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How Well Do People Know Why They Do the Things They Do

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How well do people know why they do the things they do?


Human beings are cognitively advanced, yet it is still surprising that much of what we do we cannot explain. Humans are amongst few mammals capable of the self-recognition necessary for self-awareness which enables conscious manipulation in behaviour (Gallup, G. G., 1982). Understanding the behaviour of others and ourselves is increasingly complex since behaviour is attributed to fluctuating mental states (emotions, desires, feelings). Many papers have begun to cover the theory how people understand the causes of behaviour through attribution and self-concept (Kelley, H. H.1973);(Heider, F. 1958);(Markus, H., & Wurf, E, 1987). But conflicting papers have given rise to the argument of error in attributions, experience distortion and group-think to consider the other face of the coin- that people may not know quite so well why they do the things they do (Heider, 1958);(Kurzban & Aktipis, 2007);(Sherif, 1936)

“Theory of the mind”/“mentalizing” is a process which we naturally engage with on a daily basis. It identifies that other people have mental states different to our own (Schacter, 2009). The recognition of mental state (e.g. noticing your partner is unhappy) is something which adults naturally perceive. This skill is essential for social interaction and is observable in infants as young as 18 months (Frith, C. D., & Frith, U, 1999);(U. & C.D. Frith, 2003). From the age of 4-6 neurotypical children are able to consciously and reflectively think about the behaviour of people and “put themselves in someone else's shoes” (U. & C.D. Frith, 2003);(Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U., 1985). The ability for people to mentalize is crucial in order to understand why other people do the things they do- by adopting an alternative perspective.

Humans are naturally inquisitive and have been likened as “naive scientists”- we want to understand why people behave/appear as they do (Heider, 1958). Evidence from experiments emphasises this need to explain behaviour where individuals formed ‘stories’ for moving shapes. These ‘stories’ or explanations are known as attributions, they are explanations to accompany observations in behaviour (Heider & Simmel, 1994). Attributions can be ‘dispositional’ referring to stable, internal characteristics (e.g. the person IS moody) or ‘situational’ referring to temporary states/situations (e.g. the person is agitated) (Schacter, 2009).For example, people naturally justify overt behaviour (e.g. your partner doesn’t speak when meeting your parents) by assigning attributions –they didn’t speak because they’re unfriendly/ because they became nervous. These attributions are important as they are used to justify why other people do the things they do (Kelley, 1973).

However, this method of matching behaviour with attributions only answers why people behave the way they do to a certain extent, as the assigned attributions may not be objectively true. Here begins the problem of ‘correspondence bias’, that as humans we are receptive but not always accurate. We often mistake situational attributions for dispositional attributions (Schacter,2009)(Heider, 1958). A person is shy therefore doesn't talk and gives less weight to situational attributions -nerves (Ross, L. 1977). This inaccuracy in interpreting others behaviour can be problematic and perhaps highlights that we do not truthfully know why other people do the things they do. Human brains are typically cognitive-bias; situational reasoning is less automatic than dispositional reasoning and cognitively requires more control (Hamilton, D. L. (1980). If behaviour and disposition weakly match, it is rational to infer the dispositional attribution as the cause of the behaviour. These potential errors in attribution are important as they give rise to sequential behaviour. If a person believes a friend is acting disagreeably because of an internal characteristic future interaction may be avoided (despite the unacknowledged truth of the situational attribution). People believe the attributions they assign to other’s behaviour, they falsely believe that they know why other’s act the way they do.

In order to observe our own behaviour separate of other’s, individuals must be self-aware. Self-perception theory offers the notion that like attribution theory, individuals first observe their own behaviour then conclude the causing attributions (Bem,1972). As human beings we are gifted with rich self-knowledge (Schacter, 2009). Self-awareness begins with distinguishing ourselves from our environment, understanding our thoughts and finally our capability to represent the symbolic self (Sedikides & Skowronski, 1997). In the case of an amnesia patient although she was unable to offer past experiences from episodic memory the subject retained a strong trait-judgment of herself (Klein, S. B., Loftus, J., & Kihlstrom,J. F,1996). The human’s strong self-concept strengthens the argument that people understand and can predict their behaviour, based on the person they believe themselves to be. From social experiences people form hierarchical categories of traits, the traits individuals deem important are adopted to form their self-concept (Markus, H., & Wurf, E, 1987);(Markus.H, 1977). Individuals explain their behaviour with traits from their self-concept. For instance a self-concept trait of intelligence through past-experiences of scoring 100% may be used to later explain why they do the things they do (e.g. they will score highly because they are intelligent). Interestingly, individuals tend to assign dispositional attributions to positive outcomes (e.g. passing due to their intelligence) and situational attributions to negative outcomes (e.g. failing the test due to a migrane). The biggest driver of this manipulation to appear better than we are —‘self-serving bias’— is our inner “press secretary”. It’s the idea that our brains are ‘spin doctor’s’ that work for positive social interpretation (Kurzban & Aktipis, 2007). Due to the social anxiety of interpretation of self, people engage in non-natural conscious behaviour e.g. reminding yourself not to swear meeting the in-laws (Carver, C.S & Scheier M.F, 1981). Studies revealed that under surveillance individuals are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviour (e.g. voting in elections) even if observed by a complete stranger (Panagopoulos, 2013). The subject knows he/she is being observed and potentially judged, hoping to radiate positive attributions of themselves individuals engage in self-serving bias to increase social perception of self (Bem,1973). Giving rise to the belief that people know why they behave as they do as they knowingly adapt behaviour circumstantially.

But sometimes this knowledge of why people act the way they do can be unknowingly manipulated, and forms the argument that we do not truthfully/consciously know the causes of behaviour. Our brains are able to offer plausible and logical answers to questions even without prior knowledge of the truth. A split-brain patient is able to offer explanations for behaviour without awareness of the true causation (Gazzaniga, 2000). The knowledge of why he/she did what they did is logically-sound and justified, but they are totally unaware of the true reason behind their response. Here is empirical evidence that the patient’s understanding of why they do the things they do is flawed, from a false self-perception of conscious behaviour. One of the greatest controls on human behaviour is social expectation. Socially-engineered, humans have a large desire for social acceptance, which motivates behaviour (Dunbar ,2003). Informal unwritten ‘rules’ of social etiquette/social expectation manipulate human behaviour on a daily basis. E.g. we shouldn't go to a restaurant/eat alone. Empirical evidence demonstrates that humans experience physical pain upon rejection (Einsenberger & Lieberman, 2004). The strength of the effect of rejection is so significant in humans it wouldn't be unjust to assume human behaviour is susceptible to group pressure. In reference to the title therefore of “How well do people know why they do the things they do” complexities lurk whether individuals maintain conscious behaviour within a group. Although we noticed people consciously adapt behaviour through self-serving bias, evidence suggests that individuals that belong to a group lose consciousness to group-thinking. “He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will” (Freud, S, 1922). Studies have highlighted this unconscious effect where group norms effect an individual’s distance prediction. Observing the predictions alone, as part, and removed from a group the study confirms an impact on judgment of distance when part of a group, particularly when removed from group. The power of belonging and social nature within humans make individual’s behaviour vulnerable to group situation (Sherif, 1936);(Asch, S. E, 1951). Sherif suggests anonymity enables an individual to disregard responsibility by loss of self-awareness and encourages contagion (sacrificing personal interests to conform to collective interest)(1936). Suggesting an individual’s control in decision-making is in fact out of their own hands. Individuals may not be aware of why they do the things they do since they sacrifice consciousness in behaviour, in order to conform and thus belong to the group.

The jigsaw which contains the answer to our question of ‘How well do people know why they do the things they do’ is complete. A picture has emerged demonstrating the complexities of how well people understand overt behaviour in themselves and others. Attributions and self-concept lay the foundation that people understand the causations in behaviour. But what has also unravelled is the problematic nature of error in attributions, press-secretary, experience distortion and group-thinking. Perhaps what has been confirmed is that people have an idea of why people do the things they do. However, how well they understand the true causation of behaviour is ambiguous. I expect the weight of the factors I have focussed upon will be debated for many more decades. “As naïve scientists” we continue to attempt to decipher how well people understand why they do the things they do.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?. Cognition, 21(1), 37-46.


Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1981). Self-consciousness and reactance. Journal of Research in Personality, 15(1), 16-29.

Chaiken, S., & Baldwin, M. W. (1981). Affective-cognitive consistency and the effect of salient behavioral information on the self-perception of attitudes. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 41(1), 1-12.

Dunbar, R. I. M. (2003). The social brain: Mind, language, and society in evolutionary perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 32, 163-181.

Dunbar, R (2007) Ecolution of the social brain. IN S.W. Gangestad & J.a. Simpson (eds) The evolutionary of mind: Fundamental questions and controversies (pp. 280-286) New YorkL Guildford Press

Eisenberger, N.I, Lieberman, M.D (2004) Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Science, 8, 294-300

Freud, S. (1975). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego (No. 770). WW Norton & Company., p.30-35,

Frith, U., & Frith, C. D. (2003). Development and neurophysiology of mentalizing. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 358(1431), 459-473.

Frith, C. D., & Frith, U. (1999). Interacting minds--a biological basis. Science, 286(5445), 1692-1695.

Gallup, G. G. (1982). Self‐awareness and the emergence of mind in primates. American Journal of Primatology, 2(3), 237-248.

Gazzaniga, M. S (2000) Cerebral specialisation and interhemispheric communication: Does the corpus callosum enable the human condition? Brain 123, 1686-1693

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

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Kelley, Harold H. "Attribution in social interaction." Preparation of this paper grew out of a workshop on attribution theory held at University of California, Los Angeles, Aug 1969.. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1987.

Klein, S. B., Loftus, J., & Kihlstrom, J. F. (1996). Self-knowledge of an amnesic patient: toward a neuropsychology of personality and social psychology. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 125(3), 250.

Kurzban, R., & Aktipis, C. A. (2007). Modularity and the Social Mind Are Psychologists Too Self-ish?. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(2), 131-149.

Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemata and processing information about the self. Journal of personality and social psychology, 35(2), 63.

Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual review of psychology, 38(1), 299-337.

Panagopoulos, C. (2013), I've Got My Eyes on You: Implicit Social-Pressure Cues and Prosocial Behavior. Political Psychology. doi: 10.1111/pops.12074

Schacter, D. L, Gilbert, D. T., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Psychology. New York: Worth. pg 416-18, pg, 656-659, pg 472-480
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WEBSITES October 1999 for North and East Devon Health Authority's 'Health Forum’, Collected on 9/12/13 PhD Mentalizing in Clinical Practice byJG Allen, P Fonagy, & AW Bateman (2008): , Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing Collected on 10/12/13 (25th Nov 2010) Explicit mentalization-psd Collected on 10 Dec 2013 Collected Dec 17th 22:03 Collected Dec 17th 22:08 Collected Dec 17th 22:13…...

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Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

...People may often come across situations where a question regarding the suffering of good people becomes unavoidable. The Bible provides examples of the question through the suffering of Jesus Christ in his crucifixion, written in the book of John, as well as the trials placed on Job, where God tests his righteousness in the Old Testament. Although most of their losses are relatively the same, the purpose behind their stories are distinctly different from each other. Job, who unexpectedly witnesses his possessions being stripped from him, approaches his situation much differently than Jesus who acts more accepting of his situation. The idea of suffering may easily become intolerable, though these two major stories of Job and Jesus teaches individuals to have a deeper insight on how to deal with unbearable conditions. The suffering that both Job and Jesus face easily allows them to question their faith towards God for watching their pain to progress. The character of Job is introduced as a wealthy man with many possessions and described as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8). Job is tested as he is stripped of his herd of animals, and his numerous children, causing him to grieve and still says, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:20) In the second chapter, he is inflicted with physical pain from “the soles of his feet to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). In comparison, Jesus’ suffering......

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