A Plea for Self-Delusion

It is not often that you see someone advocating for self-delusion, but I’m going for it. In a few sentences, I will provide an illogical mantra that I want you to keep in your head for a day. It may seem a little odd at first, but my hope is that by trying it out your view of human behavior will shift a few degrees. Here it is:

“I make choices, but others do not.”

I must admit two things before moving on. First is that this statement cannot possibly be true; which leads to the second point – this mantra can only be beneficial to you and others if you ignore its inherent contradiction. Think of it more as a productive worldview rather than a statement of accuracy.

The first part – I make choices – will be easy for you to understand since you naturally experience making decisions every day. The second part – that others do not make choices – may be more of a foreign concept, and that’s fine. I hope to simplify this concept by providing a scenario:

Imagine that all the humans on Earth except you have lost their ability to make choices. Unlike you, they are solely controlled by environmental forces like a unique birthplace, geological location, genetic codes, behavioral conditioning, and surrounding culture and customs. Knowing that these people lack agency and cannot possibly control their behaviors, you attribute their maladaptive and annoying behaviors to external factors rather than personal decisions. You understand that they are products of their exclusive environments. You no longer blame, punish, or criticize them. Instead, you look beyond people’s agency and focus on the external forces that produced their behaviors.

Here are some more detailed examples of this in action:

  • Instead of scolding disrespectful students, you will focus on how their behaviors stem from external forces like their family dynamics, the skill level of their teachers, and their lack of self-esteem.
  • Instead of criticizing ungrateful lovers, you will focus on external forces like your partner’s early interactions with their parents, their emotional influences from previous romantic relationships, and their reaction to your own weaknesses.
  • Instead of blaming criminals, you will focus on external forces like inauspicious circumstances, consistent lack of communal resources, and multi-generational traumas.
  • Instead of complaining about hyper-capitalistic billionaires, you will focus on external forces like ultra-competitive communities, rigid family rituals, and anxieties about not leaving a legacy.
  • Instead of detesting KKK supporters, you will focus on external forces like insulated homogenous communities, lack of exposure to positive aspects of other cultures, and an inculcated fear of others.
  • Instead of abhorring serial killers, you will focus on external forces like persistent exposure to various abuses, brain abnormalities, and unorthodox family rituals.

By shifting your focus from people’s choices to the external forces that influence their behaviors, the resentment that you may have had about people’s behaviors will not only transform into an understanding and acceptance of what they’ve become, but it will also provide you with more effective solutions when facing practical concerns.

The Mantra in Practice

Instead of expecting flowers to grow on their own, a wise gardener recognizes the multi-causal forces that impact their growth. Knowing this, the gardener alters those forces to the flower’s benefit. And while we would like to think that people are much different, it would be narrow-minded to overlook how our actions are heavily influenced by environmental forces as well. If you need proof of this, ask yourself how the environment has affected your family and friends. Or ask yourself how people, places, and experiences have influenced you, and how you may not be the same person if these forces hadn’t impacted your life. By interpreting reality as essentially inter-connected forces impacting inanimate and animate objects, you can not only perceive reality more accurately, but you can also become a more effective human being in a variety of settings.

Let’s look at some examples:

A) Bosses who focus on employees’ behaviors

B) Bosses who focus on the systems affecting their employees’ behaviors

Example A is most likely your boss. Instead of understanding and altering the possible systemic forces inducing your behaviors, this boss judges you and focuses on your inability to perform tasks. They most likely spend their time criticizing your work and finding people to blame for the failures of the company. These bosses often use fear and exploitation to motivate their employees.

Example B is the boss you wish you had. Not only do they understand the systemic forces affecting their product such as advertising and market demands, but they also understand relational forces that affect the dynamics between their employees. Recognizing that their clients have lives and feelings, they are more likely to be compassionate and team-oriented and will use vacation time and fair wages to show that employees are more than just profit machines. These bosses often use inspiration to motivate their employees.

Here is another example:

A) Parents who focus on their child’s behaviors

B) Parents who focus on the systems affecting their child’s behaviors

Example A are most parents. They hyper-focus on the concept of responsibility and subsequently get into countless power struggles that slowly toxify their relationships with their children. These types of parents, due to their focus on others making choices, often blame their children and punish them to induce compliance.

Example B are more productive parents. Instead of solely focusing on responsibility (though they teach it when it is called for), these parents recognize the benefits of focusing on external systems such as caregiver interaction, education, and extracurricular organizations. At the top of their mind, they think about how their own behaviors affect the child and use this insight to manage their own emotions and behaviors to provide a healthier environment. These types of parents often attempt to understand their child when they make mistakes and teach new skills to replace bad habits.

As you can see with the examples above, the understanding of this mantra, or some form of it, can have a profound impact on the ways you view social situations and act upon them. By attempting to relate to others and understand the things that have negatively affected them, you can provide an atmosphere of acceptance that leads to more collaboration and productivity. And once you have done it for individuals, you can expand its use to benefit social institutions like schools, companies, prisons, and governments.

Another benefit of this line of thinking involves eradicating the approach that most people currently take – blaming others for their behaviors. This ineffective method, which aims to change behaviors via guilt, is perpetuated by one simple fact – it is easier to blame others than to understand and help them. By skipping the blame game and developing a willingness to dig deeper, you can validate the negative experiences that lead to another’s actions while also steering them towards a better future.

But What About Personal Responsibility?

Though there are several benefits to thinking that others do not make choices, you must make sure that you do not assume that for yourself. Personal responsibility, or at least the notion of it, is a valuable device that encourages you to analyze and reflect on your behaviors so that you can make better decisions in the future. Neglecting your ability to make choices, at its worst, can place you into a paralyzing cycle of behaviors that ignores the venues of control that you concretely have and can prevent you from improving yourself and others.

But this notion of personal responsibility comes with a risk, namely that its natural progression leads to a projection of this internal experiences onto others. In other words, the more you believe that you make choices, the more you believe that others do as well. A good example of this is the pull-yourself-by-your-bootstraps mentality, a classic staple of America’s individualistic culture. This concept, which is propagated by those who believe they have made good choices for themselves while simultaneously ignoring the auspicious circumstances that have contributed to their success, leads to judgment, which then leads to blaming, punishment, and criticism. And these devices, as we have seen in the examples of bosses and parents, do little to better ourselves, our children, and society at large. So how can you avoid this pitfall? And how can you hold yourself responsible while not expecting it from others?

“I make choices, but others do not.”

Most people minimize their own responsibility while assuming others have it. By repeating and believing in this mantra, you can do the opposite by creating a personal ethos of responsibility without projecting it onto others.

To end, I would like to point out that you can delude yourself with the mantra in two ways. Either you delude yourself by assuming that others do not make choices or you delude yourself by assuming that you do.

But it doesn’t matter which is true. What matters, if you care about improving yourself and society, is that you disempower concepts like blame, punishment, and criticism, and replace them with constructive responses that consider the inter-systemic and multi-causal forces that influence human behaviors. By doing so, you will improve your relationships, organizations, and governments, and maybe even help transform our world of blame and punishment into a world of understanding and acceptance. And if that isn’t worth deluding yourself for, I don’t know what is.

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5 Replies to “A Plea for Self-Delusion”

  1. There is a fly in your ointment, Blaken. How does a parent teach their child to make better choices if I begin by denying the reality that he or she makes choices.

    I understand the pop culture that seems to be bubbling up from the anti-free-will literature by Sam Harris and the videos by Gregg Caruso. But I don’t think you can improve yourself and others by distorting reality, as they do.

    Both professional and popular advice is abundant regarding helping other to grow and using effective correction techniques (example, the “Super Nanny” TV series, the “Parent Effectiveness Training” course and the spin-offs “Teacher Effectiveness Training” and “Leadership Effectiveness Training” courses, and so forth).

    And none of these effective techniques for parenting, teaching, and leading require abandoning the two ideas that (1) everyone makes choices and (2) that our choices always have causes.

    Please try to avoid tying legitimate means of correction and guidance with the anti-free-will cult in fashion today. It diminishes us all.

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    1. Hey Marvin,

      Thank you for reading my article! Even though you didn’t agree with my premise, I appreciate that you took the time to check it out.

      I find it interesting (and slightly condescending) that you assume my ideas are direct regurgitations of some “pop culture.” While I concede that I have read Sam Harris, my thoughts about free will and determinism were solidified years before hearing about him.

      I also don’t think that citing Super Nanny does much for your argument. As someone who has worked in a residential treatment facility for children, worked as a therapist for families and children within DCFS, has a master’s degree in family counseling, and has taught therapeutic crisis intervention to professionals for years, I can say with confidence that attempting to understand a child’s feelings and developing a concrete alternative to maladaptive behaviors will do much more than preaching “everyone makes choices” and “our choices have causes.” A child exposed to the former will feel heard and inspired, while a child exposed to the latter will feel dejected and reprimanded.

      Nevertheless, this article was not aimed at trying to prove free will or determinism, but rather to provide an internal reference on how you can view others and yourself. Beliefs about these constructs aside, I don’t see how thinking that you have free will and that others don’t is harmful to anyone.

      Thanks again for commenting!

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      1. Okay. Sounds like you have a solid background in effective techniques for helping children and others. And I’m sorry if I came across as condescending to you. I only meant to be condescending to Sam Harris and Gregg Caruso. 🙂
        Thanks for putting up with me.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t write often. I have several on determinism and free will, a few on morality, some on religion, one on college honor courts, one on affirmative action, and several on libertarians (category “Wascally Wabbits”). But that’s about it.

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