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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #29, 11/22/2006

Why Do People Do What They Do?

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Why do people do what they do?

This is the single most important question in the world. Imagine all the things you could do if you knew the answer!

It is like Dr. Doolittle singing, "If I could talk to the animals...."

If you could talk to the humans, learn their language and figure out how they operate, then you could deal with them a whole lot better. Instead of just blindly protecting yourself from potential human evil, or trying to clean up after it, you could actually PREDICT human behavior—both good and bad—and most of the uncertainties of your relationships would go away.

People aren't "rational." They rarely do things that make sense for their long-term self-interest. Family Court teaches us that. Most of the surgery performed here is an attempt to mop up after stupid, self-destructive human behavior that has no outward sanity.

Nasty divorces, juvenile crime and child abuse don't make any objective sense. They don't "gain" the person anything, so why do they act this way? A lot of court resources are devoted to trying to patch up the damage of human behavior, but hardly anyone here is trying to figure out why it happens to begin with.

Most of the common explanations for human behavior don't really cut the mustard. According to some theories, we are supposedly motivated by "drives" — for food, survival, sex, etc. While these forces certainly exist, they explain very little of the behavior we encounter every day. People are often "driven", but usually not by simple bodily goals.

Economists would say that we are motivated by "rational self-interest." We are supposedly seeking goods for the lowest possible cost, and markets reflect that, but economics doesn't explain why we want those goods to begin with. Very little of what we buy and what drives our economy is truly rational.

Most human behavior is propelled by a much more powerful drive—more powerful that food, sex or reason.

In a simple word, it is "ego." Each human is seeking to defend his self-esteem. He behaves in such a way as to protect or enhance his apparent personal value, hence our huge societal investment in cosmetics, fashion and luxury goods.

Notice that defending ones apparent value, in the short term, is different from defending ones real value, as history might see you in the long term. If there is a Heaven, you can be pretty sure the Lexus won't buy you anything there, but you might think it makes you look good right now.

But even this concept, without refinement, doesn't completely explain human behavior. It doesn't explain masochism or the many degrading things people do to themselves, like drug abuse or prostitution (both buy and selling).

The concept of ego, or the enhancement of ones self-esteem, is only a starting point. Human behavior is motivated more by the opposite: the attempt to avoid shame.

From early childhood, humans are shameful, insecure little creatures who are always fighting the spectre of worthlessness. Human behavior can be largely explained as a reaction to this internal shame.

If you spend a ton of money on cosmetics, mortgage your soul to buy a racy sports car or invest in multiple plastic surgeries, aren't you trying to address the shame and insecurities within you?

Consider Michael Jackson, who at one time had virtually unlimited resources at his disposal. What did he do with them? He had one plastic surgery after another and built a "Neverland" to entertain all of his childish desires. Both of these turned into freak shows that never resolved his internal shame.

Given unlimited resources and the opportunity to "follow their heart's desire," most humans are going to break down in a similar way, squandering their resources on unachievable goals. They are driven by internal shame that generates real behavior but that ultimately cannot be relieved by that behavior.

The difference between Michael Jackson and the rest of us is that we are going to run into real-world barriers much more quickly. We can't afford the plastic surgeries or the private amusement park, so we are forced to channel our shame in different ways.

Private shame is an essential part of being human. We may not come into the world with it, but we develop it shortly thereafter as we encounter the restrictions of reality. We are born with a conscious need to defend our psychological integrity. This force pushes us in certain directions, and shame is our natural reaction when it is thwarted.

Think of it like this: You wake up one morning in a strange body, on an alien planet, surrounded by creatures you don't recognize. Think of how bizarre it must be! Of course, if it is the only alien planet you have ever known, you get used to it pretty fast. You come to see the body as your own and learn how to use it fairly well, but this doesn't diminish the fact that you are an outsider here.

Consciousness is thoroughly alien and defies physical explanation. I can understand basically how my brain works—how the neurons operate together—but I am never going to be able to explain how I got stuck in the middle of it. How I came to occupy or communicate with this brain is simply unknowable and always will be.

Nonetheless, consciousness has certain essential characteristics, which are knowable. Consciousness seeks, above all, to preserve its integrity. If, for example, consciousness feels pain, it is going to act to stop that pain. Consciousness is also inherently greedy. It wants to control more and more of the universe until it encounters barriers which cause it pain.

Everyone would become a little dictator if they had the chance, but socialization and the physical world push us back. We learn, for example, that it is not a good idea to pull the cat's tail. The cat is going to scratch you, teaching you quickly that this avenue of expansion is not open to you.

Consciousness is inherently motivated by a basic desire to exist and be valuable—what we can loosely call a "survival instinct." This is different, however, from the survival of the whole body. People who jump out of airplanes or climb cliffs aren't obeying a physical survival instinct but a mental one. If I am placing my own body at risk, then there must be something more powerful than physical survival motivating me.

Remember that our body is alien to us. We didn't ask to be inserted into it, and learning how to use it is an acquired skill that most of us never fully master. Our consciousness, however, is completely who we are. If we feel some kind of discomfort inside, and this pain is temporarily alleviated by putting our body at risk, we will do it.

From the moment we are born, our consciousness demands greater and greater control over our world. We first learn how to move our hands, then to crawl, then to walk, then to pull things off the coffee table. We are going to seek more and more control until something pushes us back. We are going to keep pulling the cat's tail until something tells us not to.

When the reaction from the world happens to us—the cat scratches us—we recoil in horror and probably cry. This is when shame is born. Shame is the natural human reaction when the quests of consciousness are thwarted.

We never really get over being pushed back. We have an expansive ego: a natural desire to be the most powerful thing in the universe. When ego is squelched, as it must be, then we are deeply hurt. We withdraw and nurse our wounds. This is when the more devious forms of behavior begin to emerge.

For example, when our immediate objectives are thwarted, we learn how to lie, which is really a remarkable ability when you think about it. Did you steal the cookie? No, M'am! Lying requires a rather sophisticated set of skills. You recognize that you want something but that the world isn't going to give it to you unless you hide your desires.

The outside world is a brutal and demanding place, largely indifferent to the desires of consciousness. If you pull the cat's tail, the cat is going to scratch you, regardless of your needs and feelings at the time. Your natural reaction is shame, a terrible feeling of being rebuffed and put down. No one is blaming the cat for this, but the emotional effects on us can be devastating. When the cat scratches us, we momentarily doubt our very worthiness to exist.

If we had the power, we would strike out at the cat, trying to afflict on it the same psychic pain that we suffered ourselves. After being scratched, the feelings of unworthiness are intolerable. Our space has been violated, and we feel ashamed. We cry for Mom, and somehow, smothered with kisses, the shame subsides, but it is never quite forgotten. We are probably going to be suspicious of the cat from this day forward. The cat is the enemy who seeks to destroy us.

Fast forward to adulthood, and our bodies have grown into the facade of maturity, but we are still powered by shame. Over time, our natural inquisitiveness has been thwarted at every turn, replaced by inevitable rebuke and rejection. In adulthood, we continue to react to that shame, even when it isn't best for our long-term health.

While our consciousness is naturally expansive, society allows us to walk only a very narrow line of tolerable outward behavior. This line can be very difficult to find, and once we have it, after being scorched a few times, we are loath to depart from it. On either side of the tightrope is the risk of further shame. Sure, we may hate our job, but we also fear of unemployment. We may be unhappy with our spouse, but we also fear abandonment or the self-reproach of abandoning them.

Inevitably, we have been burned by some of our past relationships, and the shame of these experiences colors any new relationships we have. Unless there has been some sort of therapeutic repair, we are always going to be suspicious of the cat—not just that cat but all cats. In adulthood, we are continuously reacting to the world not as it is right now but as we experienced it long ago.

Our shame can drive our behavior into all sorts of deviant dead-ends. Maybe we were sexually abused as a child—certainly a shameful event. We react to this shame in ways that are not necessarily productive but that relieve our immediate emotional discomfort. For example, nearly all prostitutes were sexually abused as children. Their adult lifestyle must produce a lot of shame in the long run, but in the short term, it must also relieve some kind of discomfort.

The primary intent of human behavior is to relieve shame in the short term—right now. You may be doing something you are not proud of, but NOT doing it seems even more intolerable.

Some people hurt themselves deliberately. They cut themselves. They burn themselves. None of this fits any theory of rational self-interest, survival, procreation or self-realization. It is consistent, however, with a reservoir of shame exerting constant pressure within the psyche.

Any feelings of shame are intolerable to consciousness. Whenever you sense it, you will immediately try to escape it. Causing yourself physical pain is one strategy, because, for one thing, it certainly takes your mind off of whatever is going on inside your head.

Another quick strategy to reduce shame is to get drunk or do drugs. You can also start a war if it is within your power to do so. Much of the theatrics we see in human behavior—in individuals and in nations—are just that: a huge smokescreen to divert attention from the shame and unworthiness that a person or group feels inside.

"Smokescreen" explains a great deal of human behavior, perhaps most of it. If someone is fighting for physical survival, there isn't much pretense about them, but once they have extra resources, they will usually start investing in smokescreens—various superficial devices to keep the anxiety of shame at bay.

Given a hundred million dollars, what kind of Neverland would you build? For that matter, what kind of fantasy world are you living in right now?

Humans act primarily to protect their ego from the ravages of shame. If you understand this and all its implications, then you will truly be able to "talk to the animals."

—G.C.




Reader Comments

“Thanks for answering/attempting to answer the hard questions” —Rick B., Syracuse, NY 4/22/07 (rating=5)

“Great it explained everything and stopped you in your tracks and made you think. Brilliant!!” — 5/30/07 (rating=5)

“It was wonderful I feel like I will be able to handle problems better!!” —Ameenah 7/19/07 (rating=5)

“To suggest that shame is a societal construct is an untested assumption. Your observations are good, but are not explained by any sort of materialistic worldview. However, as man is created in God's image, the idea of a universal shame caused by sin which motivates our behaviors supports some of your other interesting ideas. See Ecc. 4:4. Thanks.” —Chris 9/7/07 (rating=4)

“I think people do the things they do because they think they can get away with doing anything they want to do until someone stands up and confronts.” — 9/14/07 (rating=3)

“ego and same.. awesome insights.” —nhantrongpham@hotmail.com 10/12/07 (rating=4)

“Great insight” — 10/13/07 (rating=4)

“I am greatly impressed with this article. However, I take issue with the importance of shame. Shame is such a powerful word. It conjures up images of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden. I always believed that taking a bite of the apple was a positive step toward self knowledge, not shame. Surely shame is something we have to recognize, and try to understand, but I cannot equate shame with the sole motivation for behavior.” — 12/1/07 (rating=5)

“This essay was very helpful to me and my research, it really gave me a lot to think about!” — 9/2/08 (rating=5)

“Before shame there is control. the inability to control creates the feeling of shame. Control is "why people do what they do" this is why we are sent here...” — 11/6/08 (rating=4)

“You are awesome, I would like to talk to you I am a philosopher also” —agerrell@vt.edu 11/25/08 (rating=5)

“Why didnt you put a better picture of Michael Jackson. He is a Human as well.” —Samantha 9/24/09 (rating=1)

“Primary moral choice, not a feeling or shame but a code you must follow to live with your self” —ScottNL 12/16/10 (rating=2)

Ratings so far: 5 3 3 5 5 5 4 4 3 4 4 3 5 3 5 4 4 4 5 5 0 4 5 1 4 4 5 4 2 5 5 (Average=3.9)

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