Understanding Human Behaviour – Some of the Mistakes We Make!

In our little book Humanity at Work and its subsequent sequel The Myth of Nine to Five the good Dr Phil and I outlined the prime human needs as:

  • Physical needs,
  • Social needs,
  • Intellectual needs, and
  • Spiritual needs.

I won’t waste your time going through these as they are largely self-evident. But in this essay I would like to begin with an examination of our social needs. We wrote:

The second set of needs is the social needs, the needs we have in common with animals because, like animals, we have the capacity to be aware of our outer world and to respond to that world through the processes of thinking, feeling, and decision making. Like animals we are intimately connected through strong emotional bonds to our fellow creatures, particularly those of our own species. If we don’t find reasonable satisfaction for our social needs we die — emotionally (and sometimes even physically). Fulfilment of our social needs allows us to cope emotionally.


Human Beings (with but a few exceptions) are social animals. One of the prerequisites of living reasonably fulfilled lives is to be able to form constructive relationships with others of our species. Most of us would concede that a substantial part of the pleasure we derive from life comes from the joy we derive from being able to relate positively to others.


However to form such relations we must contend with the behaviour of others. To do this we rely on a set of assumptions and beliefs we have acquired in order to try to make sense of human behaviour. Unfortunately many of those assumptions and beliefs are, in fact, erroneous, leaving us with a distorted point of view about why people behave the way they do. These misconceptions make it harder for us to have positive relationships with others.


The first problem we encounter with human behaviour is that most people assume that individuals just “choose” their behavioural response to any set of circumstances. This is in fact not the case. We are confused because we have a distorted view of how our consciousness contributes to our lives.


It seems to me that the prime determinant of our humanity is our consciousness. Because of this wonderful faculty not only are we are aware, but we are aware of our awareness! Not only do we think but we are aware of our thoughts! Because of our consciousness we have not only to deal with an external world (the world out there) but we have also to contend with an internal world (the world in here). [Another mistake we commonly make is to assume that our well-being is determined by the conditions of our external world whereas as I have tried to explain in other essays our sense of well-being is almost entirely dependent on the condition of our internal world.]


Whilst our consciousness is the defining characteristic of our humanity, it is tempting often to overstate its impact on our behaviour. We are, as all animals, predisposed to act in ways that our genetic inheritance has determined over the eons. As a result of our genetic inheritance we have an array of behaviours which assert themselves with little conscious intervention.

The hard-wired genetic learning passed on by our ancestors over vast millennia still strongly influences our behaviour. The influence of our conscious thinking triggered by the tremendously rapid growth of the cerebral cortex cannot supplant the stored responses learnt by our ancestors over the eons and stored in the older parts of our brains. When we ponder on how little of that learning was acquired in relatively recent social communities, it becomes apparent that much of that genetic learning could be now inappropriate for modern society.


In essence then, we are faced as human beings with the paradox that we are conscious of, and appear to be in control of, a significant portion of our mental processes, and it seems to us that this consciousness dominates our behaviour, but we have an animal legacy that ensures that much of our behaviour is still determined unconsciously. There is no doubt that our consciousness makes a huge difference to our lives but we are in grave danger of believing it has the capacity to override the influences of our prehistory in all ways, and at any time.


But this is not all. We also have an array of behaviours that have been learned.


The second influence on our behaviour, which combines interactively with the first, is our social history. We have all acquired an extensive repertoire of personal responses that have been learned through reinforcement in our family and social settings, and from our peers and significant others. Human beings are born with more uncommitted brain capacity than any other species. Our brains have fewer cells with built-in instinctual patterns. This gives us a far greater capacity to learn individual variations in behaviour than other species.

It is interesting to observe that this enhanced capacity to learn of humans seems to have been indirectly caused by an evolutionary physical adaptation. When our ancestors came down from the trees and learned to walk upright it caused a skeletal change in the pelvis which narrowed the birth canal of females. The evolutionary response to this was to result in our children being born in a more immature state. This meant that the human brain continued to develop after birth and was therefore more susceptible to experiential learning. When a wildebeest is born on the Serengeti unless it is up and running within a few hours it is likely to be a lion’s dinner. The offspring of humans on the other hand require support and nurturing for many years. Whilst this presents a problem, it also presents an opportunity, an opportunity for a much greater capacity to learn. The behaviour of other animals is more inclined to have been inherited genetically. Notwithstanding the huge impact of our genetic inheritance, humans still learn considerable behavioural traits from their environments and social conditioning.

The key to the entire socialisation process is social learning. “Psychology defines learning as any modification of behaviour as a consequence of experience with the environment, particularly those modifications that are shaped by contingent consequences of the behaviour: reward or punishment. Learning occurs when particular features of the environment become associated with a particular pattern of behaviour and thereafter serve as ‘signals’ or cues, for the occurrence of that behaviour.” (John W McDavid and Herbert Harari in Social Psychology.)


Because we have at our disposal brain capacity that can be fashioned by socialisation, the genetic platform can be further built on. Because human infants come into the world with relatively undeveloped and pliable brains they have a far greater capacity for learning. As a result of that, much of our social learning occurs in our infancy and youth and is driven by our social environments. The social conditioning of our households, our schools and our communities all play their part in fashioning our behaviours.


As a result of the conditioning we experience from our environment, including influences that are broad (our cultures, our nation, our tribe, our peer group) through to influences at the level of significant individuals (our parents, friends, role models), we learn a much wider repertoire of behavioural responses. This learning is reinforced socially. That is, we are included more fully and made to feel more wanted and accepted when we demonstrate such pro-social behaviours. Human beings survive better as social creatures and this process of socialisation is a consequence of the genetically embedded social needs that I outlined above. Healthy human beings seek recognition, affiliation, companionship, encouragement and solace. And these are the inducements that other humans offer in return for conforming behaviour. Finally after much practice and confirmation the behaviour becomes, habitual, automatic on cue, and beyond our conscious, normal, everyday control. Just as with the genetically inherited traits, the behaviour we learn from our social history is part of the repertoire of unconscious responses we make spontaneously to various environmental cues. However, because we human beings have the unique capacity for being conscious of our consciousness we have developed the illusion that we are in independent control of our own conscious processes. As a consequence of this, human beings have developed elaborate methods for explaining their own manifest behaviour, and the manifest behaviour of others, as though these behaviours were the outcomes of free and largely rational processes. As the good Dr Phil reminds me, the mind is not rational, it is rationalising!

“Many adults exhibit modes of behaviour which are not based upon reason or upon conscious choice, but upon parental attitudes which were introjected in childhood and which have never been discarded even though they may be inappropriate to present conditions.” (Anthony Storr, The Integrity of Personality).

In weighing up the contributions of genetics and socialisation to our behaviour, Storr wrote:


“My own working hypothesis is that personality is indeed genetically determined, but that the extent to which each personality reaches maturity, fruition and realization is largely dependent on environmental factors. The seed contains the promise of the future plant, and nothing will make oranges grow from plum stones, or plums from orange pips; but the soil and the climate which encourage the orange may be too exotic for the plum, and the orange will find too rigorous, conditions in which the plum may flourish. Indeed, in terms of mental illness there is evidence to suggest that early childhood experiences are better predictors of dysfunctional behaviour than genetic factors.”


“It is clear that it is easier to predict the character structure of a child reared in certain specific ways than it is to foretell his future from his ancestry.” (Anthony Storr in The Integrity of the Personality)

At the very beginning of life the baby is accepted unconditionally. Mothers are no doubt particularly well-equipped to do so through genetic influences. The characteristics of these little creatures, being crumpled, vociferous and incontinent seem hardly designed to gain our affection. Surprisingly most of us, even those who cannot or will not experience the state of motherhood, feel similarly. Nothing a child does at this stage seems significant enough for us to withdraw our regard. But as the child matures a subtle process begins where in many environments there is a shift from meeting the child’s needs to meeting the parents or carer’s needs. It is then that the child is expected to conform to the whims and desires of these powerful people who can manipulate the child to their own ends by withholding from them the wherewithal to meet their needs, especially their emotional needs. They learn to ‘behave’ in order to meet the supposed needs of others believing that their inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour (according to the criterion of the carer) causes pain and hurt to the carer as manifested in their anger or other negative emotional reactions to such behaviour.


From then on positive regard is given on the condition that the child acts out the behaviour desired by the caregiver. As they grow older and move out of the family environment into other social environments they meet the same basic responses as they did in their childhood, only now regard and inclusion are received by conforming to the group norms – even if the group is seen by the larger community as ‘anti-social’. Hence as they mature into adulthood they will have undergone a wide range of social learning, which, in interaction with their genetic learning, comprises their available repertoire of responses to the world. These responses are performed largely unconsciously on receiving the appropriate cue from the environment.


It is doubtful whether any of us could ever be totally free of the need to identify with others and the unconscious dependency that such identification brings. There are of course benefits from this dependency as we feel the comfort of belonging to this group, or that club, and being friends with this person or that. The price we pay for access to the sense of well-being we share in these relationships is the greater or lesser degree of subjugation it brings to our sense of freedom


To recap then, the point I have been trying to make is that most of our behaviour is determined by our genetics and our socialisation. Through these processes we develop an array of behavioural responses that we subconsciously turn to when we have to respond to various environmental stimuli. And then the mind with its great capacity for rationalisation provides us with a reason for our behaviour even though that behaviour was largely an autonomic response.


Anthony de Mello in his insightful little book Awareness put it this way. “You think you are free, but there probably isn’t a gesture, a thought, an emotion, an attitude, a belief in you that isn’t coming from someone else. Isn’t that horrible? And you don’t know it. Talk about a mechanical life that was stamped into you! You feel pretty strongly about certain things, and you think it is you that is feeling strongly about them, but are you really? It’s going to take a lot of awareness for you to understand that perhaps this thing you call “I” is simply a conglomeration of your past experiences, of your conditioning and programming.” (Anthony De Mello, Awareness, Harper Collins, London.)

Now this might not be a comfortable conclusion for many to come to, but the fact is that on a moment by moment basis we do not consciously make decisions about how we should behave. Our genetic history and our socialisation has laid down an array of behavioural sub-routines. When impacted by an environmental stimulus we automatically default to the sub-routine that we have inherited or learnt and possibly been reinforced because it gave us desirable outcomes in the past.


The American psychologist and author, Robert Ornstein (who is one of my favourite references in these matters) delightfully called the mind “a squadron of simpletons”. By this he meant that our behavioural responses are dictated by this array of mindless, unconscious sub-routines.


The good Dr Phil has described our notion that we consciously choose our behavioural responses as a “Fundamental Myth”. Elaborating, he articulates the myth in this fashion:


“That human beings have ‘free-will’ and therefore freely and consciously choose their own actions and reactions as they respond to the world.”


He argues that the mistake we make when we perceive people behaving badly is that we assume that “they could just as easily have chosen to act otherwise”.


Now this creates a particular dilemma for human relationships. We believe our actions are largely intentional. Consequently we also believe that the actions of others are intentional. Thus when I act in a way that you interpret as detrimental to you, you respond as though I had deliberately acted this way with ill-intent.

Hence, I do not respond to your action but to your perceived intent. That this is so can be easily seen from an example.


Here you are queuing in front of the ticket office in a line with many others waiting to make your purchase to see a film, or a play or whatever. Suddenly you are hit forcibly in the middle of the back.


How do you respond?


Most likely with anger or fear. You assume that you are under attack and natural defence mechanisms go into action. With heightened adrenalin you are prepared for “fight or flight”. Defensively you turn around and are faced with the sight of a little old lady who has tripped on the sidewalk and in falling to the ground has accidentally struck you. How do you feel now? Most likely you feel concern for her and perhaps a little embarrassed by your defensive reaction. So it is quite clear that you didn’t respond to the action but to your presumption about the intent of the action. You are now much more concerned about her hurt than yours.


Unfortunately the underlying causal assumptions we make about intent are not so easily unmasked.  Oft times the offence is taken from mere words and not actions and you read intent from my tone of voice and you read intent from my body language. Even worse I am among a class of people who you have perceived to have done ill to you in the past and therefore you generalise my intent to be the same for all such people. Yet all the time my response is largely unconscious, being a learned response or likely a defence mechanism just as yours was when you responded to the push in the back on the sidewalk.


The myth that human beings consciously determine a response to most of life’s circumstances is responsible for much of our difficulties in interpersonal relationships. The American psychologist, Philip Zimbardo wrote, “The fundamental flaw in all our thinking is the natural tendency to attribute deliberate intent to human behaviour.”


Human behaviour is largely an automatic response, that has been programmed by our genetics and social conditioning, and which we draw from our bag of such programmed responses on the production of the environmental cues. If we were to understand this, not only would we be far more tolerant of one another, but such understanding would provide a facilitative climate for us to learn more appropriate behaviours because our natural defense mechanisms would not be so readily triggered which tend to block learning.


But there is another myth that pervades our society that is at least as damaging as the myth we have just exposed. The good Dr Phil expresses this myth in these words:


“How we feel and how we react is caused by what has happened to us.”


We approach human behaviour in the same way as we would many other phenomena. We see a stimulus and expect to see a response as a result.


For example you say something critical of me (“That was a stupid thing to do!”) and I take offense.


Or perhaps after parking your car next to me you open your car door and it scratches the paint on my new car and I subsequently get angry.


Most would believe your insult caused my offence and your carelessness caused my anger.


But the good Dr Phil counsels me that behaviour is often better understood by observing not what precedes it but what happens after.


We, in fact learn to behave in these ways because, at least at some time, it has paid off!


Now I have made the point many times in my little weekly essays that there is only one person responsible for my inner sense of well-being – and that is me! It is an erroneous notion that other people are responsible for our emotional state.

In fact what normally has happened is that we have learnt (unconsciously through no fault of our own) how to use our emotional responses to manipulate other people.

There is a great little book that the good Dr Phil put me onto many years ago called “Declare Yourself” (now out of print I believe) by John Narciso and David Burkett. They talked about “get-my–way–behaviours”. These behaviours used victim responses to gain the sympathy of, or create a sense of guilt in others in order to have such people respond in ways more favourable to the perceived victims.

They drew on the work of Robert McKinley, a psychiatrist in San Antonio.

They wrote, “Most get-my-way techniques can be lumped under three broad headings: helplessness, suffering, and anger. These are learned responses to interpersonal situations that aren’t going the way we want them to go.”

And of course taking offense is a classic form of suffering. Under this scheme I make noises about being affronted so that people might feel sorry for me or acquire a sense of guilt and thus help me change the situation more in my favour.

This particular form of get-my-way behaviour contains an internal incongruence. Suppose you say something that (I erroneously believe) hurt my feelings. I then blame you for an intentional affront. But my negative behaviour that comes as a result of this imagined affront I blame on you as well. That is I believe that you determine my behaviour, but I allow myself to believe that your behaviour is entirely at your discretion.

As the good Dr Phil says:

“The negative emotional behaviour of others that manifests in aggressive or obnoxious behaviour towards oneself is viewed as deliberate and intentional, however, the negative emotional behaviour of oneself that manifests in aggressive or obnoxious behaviour in response to that other person’s behaviour is generally attributed to the other person as well!”

So then we learn “get-my-way” behaviours (helplessness, suffering and anger) because they have helped us influence others to behave more as we would wish them to behave.


In my example above, when I take offense at your perceived insult I want you to believe that you have caused me to feel bad and I want you to feel guilty about that and subsequently to perhaps apologise and in the future refrain from saying things that may “hurt” me. Of course, in fact I am largely responsible for how I feel and you are not to blame at all. My propensity to feel such “hurt” is more a reflection of my own insecurity than your insensitivity.


There are many more pitfalls in understanding human behaviour but these are two significant issues that render human relationships more difficult.


To recap, we make fundamental errors in assuming that


  1. Human beings consciously choose their own actions and reactions in response to environmental stimuli, and
  2. How we feel and how we react is caused by what has happened to us.


An understanding of the prevalence of these myths will help us be more tolerant of our fellow humans and deal more objectively with our relationships with our fellows.

One Reply to “Understanding Human Behaviour – Some of the Mistakes We Make!”

  1. I think your summary can be taken a step further Ted. You have indicated that we normally assume when some one hurts us emotionally, or physically for that matter, they do so with intent. We assume they have free will and they chose their actions. We find it hard to forgive someone for their “bad” behaviour because of this belief that they did it with intent. This causes conflict between people.

    To extend this concept I believe it also causes conflict internally to individuals. We are not one brain. Our more primitive brains and perhaps even our early socialisation result in us acting or behaving in ways that in retrospect we are ashamed of. We find it even more difficult in many instances to forgive ourselves than to forgive others, because we surely must know ourselves, but still can’t explain our behaviour. Self loathing is on the extreme end of this and it is more of a problem in society than I think we acknowledge. Internal conflict can be even more of a problem than external conflict. I doubt there is a person alive that does not regret some of their past behaviours.

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