Sunday, October 25, 2009

What causes us to do things?

What causes us to do things?

Torrey Orton

October 25, 2009

The GFC has spawned a literature of expositions on its causes and their effects. One of these recently suggests 11 causes in search of a narrative. The effects are, in turn, causes of further effects – they 'make' us, or allegedly 'make' us, do things like buy less, save more, cry out about greed, etc. This is roughly the story of life, these narratives of description and explanation from which we give meaning to our experience. They also, as Daniel Yergin says in The Guardian a few days ago, provide a guide to future causes, to future actions we might want to take if we knew we could take them. That is, if we see ourselves as causes.

To cause is to relate

People in my trade – helpers of various denominations – work on the assumption that we can help others to become better causes, better agents for themselves (and for others as appropriate). We also assume that being an effective agent or cause, is a central part of well-being. Also, for now, we assume that the principle form for the giving and receiving of causes – for being effective – is our relationships. However there are reasons to wonder, only one of which is the GFC, whether we can cause things as we used to, whether we can be effective in this world.


Our relationship processes and mechanisms attune us to possible pleasures and dangers. They are designed to assist getting things done and telling us how the effort is going. Any particular 'effort', any solo or joint activity is supported by sensors which look forwards, sideways and backwards from the moment the activity comes into awareness until it fades out of it. These sensors are especially attuned to the others in our relationships about the 'effort'. When attuned, they ensure the greatest natural congruence of thought, feeling and action (mirror neurons) among relationship members, or even non-members.


Even after the effort fades, of course, traces remain through which much of the actual experience can be accessed. This system is the foundation of evidence-based human activities in the original sense. It does not require a lab to operate. In fact, no lab can operate with its facility and appropriateness. A lab is too slow and narrow because it is a ponderous, conscious activity system.


Relationships are meaning making memory systems. They also are systems of intent. For us, action is not like a sand grain sliding down a pile from the tipping point on. For us, action must be sustained, usually by motivation. In this sense, only human (or other conscious) action is caused. Inability to cause others to do or be things is sure sign of an injured consciousness and a deprived life. However, like the sliding sand grain at tipping point, even our started but unsustained action(s) can produce ripples expressing the implicit power of the initiative.

Intent and harm

In therapy intent appears clearly as the triggers of various anxiety spectrum syndromes. These triggers are mainly non-verbal: body language, tone, pace…all the emotional aspects of communication through which we express our intent and interpret others' towards us. Our predisposition to hear intent where none exists is a marker of the importance of danger detection in our totally functionality.


Human intent comes in two main forms: the personal and the institutional. Our attunement to personal intent, as sketched above, does not help us much with institutional intent. The latter is often slow, long-term and barely perceptible compared to the short, sharp impacts of personally driven dangers. One result is that people may blame individuals for having bad attitudes or intentions towards them when the attitude is discussably institutional or systemic in origin.

A bad queue

One slight example. A work colleague complained about the attitude of the wait-staff at our local preferred café, characterising them as arrogant and dismissive. I asked what gave her that impression and she replayed an incident of apparent service disregard earlier the same day. In addition, she didn't get her coffee until it was cold.


On further exploration, I was able to show her that the disregard she felt stemmed from the way queuing is handled there. It works by customers presenting themselves in the right place and in the right order – in other words, a small self-organising system. There are no signs directing customers to a waiting area or the appropriate verbal protocols to achieve successful ordering. The cold coffee resulted from the staff seeing her and recognising her and producing the coffee. They left it on the counter expecting she was going to pick it up.


But, for instance, failure to say "I'm next" as needed, would lead to apparent disregard by the wait-staff. They depend on customers to control who's next themselves. And, voila, failure to do so produces a perceived disrespect and the story unfolded in my colleague's mind from there, cooking up into a tale of intentional disrespect. I guessed correctly that the wait-staff would have no idea they had created this impression either.


To cap it off, my colleague is a sometimes unassertive person who isn't comfortable performing as the queuing system requires. So, I coached her in the system, including a little voice projection often required in the ambient noise. She came back next day and said it worked exactly as predicted and she felt recognised, served, positively regarded and previous impressions deleted! She got her coffee hot, too.


Jane pointed out that this little system is defective and my colleague had a right to be angered by its failings. A good point, and also one which reveals that the personal and institutional may seldom be clearly distinguishable in daily life. The two causal sources may be mutually reinforcing. This is most obviously so where the systems are big need systems like health, education, work and so on, as discussed next.


Intentional bad effects

There are, of course, much more invasive institutional disregards, or actively damaging impacts. These occur especially in core well-being institutions like the health, education and legal ones which may variously discriminate against certain members of societies. The history of change in such discriminations is the story of the slow extension of fair treatment to total populations. They are notoriously slow progresses.


Some damaging institutional impacts are actually the objective of marketing. It intentionally sets out to pre-condition our decision-making at levels below consciousness – by drip-down familiarisation, so to speak. Where those subject to the drip are unaware and undefended from the process and its effects, the damage may be great. Current struggles over "sponsorship" of state schools by food brands are prompted by one such potential damage. Sponsorship's dubious nature is magnified by recognising that the argument for marketing and advertising is raised by those champions of choice, the market fundamentalists around us. The objective of the marketing, of course, is explicitly to restrict choice. John Roskam's argument for Big Mac schools is characteristically disingenuous. What would Adam Smith say?

Where to next with this expedition? Perhaps into the occasionally perverse world of science and causes. One example of this is here:

"Rogers Smith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has been active in the "Perestroika" movement, said that the question should determine the method. If you want to test cause and effect, "quantitative methods are the preferred way to go," he said, but they can't tell "how political phenomena should be understood and interpreted" — whether a protest, for instance, is the result of a genuine social movement or an interest group, whether it is religious or secular."


There, nicely poised, is a fundamental problem with science: that as you become clear about facts, you cannot sustain a similarly clear interpretive picture about them. The science Smith is talking about is intrinsically uncertain in two key respects: (1) predictions are approximate, until they have happened; and, (2) the probabilities established by statistics are, even very high ones, never apply to a single case. The technical problem is that what constitutes the evidence is disputable.


For us, this means especially they don't predict for individuals. In these small spaces survive a host, a forest of exceptional knowledge practices ranging from standard doubt to marvellous interpretive schemes like horoscopes. I mean neither any harm here. But harm may come from inappropriate application of these schemes to daily life. If you feel a dilemma coming on, and you like them, see you here again shortly. This dilemma matters, to me at least. It has major impacts on my profession and my social concerns.


  1. I listened to an episode of Life Matters over the weekend. The subject was addiction, and in particular the extent to which those who committed unsociable (ie illegal) acts while addicted were responsible for their actions - a clear example of cause and effect.

    There were three panellists, including a Supreme Court Judge. All agreed that the notion of responsibility needed to be expanded beyond individual responsibility -- though they had different reasons for this.

    All introduced some notion of social or collective responsibility -- which seems to me to be something like the institutional impact you mention in your post -- and agreed that simple linking of cause (the person was addicted) and effect (they robbed a bank) was not at all helpful.

    Not that they wanted to abandon notions of cause and effect, neither did they want to allow individuals to escape responsibility for their actions, but they recognised that the linkages went beyond individual behaviour and perceptions.

  2. B,
    I think that addictions are not causes usually but conditions or contexts; thus they are not excuses or excusable. violence is violence and treatable as such not as a result of a disabled state like alcoholism, etc.
    I'm not sure about the collective resposnsibility thing either. Is this like the argument one of my psych colleagues made about Polanski two weeks ago in the AGE? That his own holocaust experience diminshed his accountability (so it seemed to many).