Many of those I speak to decry the fact that in modern society everyone seems to be a victim. No matter how dysfunctional our behaviour we are seemingly excused by our circumstances. Sure there are people living in difficult circumstances and this has an impact on their behaviour, but we now seem to believe that individuals have little or no responsibility for how we act out our lives.
Whilst even quite ancient societies had an interest in human behaviour and the functioning of the mind, psychology as a field of study did not emerge until the late nineteenth century. Textbooks name such notaries as Wilhelm Wundt, Hermann Ebbinghaus, William James and Ivan Pavlov as being among the founders of this profession. It is interesting to note that in its early years a lot of the focus of psychology was on character.
In the spirit of the times, in Lincoln’s inaugural address he appealed to the “better angels of our nature” implying that behaviour was derived inherently from our innate traits.
But then along came sociology. In the early twentieth century, sociology seemed to come to the conclusion that bad behaviour was not so much an outcome of poor character but a result of a malignant environment. This conclusion became to inform government policy and as a result a huge amount of government expenditure has been directed to trying to provide better social environments for the economically and socially disadvantaged. This is often not a bad thing because it helps to address some of the equity issues of our society. However it is simply naïve to believe that these efforts will result in more constructive behaviour of the disadvantaged.
In today’s society we have substantial groups of people who choose to believe that they are disadvantaged and that the sole reason for their disadvantage is that:
• The Government hasn’t provided adequately for them
• They have been provided with inadequate diversions
• There is no point in education because there are no opportunities available
• Once you are poor or unemployed the world is against you
And so on.
Yet most of us know people who came from very disadvantaged backgrounds that have succeeded admirably.
Now you will know from previous blogs that I believe that both our biological history, as well as our socialisation, contributes to human behaviour. (Additionally, and most importantly, our behaviour is also affected by a fundamental choice about how we choose to see the world. But I won’t go there this week having covered that previously as well.)
The tendency as a result of the increasing influence of sociology in western societies is to hold Government responsible for all areas of disadvantage. Sociology is however largely focussed on collective human behaviour. It is principally a macro approach. As a result it tacitly absolves the individual from responsibility.
I have been reading in the press the sad story of two teenage girls who suicided. The commentators came to the conclusion that the state had failed them. And since they had been referred to state agencies because of their tragic histories, indeed the state had failed them. But something was missing well before their distressing cases were brought to the notice of the agencies. It was proper parenting and family support.
Sociology is right insofar as it draws our attention to the importance of socialisation on human behaviour. It is wrong however to abrogate this important function to the state. The most important socialisation in our early years comes from those significant others in our domestic environment. We are greatly impacted by the influence of our early role models. Families are important, but parents are normally most influential. It seems to me to be a tragedy when couples have children but who don’t have a long-term commitment to their upbringing. (And this is probably a criticism of men more than women – but oft-times mothers abandonned by fathers struggle to give the parenting necessary by themselves. There are many positive exceptions to this but being born into an intact, enduring relationship is statistically the best option for a child.)
An outcome of the march of sociology is that individuals are no longer held responsible for their actions, since the cause lies not in the person but in the situation. The consequence of this is that we implore the state to change the circumstances. There is little incentive to have the individual improve their resilience or be proactive in overcoming their perceptions of disadvantage.
Another consequence of this way of thinking is that we must identify the social underpinnings of crime, unemployment, prejudice, poverty and whatever so that the social underpinnings of these malaises can be corrected. Vast injections of money by governments then become the preferred response to these problems. Little attention is given to improving the behaviour of the individual.
Yet psychological research shows that those who are able to delay gratification as children are more likely to be successful adults. Or indeed that persistence and tenacity are significant predictors of academic achievement. And certainly one would think that such characteristics whilst having some genetic predisposition are learnt in early childhood by significant role models.
The other consequence of victim mentality is that it focusses on negative outcomes and tries to show individual failure is caused by environmental circumstances. On the other hand positive outcomes are generally attributed to the efforts of the individual. Therefore whilst we accredit ourselves with causing our positive outcomes we avoid personal responsibility for our negative outcomes. (Whilst it is dangerous to rely on my memory, I believe the good Dr Phil told me once this is a manifestation of what is called “Attribution Theory”.)
We also talk of people who have an internal or external locus of control. The latter believe that life’s outcomes are imposed on them by their environment. They believe that their well-being is an accidental outcome of their external circumstances. Those with an internal locus of control believe that their sense of well-being is in their own hands. Which point of view do you believe that those who have overcome diversity (eg Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln, Weary Dunlop, Thomas Edison and so on) had? Yet a lot of the prevailing wisdom and Government intervention facilitates the victim mentality.
I wrote a blog recently decrying the behaviour of people during the recent British riots. Today I read that some British commentators have blamed the Thatcher government for that dreadful event. This beggars belief. Thatcher lost Government in 1990! It is incredible to believe that the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher government could be said to have inspired the aberrant youth of Britain to break windows to steal Nike shoes and flat screen TV’s. The sociology of human behaviour that proposes that it should be explained by dominant environmental impacts grasps at straws to exonerate those that by any measure should be held at least somewhat responsible.
It is time for the individual to stand up and be counted!