Monday, 17 May 2010

Why do we do what we do?

Everything we do is intended to improve the fulfilment of ourselves or others, either directly or indirectly, either now or at some point in the future.

This is what my mate Dan Harrison wrote on his excellent blog.

Setting aside the thorny issue of whether we know what fulfils us, we see that of course humans do of course act to improve their own fulfilment. But as much as we act to move towards something we seek, we also act to avoid unpleasant things. Indeed, just as we have learned to avoid external threats (don't go near that dark blob, it could be a bear), so we treat our internal emotions in the same way. We try to avoid them.

Dan wanted some examples, so here are some:

- Substance abuse is typically motivated by an attempt to avoid negative private experiences (Shoal and Giancola, 2001).

- Depression is an attempt not to feel emotions that are intolerably painful. (Hayes, 2009). Actions that come from depression might include staying in one's room. This could, I suppose, be twisted to mean 'increasing one's fulfilment' but it would be quite a twist.

- Procrastination is something I encounter in many clients. This is an evolutionary adaptive mechanism which limits short term exposure to potentially difficult or boring material. It works, but it's motivated by avoidance, not fulfilment. Oh, and in the long term it doesn't work - the thoughts come back harder and more frequently (Wegner, 2006).

- Many actions are about avoiding anxiety. For example, if I choose not to present a key presentation at work due to nerves, and instead get a colleague to do it, I am not exactly choosing fulfilment, nor am I doing it to give fulfilment to others. The action I choose to do in its place might be watching the presentation, but this is more a default action of avoiding my own anxiety. Indeed, I might silently seethe and curse both myself and my colleague during it.

- Similarly, many actions are about avoiding other negative outcomes. Take for example rejection. If I fear being rejected, my actions may betray me in several ways. Maybe I will choose unreliable partners - that's a good way for rejection not to bite too deep - or maybe I will stay single. That guarantees it.

Behaviour is motivated both by avoidance of pain as well as attainment of pleasure. We are positively and negatively reinforced.

We see it in rats, and we assuredly see it within ourselves. But we have to be willing to look...

No comments: