I love psychology. I hate psychology. The study of the mind is fascinating and illuminating and intriguing. The application of this study is mind boggling, frustrating and pointless. What? No, the actual question is “Why?”
The study of how people think, what principles go into making decisions about life and personal relationships, how people relate to and interpret the world around them is philosophy of the highest order. What are you thinking when you choose a path? How do you feel about yourself and the people around you? What thought processes do you use to determine your behavior, your attitude, your reaction to events? It is not like any other science where if A happens then B results. If you let go of a ball, it drops, and you can predict how high it will bounce and how many times. If you add water to pure sulfur, you get an explosion and sulfuric acid. If you shock a heart that is in fibrillation, it should revert to its regular rhythm. The science of psychology is in interpretation of observed behavior like all the other sciences, but the causes in psychology are not observable, just the results.
The 1st question that little kids ask is “why?” Then as enlightened and brilliant parents we answer this question with great detail and insight. The kid is 2 or 3… Will he or she remember what you said in 2 minutes? We have been taught that if we know the basis for a behavior, we can predict the outcome. We have been inspired that if we know the why, we can understand the mental state of anyone. If we understand why a kid is a shoplifter, then we can… um, what? Go back in time and undo that act or thoughtless word that turned this innocent child to crime? Can we, by logic and conversation, change the effect that circumstance had on the person and make it unlikely that the kid will commit future shoplifting? What are the exact procedures to reversing something in the past? OH, YES, I remember! Actions are observable, and causes are not. So it would be different for every individual. So this situation seems ludicrous: Little boy drops a plate on the floor and it crashes into 1000 pieces. The first thing the modern parent does is ask the child why he did it. What is the child going to say? “I’m sorry Mommy, I have an innate fear of round breakable objects.” “I’m sorry Mommy, I was doing a science experiment and comparing the differing reactions to force between a ball and a plate.” “I’m not sorry Mommy, I have an aversion to peas and you made me eat them, so I am punishing you for your hurtful treatment of my delicate psyche.” What will knowing the answer to why he broke the plate do? Will it give you insight into this 3-year-old’s thinking? Will it make him think of plausible excuses and therefore expand his reasoning abilities? Will it assuage your guilt for being the terrible parent that caused this child to break plates? Knowing why the child breaks the plate accomplishes nothing! The important lesson to be learned here is by the child, not the parent. You indicate that breaking the plate is a bad thing to do. Then you indicate that doing bad things has consequences–“Ok you must be done eating, so it must be time for bed. Yes, I know it’s only 2 in the afternoon, and Mickey Mouse is on the TV.” The child cries. It is not your fault. Now if, after he has suffered the consequences, you give him grandma’s bone china plate to eat on, you’re the idiot.
The other “why” that gets asked is when referring to ourselves. “Why do I always …?” “Why am I so….?” “Why can’t I ever….?” Once again the question is pointless. We are attempting to change a character flaw and don’t know what it is. What’s really weird is not that the questions is asked, but when the question is asked. I am a teacher, and when a student makes a mistake, 9/10 times they will say, “Why did I do that? I played that perfectly at home?” or some variant. What am I supposed to do as a teacher? Go back in time and escort them through the week so that they don’t develop the character flaw that forces them to make the mistake at the lesson? No, my job is not to answer the question, “Why?” but to solve the problem. I break down the issue, improve the technique, work on their reading skills and physical skills necessary to successfully accomplish the task. In the process, I show the student how to approach difficulties and then systematically improve to conquer them. If I do my job right, then when the student comes up against any type of obstacle, they will know how to approach it, how to analyze what needs to be done, and eliminate the problem on their own. The problem with the “Why?” questions is that they serve no purpose. Knowing the root cause of the problem doesn’t change the problem. Knowing the root cause of your thought process, your approach, your physical response doesn’t change the situation. It is the attempt to solve a current dilemma by changing the past.
When people ask the “Why?” question regarding their own behavior, they are assigning a value to the mistake that it doesn’t merit. They are assuming that the mistake is an accumulation of character traits, behaviors, and perceptions resulting in a flawed character that produces this particular mistake. There was a tragedy not long ago where a young woman misstepped while on a hike and fell to her death. You see the way this was put…she misstepped. If we were to do the “Why?” game in this situation, we would assign blame to her actions. Why did she place her foot on that slippery rock? Was she texting or talking on her phone? Was she untrained about the terrain? Was she suicidal and secretly wanted to fall off a cliff? Was she traveling too fast? Was she showing off? How was this her parents’ fault? Her teachers’ fault? Her peers’ fault? Her church’s fault? Her community’s fault? Her culture’s fault? Will knowing the answers to any of those questions change the outcome? Will knowing the whys affect the results? In this scenario, there is no reason to ask why; there is no deeper philosophy to this accident. She misstepped and fell. What is the point in asking the questions then?
Let’s take a look at statistical behavior. If you’ve read the “Foundation” series by Isaac Asimov, you see that the whole premise has to do with the prediction of human behavior based on the Law of Large numbers. They write a “future” history based on calculations made after observing many generations of humans as a whole. Humans have free will, and as long as they don’t KNOW the outcome of the statistics, the statistical behavior will be fairly accurate. The fly in the ointment is “the MULE” and he changes everything causing the future history to be thrown out. They’ve applied this statistical behavior in models regarding the stock market and the Gross National Product. In order to get a better picture, they keep adding variables to the equation–each variable independent of the others and reacting to circumstances in a predictable way. In combining these many variables, these behaviors are integrated and affect each other as much as outside influences. If ALL of the behaviors that affect the stock market and the GNP are combined and plotted, the predictive value of the model is useless. The error factors go up to the point where the model no longer represents anything. The stock market moves generally up, but not in a manner that is visible to analysts, it can only be noted over scores of years–not day to day. The model then for the stock market is a fairly straight line that changes .03% over the next 20 years. We all know how inaccurate that is. It is the same for the GNP. Materials (available at home or imported?) labor (minimum wage or salaried, local or foreign?) market demand, competition, government regulations, economic factors both home and abroad, flexibility in design and marketing, weather and climate…the list goes on and on. What does this GNP model look like? Pretty much a straight line that moves generally up though not visibly for about 50 years. The statement on every investment prospectus is that “Past behavior is no guarantee of future results.” This statement should be on EVERY human baby’s butt.
QUIT LOOKING BACK TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS! DON’T LABEL YOURSELF TO EXPLAIN YOUR BEHAVIOR! DON’T LOOK AT YOUR MISTAKES, FOIBLES, ERRORS IN JUDGMENT, AND ACCIDENTS AS CHARACTER FLAWS. STOP ASKING WHY!