Why people behave the way they do: Blog 1 of 4
There’s a saying you’ve probably heard many times: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (attributed to Lord Acton, who was a British parliamentarian and historian in the mid-1800s). His statement got me thinking and became the basis for a ten-year search (in the form of a doctorate) for an answer; I was particularly interested in finding an answer that didn’t come out of Philosophy. I figured that, surely, with so much study being done on human behaviour, and psychology in general, there must be some objective reason why we so often observe that people who gain power start with good intentions to do ‘good’ and end up becoming apparently self-serving – and, often, corrupt – individuals. It turns out that the answer to my question is straightforward; it has to do with why people behave the way that they do. Straightforward but … Why we behave the way we do is quite complicated. Do I hear you think: “I know that!”? But do you really know? I so often hear people say that there should be more ‘information’ about this and that (about the dangers (or benefits) of smoking, or obesity, or litter, or climate change, or invasive species, or consumerism etc.). When people say that I know they don’t really understand why we behave the way we do. In this blog and in the next few, I’m going to explain just how intricate the whole system of human behaviour is – if you are in the business of trying to understand why people do or don’t behave in what you think is a ‘rational’ way or you are in the business of attempting to change people’s behaviour or you just want to understand why you do things the way you do and how to stop yourself from becoming ‘corrupt’ you may find these blogs useful. So let’s get into it!
Overview The diagram below illustrates how people go about the business of choosing their behaviour.
Before taking action we consider the best way to act – we take into account:
Personal goals (what we want to achieve in life)
What we know, have been told, or observed about the situation
Previous experience, including how others have reacted to the same sort of actions in the past (feedback)
After weighing up these factors, we act (behave) in a certain way.
Once we finish the behaviour, we assess it:
Did the action achieve the result/outcome?
What is the reaction of others (feedback)?
Do the consequences align with personal standards?
(sometimes the behaviour we’re evaluating is ongoing so we are assessing and adjusting on the fly)
If everything is okay, we happily file the experience as a basis for future action.OR If everything is not okay we either:
Decide not to take the same course of action next time.
Reconsider the original basis for taking the action – this is especially the case if the outcome delivers a significant part of the desired outcome (goal) even though some consequences are against our personal standards and/or meet with the disapproval of others. Am I making sense so far? Even if you haven’t previously identified each of the steps in this process, I hope that the explanation feels right to you (that is, it feels ‘intuitively correct’). BUT, if we went through the consider-assessment process EACH time we acted, we would be in logjam mode most of the time. We take all sorts of shortcuts to keep ourselves moving along:
If we’ve done the behaviour many times before, we don’t go through all the paraphernalia of ‘considering’ and ‘reconsidering’, we automate the behaviour (examples are turning on the blinker of the car to turn a corner, lifting a glass to your lips to drink, returning a greeting to someone who greets first, and so on).
If we don’t believe we are in charge of the way we have to behave, we are unlikely to give the behaviour much consideration. Not being ‘in charge’ doesn’t mean that it has to be as extreme as having no choice, such as when someone has a gun to our heads, it can be when there’s social pressure of one kind or another to act in a certain way. (More about this in the next blog in this series.)
If the consequences are in the distant future? The further away from the consequences, the less likely we are to be rigorous in our consideration. Even when the conditions for shortcuts don’t apply, ruminating about our behaviour isn’t that easy. We need to have the CAPABILITY to be able to think things through; everyone has a slightly different capacity to go through the process of thinking through the issues related to an action. In the next three blogs, I’m going to unpack the overview I’ve just provided about why we behave as we do. Most particularly, I’m going to lay the foundations to help you understand how you can stop yourself – and help stop others – from becoming corrupt. The next blog is going to talk about the determinants of ‘human functioning’ and the role of ‘capability’ to explain why people behave the way they do. Then in part 3 of this series of blogs, I'll explain a trick that we use to make ourselves feel good about an action that we shouldn’t really feel good about (disengagement), and in part 4 of this series of blogs, I’ll put together the lessons from the first three blogs into a ‘picture’ of how we can influence behaviour – our own and others’.