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What Makes Us Think We Are In Charge?

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We want to find more intentionality than diverse actors will allow. The culprit is the pronoun “they,” which over-simplifies our world and catches us in traps of our own making.

As humans we are hardwired to look for motivations behind human behavior.  It’s our destiny to think in story-like structures, which usually include answers to the “whys” of any action. Give stage or film actors a line or a specific movement, and they are likely to ask a director for the motivation behind it.  Like them, we are all actors.

We are usually right to assign responsibility for conduct to a fully functioning adult. It is not unreasonable to assume that individuals can make decisions from an array of available choices.  Notwithstanding some neuroscientists who want to reduce human conduct to chemistry, most of us make the reasonable assumption that people really do have intentions. They act on their beliefs, habits and preferences. Notwithstanding myriad sources influence, they are still capable of choosing between on specific choices.

But this simple logic is where things drift to complications. This pattern of thinking can easily be overextended when assigned to individuals or groups. It is sometimes a considerable stretch to have the insight to know the causes of conduct.

Take the case of individuals first. A simple example: a friend who is a geriatric psychotherapist frequently complains that staffs in nursing facilities usually assume that a patient is “acting out” when they are unkind or manipulative. In our language these kinds of descriptions usually imply volition: the patient intended to behave in a certain way. The problem, of course, is that most of these folks have dementia, which robs them of the essential gift of agency. Their behavior is not necessarily what they would have done if the neural pathways once available to them were still intact. The result is sometimes to punish the patient rather than to acknowledge that their behavior is not easily overridden.

We can’t easily scale up the idea of purpose to large and diverse groups.

In cases of groups, assigning intentionality can easily drift into fantasy. A while back a guest newspaper column by Max Boot also caught my eye because of this problem. He criticized the Republican Party for carefully nurturing negative attitudes about scientific research and serious intellectual inquiry.  In effect, he made the Party an agent engaged in a concerted effort to dumb-down complex problems such as climate change, immigration reform and a sometimes-sluggish American economy.  On the other side, we have heard members of the GOP make the absurd claim that Democrats are trying to “groom” children to accept an alien social identity.

The problem is that individuals—even in groups—rarely have the same reasons or motivations for their actions. Boot is right that many in the GOP are suspicious of reasoned arguments based on solid science. My doubts extend only to attributing a clear purpose to the party itself. The problem with his assertion is that political groups in the United States are almost never well organized. “Members” see things from their own unique perspectives.  And most have only paper-thin levels of loyalty. Maybe the military or any tightly run corporation may have “intentions” or “missions,” but parties: not so much.

The same mistake is often made about the President, who is supposedly able to control of a dizzying array of national challenges. But the real story is that we also assign too much agency to the Presidency. For example, most economists believe the chief executive cannot significantly change the course of the economy. We may want to think of the American business cycle as under the thumb of the White House. A more accurate view is that our multifaceted economy is an engine without a single engineer.  Indeed, most presidents would welcome the chance to be as powerful as is widely believed.  The norm for these leaders is to leave office frustrated at how little influence they were able to exert over the many far-flung agencies of the federal bureaucracy.  F.D.R., for example, complained that he couldn’t even get fundamental changes in the Navy, even though he was its Commander and once served a stint as the Navy’s Assistant Secretary.

The prime rhetorical culprit here is the pronoun “they.” The English language invites us to singularize responsibility under the umbrella of this term.  But a better reading of the world as it is usually means that we can’t scale up the idea of purpose to large and diverse groups. The pronoun over-simplifies our world, catching us in traps that sacrifice accuracy for a degree of unearned clarity.


How we assign motives to others is a fascinating subject.  For a more systematic account from the writer about this process see The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs (Lexington, 2013).

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