Why We Don’t Understand Our Behavior

on Jan 29, 2010

There’s a simple answer to this: “proximate psychological mechanisms”. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound very simple. Among the clearest examples of this, a favorite of Professor Paul Bingham’s, is below:

Suppose you ate a sandwich. If someone asked you why you did that, you’d probably say because you felt hungry. That feeling is a proximate cause; it doesn’t fully answer the question and is actually a restatement of the question. So we could then ask, “Why did you have this feeling of hunger?” The ultimate (as opposed to proximate) answer to this question is that because we need energy to survive, we evolved the feeling of hunger to persuade us to obtain more energy as this was beneficial. This feeling of hunger is a proximate psychological mechanism.

There are a few important points here. First, proximate psychological mechanisms serve as a proxies for the ultimate causation. This means that we don’t need to understand the ultimate goal in order to fulfill it. This becomes especially apparent when you consider other species. A male lion doesn’t need to understand why he should mate with as many females as he can. He just does it. And a hydra just flips around and eats without understanding why.

Second, becauseĀ the world we live in today is vastly different than the one our proximate psychological mechanisms evolved for, many of our behaviors are ill suited for our contemporary society. So while many of our behaviors are beneficial, many others are actually causing harm. The scary part is that we could be doing this completely blindly because we act on our proximate psychological mechanisms without understanding why we do so.

Third, these mechanisms can be manipulated and it’s not an uncommon occurrence in our modern world. Companies, advertising, lawyers, and even significant others represent a few sources of manipulation. I’ll have more to say on that in a future post.