Causes of Human Behavior

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The Unknown Story

There is a story behind everything—the picture on a wall, a scar on a knee, or an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes the story is simple; other times complex—the picture from that fantastic weekend getaway, the scar from a childhood game; the emotion from complex unknown experiences. We march through life just catching glimpses of the truth. Most experiences are laden with unknowns hidden too deep for us to discover. We can’t avoid this reality. Yet, we want to know. However, when it comes to motivations the complex causes of human behavior we will never have the complete story.

Filling in the Holes

The thing is, we hate the unknown. We want to know why ourselves or someone else acted the way they acted. Such knowledge provides or predicting minds with an effective plan for response. If we can pinpoint the cause we can know whether to ignore the behavior or construct protective barriers, or run like hell. Our planning mind desperately wants to know the causes for human behaviors. Yet, complexity only allows partial knowledge. We may uncover some of the causes, small pieces of a very large puzzle.

Our minds are magicians, just as the brain fills in holes from the natural blind spots in eye sight, creating a seemingly flawless visual representation of the world, our mind also creates a coherent story from the broken pieces of perceived reality.

​We believe we know the reasons for Susie being mean, and for our boss’s smile; but often these contrived meanings miss the mark because we are ignorant to many of the facts motivating the action. We look at the cover of the novel and ignorantly tell the story we believe to be on the interior pages.

Causes for Human Behavior

Knowing the reasons behind an action has a great utility for managing life. When we know the reasons, we can act with more confidence. When we know the cause, we can affect the outcome. The known story has great value to create security. Unfortunately, life holds secrets.

​People, tragedy and even good fortune often spring forth from complexity. We can identify bits of the causes, singling out associations, but the exact equation leading to the moment remains unknown. Instead of walking in faith, with curiosity of what will befall us, we seek security through self-created stories of meaning, giving our own causes for the behaviors.

​”Developing mindfulness of thought, we see how our beliefs, opinions, and fears can blind us.”

~Jack Kornfield  

Glimpses Into the Unknown

We occasionally gain insights into the unknown. Occasionally, the complexity of this magnificent life opens and we see a small aspect of it clearly. We can glory in the momentary spark of enlightenment without agonizing over the massive surrounding truths still hidden. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that if “we realize that the partial truths we uncover are all legitimate aspects of the unknowable universe, then we can learn to enjoy the search and derive from it the pleasure one gets from any creative act—whether it is painting a picture or cooking a good meal” (2009).

I may discover adverse childhood events that contribute to a persons current personality and defenses. Perhaps, even contributing to a host of maladaptive behaviors. Yet, even these small discoveries are incomplete. So much more exists to a persons history and genetic profile that plays out in the present. In a complex game of reciprocal determinism, each small tidbit of influence interacts with new events and past learning to create someone new.

A person is like a flowing river. The water dynamically changing as it moves through time. The molecule of one event once examined is now gone, joining the whole. Understanding the whole, all the causes behind a behavior, is futile.

Assigning Meaning

Humans have engaged in story telling since the beginning of consciousness. Organizing causes to explain the unknowns. Traditions, superstitions, cultural biases, and religions explain the unexplainable. We do it on a grand scale with millions of people and on a very personal scale labeling a partner for their failures.

While assigning meaning typically occurs behind the closed screens of consciousness (confabulating), we can expose errors, and redirect our thoughts to more functional explanations that include recognizing the presence of unknown elements.

Healthy unbiased living requires confronting these automatic judgments, considering the presence of many unknown stories behind the observed behavior. This is discomforting, leaving us without a clear explanation for a slight or insult. As we mature, we understand that the untold story often includes suffering. Kindness is often the best response.

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Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2009). The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium, A (Harper Perennial Modern Classics). HarperCollins e-books; Reprint edition.

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