Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why? Thoughts on human nature.

Why do people do what they do?

Why do some recover from loss whilst others are devastated?

Why do some turn to God and others turn away from God when bad things happen?

Why did she say that? 

What were you thinking? 

People want answers. 

2007 Greensburg KS tornado destroyed my brother-in-law's house

And that desire for answers to why questions has fueled incredible progress for both the well-being and destruction of humanity and our planet.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl illustrates the human quest for answers. I suspect that search is why psychology is such a hot college major. And why I love psychological science. This post is an introduction to thinking broadly about human nature. It would be nice to have one answer to each why question. But people are complex. Some short and simple answers might satisfy as answers to simple questions. But if you take a careful look, simple answers might not lead to any useful conclusions.

Why questions guide our search for causes.

 In psychological science as in other sciences, causes can be elusive. Sometimes we feel fortunate to explain 40% of why people are kind, loving, or violent. Of course we would like to explain 100% of behavior. But there are so many factors at work. Even the behavior of young children is hard to explain. I can expect my granddaughter to smile and look with anticipation if I say the word, “ice cream.” Politicians learn what words and phrases resonate (i.e., yield favorable survey responses) with various audiences. We all have a sense of some simple events or actions that appear to cause changes in human behavior. But sometimes a constellation of factors must be weighed to explain why

  • Some people graduate from high school or college and some do not
  • Some people are generous and others are not
  • Some people seek peace whilst others seek to kill.

People are complex beings. Complex behavior patterns require an understanding of many factors.

I have summarized the common ways psychologists think about functioning in a six factor model I refer to the six part model as SCOPES. Students and peers have found this model helpful. See what you think. In this post, I present a description of the six dimensions. You can see examples of published applications to forgiveness and related topics with my colleague Eloise Thomas (2005) and in an explanation of love with another colleague, Marty Mittelstadt (2010). I hope to apply the model to other topics in future posts. I am drawing on the work of Aaron Beck and Arnold Lazarus (especially the idea of multimodal therapy).

The primary contribution of this SCOPES model is the integration of spirituality with other aspects of functioning. My second contribution is the addition of social functioning—a reminder from social psychology that people behave differently in different settings. The people and events around us influence our thoughts, feelings, behavior, spirituality—and even our health. Most behavioral scientists refer to a common triad of cognition (thought), affect (feeling or emotion) and behavior when describing human functioning or counseling strategies. Psychology students learn about the biological basis for human behavior. Students also take courses in social psychology and learn about personality patterns and the influence of others on behavior. Some students study the psychology of religion and consider spiritual and religious aspects of humanity.

So, at the heart of the model are the four familiar dimensions that define how we respond to life events or COPE (Cognition, Observable behavior, Physiology, Emotion). I add two S dimensions for the Spiritual core of our being and the Social context in which we live.

Let me suggest using a smart phone, tablet, or other recent computer example—one that has apps.  In the picture I present a generic phone with customizable apps. Most of our responses originate in our brains. Human brains respond to stimuli when various brain systems are activated. We seem to have default settings and a capacity to run one or more applications at the same time. Let’s take a look at some basic apps.

S          Spirituality

We can think of Spirituality as our operating system. You can imagine getting your spiritual downloads from the cloud and staying in sync with God or your concept of the divine. An overwhelming majority of humans have some form of religion or spirituality. Spirituality is partly prewired (e.g., we search for meaning and that which is greater than ourselves) but spirituality is customizable. 

Like people using different brand of mobile phones, most of us are members of different spiritual networks—Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and so forth— with many smaller tribes.

Spirituality can of course be expressed in many customizable apps for such things as praying, singing, dancing, meditating, and religiously motivated compassion. Spiritual traditions offer hope and encouragement, advice on daily living, and a path to a fulfilled life. People derive meaning from their faith and turn to God or spiritual guides for help in coping with the vicissitudes of life. Many of the world’s religions have been around for millennia and include ancient proverbs, songs, and stories that inspire the faithful. When we fail to consider a person’s spirituality, we fail to consider an enormous dimension of human nature for most people.

C         Cognitive functioning- Thinking

I’m thinking broadly about cognition—thoughts, dreams, mental images, memories. The biological basis for thinking is prewired. There are structures and processes of perception, attention, and memory. But we also have software – thinking patterns -- that helps us use our stored memories to solve problems. As Daniel Kahneman explains, we tend to avoid effortful thinking. And most of the time we can. Life does not always present difficult challenges. But we find it difficult—unnatural I would say—to stop and ponder alternative ways to solve complex problems.

Nowadays thoughtful people offer competing alternative plans to end the daily killing by warring factions in various countries. The solution to gun-related killing elicits competing thoughts in the USA. People offer competing ideas about abortion, contraception, marriage and other ethical and social concerns. Economists offer different ways to address financial stability, economic growth, and unemployment. Many ideas reflect deep thinking.

We store other cognitions, which we call beliefs. Beliefs seem to influence some aspects of behavior. But probably less than we think. Often our beliefs follow rather than cause our actions as if we find ways to explain our behavior to ourselves. Most people think beliefs come first and try to get people to think differently. Cognition includes language and the huge role that plays in human relationships, including the capacity to encourage or insult, apologize, request forgiveness, hope, and love.

P          Physiological functioning- biology

We can think of the phone’s hardware as our physiological or biological systems. We come in different colors with customizable aspects to our designs. We have a default mode that lets us operate even when we are not fully aware of what is going on (nervous system). We have different capacities for memory and processing information. Most of us have a dual core. One devoted to the automatic processing of life and the second to rational and logical thought that is not routinely engaged but helps us solve difficult problems. (SeeKahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow for one of the best explanations I have found on understanding the fast processing of stimuli linked to thoughts, feelings, and behavior).

O         Observable Behavior

We have apps for behavior as well. Behavior patterns are linked to beliefs and emotions and physiological functioning along with our spirituality. A common way to view broad patterns of human behavior is the Five Factor Model. The five factors reflect an OCEAN of complex patterns.

O  Openness—a pattern of how open people are to new experiences, change, and broad versus more narrow interests. High openness is linked curiosity and creativity.

C  Conscientiousness—a pattern of impulse control, personal organization, self-discipline, and goal-directed behavior

E  Extroversion-- a pattern of social interaction, talkativeness, and interaction with others.

A  Agreeableness—a capacity to get along with others, which includes trust, kindness, and affection, and compassion.

N  Neuroticism—a degree of emotional stability, which includes anxiety, moodiness, and irritability.

A few of the leading scientists include Lewis Goldberg, Paul T. Costa and Robert R. McCrae (references below).

E         Emotion

We have apps for emotions. We readily experience disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and anxiety or fear. We can add words and refinements to basic emotional modules but the emotional modules are tied to cognition and behavior when activated. Some have more primary modes of feeling than others so some are quick to anger or quick to feel fearful and anxious. Some people appear to have highly regulated emotional states at a calm, low frequency level. Others feel emotions deeply and express a wide range of emotion. We enjoy being around those who exude positive emotions—up to a point. We tend to avoid those who present an excess of negative emotions or who fluctuate in ways that seem extreme compared to our comfort zone.

S          Social functioning

People behave differently in different settings. We have apps for social functioning in space and time contexts. Just think of all the ways we can connect with people using social media. So we talk with others and send texts and pictures and videos. We are highly social people. We behave differently in school and work settings. Spiritual leaders have often commented on the differences they see in people in religious settings compared to behavior elsewhere.  In the Christian tradition, I often see people dress differently and monitor their choice or words and jokes in church. We behave differently around family and friends than we do around co-workers or strangers.

People behave differently at different times of the day, on different days in a week, and during different stages of life. The impulsivity of a two-year old can be winsome and entertaining, destructive in a 22-year old driver, and deplorable in a 42 year old executive. On the micro level, we may respond differently early in the morning compared to midday or late at night. Time and space (social setting) influence the other five dimensions—SCOPE —of human behavior.

The answers to behavior are rarely found in tweets, blurbs, and sound-bites.

We need complex answers to complex behaviors.

We can begin our search for answers to why people do what they do using six questions covering the SCOPES dimensions:

  1. What did her religious or spiritual beliefs and experiences contribute to her behavior?
  2. How did his thoughts, memories, and problem-solving ability influence his behavior?
  3. Given the patterns of behavior we have observed, how might these predict future behavior?
  4. What health conditions and drugs (prescribed or other) influence his behavior?
  5. How do her feelings affect her thinking and behavior?
  6. How do the people and other factors in his environment influence his behavior?

Think complex thoughts. Think SCOPES.

Beck, A. T. (1979). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: Meridian.

Beck, J., & Beck, A. T. (1995). Cognitive therapy. New York: Guilford.

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning: Newly revised and enlarged (3rd ed.) New York: Simon & Schuster.
Goldberg, L. R. (1981) Language and individual differences: The search for universals in personality lexicons. In L. Wheeler (Ed.), Review of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 2. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
Lazarus, A. A. (1989). The practice of multimodal therapy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1987) Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81-90.
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1997) Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist, 52, 509-516.
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29–44.

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