there are times when knowing someone’s motive allows us to make accurate predictions about their behavior.

      I think it can be tricky to distinguish between motives and patterns of behavior. For several years, I administered an active internet forum. We had our share of trolls. I learned various patterns of behavior that I came to associate with trolls. That helped considerably in dealing with them. But I never got much beyond, “They take pleasure in annoying people”, for a description of their motives. Of course, I didn’t need to speculate much further. By knowing their patterns of behavior, I knew what I was dealing with.

      The other point I would like to make is that understanding someone’s motives can be very difficult to do. One has to look at their behavior and make guesses based on that. Sometimes our guess are wrong. Sometimes they are right, but the person’s motives change. There are lots of practical problems involved with figuring out what someone’s motives are.

      At any rate, I got a great deal out of your comment — much food for thought. Thank you for that.

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  3. I agree that motives per se are not reliable indicators alone. However, I think the “why” question is crucial and motives are a factor. There may be a personality disorder or mental illness; or perhaps greed or a hidden conflict of interest. Speaking of the GOP, maybe they’re batshit, or dumb as a rock, or evil. If you’re going debate someone who is one or all of the above, it would probably be helpful to know which planet they live on.

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    • I think many of the things we call motives are not really motives. They are instead patterns of behavior Since spelling out the entire pattern would be cumbersome, we sum it up in a word or phrase — such as batshit crazy. That’s an accurate enough description of the behavior of several prominent Republicans in Washington during these budget negotiations. But it seems to me that calling them batshit crazy does two things. It summarizes their behavior. And it distinguishes their behavior from behavior motivated by, say, a desire to protect the middle class.

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