3 Ways to Explain Human Behavior

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Three core processes that explains why people do what they do.

by Gregg Henriques Ph.D.

When you try to understand people and explain why they do what they do, what frame do you use? The most common, intuitive (and highly useful) approach is the “belief-desire” frame. That is, people in everyday situations use both beliefs and desires to explain why people do what they do. For example, if we were to observe “Jon” leaving the house to go to the movies, we explain that action by assuming that Jon believes that the movie theater is playing the movie and seeing it is something he desires. We can be flexible with this frame. For example, if Jon were a movie critic, then we might presume his belief-desire state for seeing the movie is something different than if Jon were a teenager going to see the movie on a date with his new girlfriend.

Although belief-desire frames are helpful for everyday living, we need a more sophisticated, scientifically grounded frame for deeper understanding. The field of psychology has generated a wide variety of different paradigms, but unfortunately these paradigms speak different languages and tell us different things about how to understand people. Skinnerian behaviorists claim that we need to get rid of terms like beliefs and desires, and empirically observe the kinds of effects that the environment has on the frequency of emitted behaviors. Cognitive psychologists use the language of information processing to explain beliefs and desires. Freudian theorists claim that conscious beliefs and desires ultimately play a pretty small role in explaining why people do what they do, and that the real drivers of human behavior are subconscious forces.

I am developing a more unified language for human psychology and psychotherapy. It takes the key insights from the cognitivists, behaviorists, psychodynamic theorists and other paradigms (e.g., evolutionary psychology, Russian activity theory) and combines them into a more scientifically coherent (and comprehensive) system. When we look at human behavior via the unified system, three key processes frame our understanding.

The first key process is investment. The unified approach characterizes human behavior in terms of work effort directed toward effecting change. Whether Jon is headed out because he wants to see the movie, wants to critique the movie for his job, or wants to be with his girlfriend, his going to the movie is a form of investment. As suggested by the term investment, work efforts expended (which involve calculations about time, calories, opportunity costs, risks and so forth) are directed toward particular outcomes. The return might be found in the joy he gets from the movie itself, from the fact that he completes an assignment for his job, or a kiss from his girlfriend at the end of it. Framed as such, we can then ask: Where do our tendencies toward investments come from? We are evolved primates, so evolution has primed us to value certain states of affairs (e.g., safety, territory, food, sex, higher social status) over others. In addition, people differ in terms of temperaments and dispositions, much of which is strongly influence by geneticsExtroverted people find stimulating social situations more rewarding than introverted people. And, of course, one’s learning history directly shapes the investment value system. If Jon loved the first two Star Wars movies, we are not surprised when we hear he has a strong desire to see the third.

The second key process is social influence. As Aristotle noted, we are an incredibly social animal, and one of the most important features of our environment is other people. And our action-investments rarely take place on an island, but they take place in the context of a social matrix. Social influence here refers to two things. First, it refers to the process by which one person’s actions impact the investment of another person. In the current example, it would refer to the way it came about that Jon was going to the movies (did he ask her, she ask him, was there any tension in the process, etc). Important social influence processes involve competitioncooperation, and whether exchanges move people closer (i.e., become more dependent) or make them further apart (become more independent)…


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