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.