The Situationist

The human being is a peculiar creature. While all of its senses, and almost all of its capacities, are matched and exceeded by countless other animals, something strange and unimitated lies between the ears of Homo sapiens sapiens. I speak of nothing less than the mind.

Funny, isn’t it, that I’m using my mind to describe the abstract idea of the mind, and your mind is busy reconstructing the meaning of my words?

The mind is not good about thinking about itself. That’s because it doesn’t really know what it is. It makes itself think that it does; that’s why psychology undergraduates arrive at university with the notion that studying the mind should be straightforward. After all, they’ve got a mind, and have been using it expertly for many years.

But the mind plays some quite deliberate tricks upon itself. For example, it thinks that certain mental objects it holds – memory – represents an accurate record. It also thinks that it has free will. To believe the opposite would undermine its agency.

When the mind chooses to do something – for example, walk down a corridor – the mind feels completely in control. Everything is determined by intention. But we’ve discovered, using experiments, that a person who has been exposed to the concept of old age will walk down a corridor more slowly than one who has not.

Think about that for second. What other situational factors might be influencing your behaviour right now? Are you fully in control of a recent decision to drink a Coke, or was a significant component of that behaviour attributable to unconscious nervous associations between its sugary taste and the behaviour steps that lead to drinking it?

An awareness of this stuff is fairly important. It can help to have a working knowledge of the things that might influence you, and can help avoid situations in which the rather poorer aspects of cognition surface: racism, snap judgements, the inappropriate attribution of causation, and much more.

I’ve just come across a blog called The Situationist. Here’s a snippet from their rationale:

There is a dominant conception of the human animal as a rational, or at least reasonable, preference-driven chooser, whose behavior reflects preferences, moderated by information processing and will, but little else… “The situation” refers to causally significant features around us and within us that we do not notice or believe are relevant in explaining human behavior.

It looks pretty interesting. Now, will you click the above link because you want to or because of the product of myriad mechanisms over which you have no control, such as the history of reinforcement in clicking links on my blog? Don’t answer that. You can’t.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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