How little we understand our own behaviour
We are far more accurate in our predictions of others’ behaviour than our own
An intriguing article in the June 2013 issue of the Psychologist journal got me thinking of BF Skinner, an old hero of mine. Skinner is one of the most famous psychologists of the 20th century and was a man who stirred much controversy, both among his peers and within society generally.
Skinner was often referred to as the father of behaviourism. In his attempts to understand, predict and control behaviour, he emphasised the role of environmental factors above internal factors such as feelings, states of mind, innate personality and so on, seeing these, in essence, as emergent consequences of our learning environment.
He did recognise the importance of physiology and genetics, but argued that in gaining psychologically relevant knowledge we should attend to the environment in which a person lives, their learned behavioural repertoire and the consequences that follow their actions. In other words, if you really want to understand me, pay attention to what I do, not what I say – or what you think I think.
Skinner challenged the fundamental idea of free will. He argued that a person is not an originating agent, but is best described as a locus point at which many genetic and environmental conditions come together in a joint effect. This is still a very challenging position, although the notion of free will has also been more recently questioned from a different perspective by many researchers in neuroscience.
Skinner’s work underpins much of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), one of the most popular evidence-based models currently practised by clinical psychologists. It differs from the strict Skinnerian approach in incorporating cognitive factors in the overall understanding of psychological functioning.
So, from a CBT perspective, as well as attending to the environment in which a person operates, the nature of their behaviour and the consequences that follow that behaviour, attention is paid to what the person says to him- or herself about what’s happening – that is, the judgments and evaluations they make.
When all of these factors are taken into account, it is possible to understand, predict and significantly affect how a person behaves and consequently feels. In a therapeutic setting, the direction of the change and the nature of it are negotiated between therapist and client.
The article in the Psychologist, by psychologist David Dunning, describes a fascinating phenomenon that arises in part from our tendency to apply a different set of rules in explaining and predicting our own behaviour than that of others. He refers to this as misguided exceptionalism.
When we predict others’ behaviour we tend to recognise the many constraints determining what they will do. When considering our own behaviour, we tend to focus on “our own agency, the force of our own character, and what we aspire or plan to do. We believe that our actions are largely a product of our own intentions, aspirations and free will. We consider ourselves free agents, generally immune to the constraints that dictate other people’s actions”. This is, of course, a grand illusion.
A significant consequence of this illusion, or perhaps delusion, is that, when predicting the behaviour of others, we are far more accurate than in predicting our own behaviour. A wealth of research clearly demonstrates this.
It has been demonstrated that people’s predictions of their likelihood to give to charity, to vote in elections, to act in socially desirable ways, their performance in exams and so on, are greatly overestimated in comparison to their estimates regarding others on the same variables.
Dunning suggests that when predictions matter, we should not spend a lot of time predicting what we think we will do, but instead should ask ourselves what other people would likely do in similar situations. Or, even better, we should hand the prediction of our own future over to another person who knows us.
Skinner’s model is still a useful one in thinking about our lives and behaviour and in guiding our attempts to achieve our goals. Wishful thinking and optimistic planning are all very well, but without the appropriate environmental manipulation, behaviour change and effective helpful feedback from others, we are unlikely to succeed.
Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of
the Irish Skeptics Society firstname.lastname@example.org