Monday, April 10, 2017

Roger’s Reality: Why do people think the way they do?

By Roger Owens

[Editor’s Note: Today’s post launches a new recurring column. Roger tells me that he “comes up with this type of thing fairly often, and when the time is right it’s like an itch, a need to get it down on paper (so to speak) before it slips through my fingers like the proverbial sands.” Sounds as though we might expect continuing such recurrences....]

I believe that one of the most powerful impulses in human nature is the impulse to copy behavior exhibited by someone else. Psychologists call it modeling, and while it makes perfect sense to model beneficial behavior, unfortunately the urge is often indiscriminate – that is, we see people model behavior that isn’t beneficial, and even destructive. This is why many folks are so concerned with “role models” such as sports figures, because children in particular tend to model the behavior of those they admire, whether that behavior is beneficial or not. Kids who see poor behavior in their parents often copy that behavior in later life, to the detriment of themselves and those who love them.
    Behavior includes thinking as much as action, and when it comes right down to it, thinking is the very font of behavior generally, and the basis of almost all human association is an attempt to get people to think in the “right” way. Every school, church, political party, prison, and radio talk show host wants to get us to think the way they do – “right” thinking, according to them. Military organizations set the rules and endeavor to enforce thinking along rigid lines. Communist regimes send dissidents to “re-education” camps. The collective cause of clubs like the Shriners to do good works is not so different in this regard from groups who encourage playing the “knockout game.” The question then, of course, is what is “right thinking” and how do we encourage it? How do we even know what right thinking is? Few would argue that the thought processes that lead to criminal behavior are wrong, but what do we do about it?

When I studied psychology at the University of Florida in the 1970’s, there was a professor there named Robert Ziller [now professor emeritus] who had a fair handle on how this sort of thing works. He would show a class a film to of someone telling them how great they were, loaded with positive stimuli, and he would surreptitiously film the students themselves, to see who was paying attention and who was not. Then he would show a film of someone telling them they were rotten, a waste of good air, packed with negative stimuli, and film the students watching that. It turns out that a certain percentage of people attend to positive stimuli, and others do not. They actually look away. Conversely, those who do not attend to positive stimuli do pay attention to negative stimuli, while the other group tends to ignore that.
    Dr. Ziller developed a pencil-and-paper test that distinguished between these groups by asking certain questions, similar to personality profile tests such as the MMPI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. He claimed that the group who did not accept positive strokes and did accept negative ones were what he called “alienated,” a term popular in the humanistic psychology movement at the time meaning that they have lost touch with their “inner selves,” much the way Eastern religions and philosophies teach that we have lost touch with our spiritual being.

Now, if certain people ignore positive information that might encourage “right thinking,” how do you change their thinking in a positive way? Any primary school teacher will tell you that one cannot learn what one doesn’t pay attention to. Worse, these people actually accept negative information avidly, and internalize that information as the way the world is. How do you teach something to someone who actively ignores it? We all know those people, the ones who make a life of negativity and seem to gain nothing from all the positivity we can shovel at them. I wish I had a good answer for that, but as someone who has friends and family who are just that sort of negative, morose personality, I admit that I am as baffled as anyone. Regardless of how positive and encouraging we are to them, they stubbornly refuse to see the good in the world, in themselves, in others, in anything. We all know how little humans like to change, and these people are no different in that respect; it is like pulling teeth, pounding sand, talking to the wall.
    Some would argue that we have made progress in this area, but I don’t see it. Negative people tend to stay that way. In general, they continue to berate themselves and those who care about them. People continue to commit crimes, including murdering each other, with depressing regularity. Sometimes we as positive personalities can do nothing more than persevere, or in extreme cases cut these people loose from our lives, as much as we might care for them. The only way I have found to decrease the negativity in my own life is to recognize when someone is a lost cause and set them adrift to fend for themselves, as badly as they may do so. I have thought it through repeatedly and have come to no better conclusion than to let them drown, if necessary, if only to save myself from a similar fate.

Copyright © 2017 by Roger Owens


  1. A lot of good food for thought in this post! Welcome, Roger, to Moristotle. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts as they make it to paper. I have similar thoughts that appear every few weeks or so on topics of pyschology.

    1. Thanks Andre I enjoyed your post on "In Your Dreams" and I will check out your work on psychology. How the mind works is a fascinating subject is it not? I used to tell folks I studied psychology more as a dilettante than a serious student-I wanted to find out what was wrong with me!