Why doesn’t it ever quite happen—why are those new year resolutions forgotten by February? Are we not rational, logical, conscious beings, able to make choices—masters of our own destiny? Are we not brave? We might make some mistakes along the way, but aren’t we in general trying to do the right thing, staying true to ourselves and our values, heading toward some kind of elevated, enlightened summit? We are inherently sensible and good . . . aren’t we?
Perhaps not entirely. We’re not always sure what we really want—our true desires are often ambiguous, ambivalent, illogical or hidden from view. Our conscious, stated wishes can be completely at odds with our unconscious ones—Lacan said that faced with the possibility of a wish actually coming true, we often run the other way (Freud called this “the wish for an unsatisfied wish”). Sometimes, to our surprise, our behaviour doesn’t quite tally with our cherished principles and beliefs. The German philosopher Heidegger said we discover our intentions through our actions rather than the other way round, and neuroscientific studies have since confirmed that. You watch in disbelief as your hand goes up to volunteer for something you hadn’t even considered. You hear yourself agreeing with someone who flies in the face of opinions you held dear. You fall for someone who supposedly isn’t suitable, isn’t your “type.” Poets, priests and politicians—not to mention psychotherapists—preach wholesome, “family values,” with sincerity, while compartmentalising away their own chaotic, operatic private lives.
Our motives, instincts and behaviours are not always pure. Humans are all perfectly capable, in a certain light, of being craven, weak, cruel—or criminal. We have an immense propensity for good . . . and for bad. Consider these famous psychology experiments:
• In Festinger and Carlsmith’s 1959 research project, participants were made to carry out a really boring task, then they were asked to describe the task to a new recruit in glowing, positive terms. The ones that were paid a modest amount for lieing in this way later reported that they had changed their mind: they decided the task had actually been quite interesting. We go to extraordinary lengths to manage our “cognitive dissonance” and preserve the fiction that we are rational, logical, consistent and “good.” “I don’t smoke,” a friend once told me as she lit up yet another cigarette.
• Our capacity for conforming to others was tested by Asch in 1951. In the experiment, a participant was brought into a room with eight fellow participants who were really stooges. The group was then shown three lines of differing lengths, and a reference line. All they had to do was state which line—A, B or C—was the same length as the reference line. The stooges all gave the same answer, which was clearly wrong. Half of the participants succumbed to peer pressure and gave the same wrong answer as the stooges on more than half of the trials. Only a quarter ignored the stooges and gave the right answer every time.
• A newspaper report of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York claimed that 38 people had heard and seen the attack, which lasted an hour, but did nothing. Darley and Latane (1968) observed this “bystander apathy” in an experiment in which participants were unlikely to help someone apparently having a seizure if other people were present—the larger the group, the less likely the participant was to act.
• In Zimbardo’s notorious, controversial 1971 Stanford Prison experiment, a mock jail was created: Some of the participants were randomly assigned to role play being prisoners, the others were to be guards. Freed from their own identities, the young participants took to their new roles; the “prison” quickly became all-too real. The “guards,” mostly idealistic, peace-loving young men, found themselves enjoying humiliating, abusing and even physically assaulting the prisoners. The experiment was stopped after 6 days.
• Most chilling of all is the 1963 Milgram experiment in obedience. Each participant was told by the researcher that they would be posing questions to an unseen person behind a screen, and delivering a small electric shock each time a question was answered incorrectly. The researcher asked the participant to increase the voltage each time an incorrect answer was given. How far did the participants go? Nearly two-thirds went all the way—to the maximum voltage, past the point where the actor behind the screen had stopped screaming.
So our supposed rational, logical mind doesn’t quite seem to be in charge to the extent we imagined. It might think it’s steering the ship, but there appear to be other hands on the wheel, too, and some of them, at times, feel beyond our control. We don’t have absolute free will. But nor is everything pre-destined. Buddhists believe instead in a middle way: things happen as a result of multiple causes, conditions and connections. As Frankl and others have said, we have choice, but within constraints. We are neither free nor not free.
What drives those choices? Where do we want the ship to go? There are no simple answers to this question. Theorists tend to follow one of four broad beliefs:
• We are biological creatures. We are motivated by survival. Freud said we had natural instincts for sex and aggression; for love and death. Many years later, Dawkins wrote that we’re at the mercy of our “selfish genes.” The behaviourists believed that, like rats in a maze, we simply respond optimally to external stimuli.
• We are individual psychological creatures. Maslow said we each have an innate tendency towards psychological growth, which happens via what has been called a “hierarchy of needs.” Once the basic physiological demands have been met (food, water, sleep, safety), we can find love, esteem and, finally, “self-actualisation,” which might be searching for knowledge, understanding, meaning or spirituality in life; a kind of transcendence. This was taken up by Rogers with his idea of “individuation”; by May, Fromm and other humanists. Some critics say this focus on self and individual autonomy gave rise to a selfish, navel-gazing “me-generation” of people only concerned with their own personal growth.
• We are relational creatures. Bowlby was the first to say that we’re motivated by our powerful need to form social bonds: the way we formed attachments with early caregivers—or didn’t—influences all our subsequent human actions and interactions. Unlike some mammals, we are born half formed. We quickly learn to adapt to our environment. For better or worse, whatever we learned as children about how best to be in the world tends to manifest in lifelong repetitive patterns. The unconscious wish to gain parental approval persists long after the parents have gone.
• We are societal creatures. We each exist within complex cultures that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways dictate the rules of the game. We are presented with a double bind: we are told to be true to our self, to find our own way, yet we are also under the influence of society’s laws, customs, rituals and beliefs. For Smail, this usually involves some kind of oppression from distal forces, especially political, economic and corporate power.
The truth is, all of the above are at play. We are motivated by self and others, nature and nurture, the conscious and the unconscious, left brain and right brain. Drozek writes that motivation “emerges from body, mind, and environment including conscious and unconscious affects, intentions, proclivities, values, and ideals that are physiologically, emotionally, relationally, and culturally mediated. But it is exactly because motivation involves all these sources of experience, uniquely configured and textured in every life and every psyche, that we cannot easily make generalizations that would apply to all of humanity.”
It’s hard enough to make generalizations that apply just to us, never mind all of humanity. The late British psychologist Mair broached the idea that we are each a “community of selves”; previously I’ve written that we are like a rubbish football team, filled with players who all wear the same kit and are subject to the same rules, but who all have different motivations and don’t always get along. So we can be at war with ourselves. We can get stuck. Human motivation is such a complex cocktail. No wonder cognitive behavioural therapy so often fails. And no wonder our new year’s resolutions are doomed.
Here are three scenarios:
• You resolve to lose weight. But your animal, survival-oriented self wants you to keep eating. Your teenage rebellious self says to hell with losing weight (not to mention social conformity). And your hurt, emotionally-starved self finds comfort and nourishment in food. (Who is it that wants to lose weight, anyway—is that your rational, logical self speaking? Or your social self that thinks you’ll be more lovable if you’re thinner? Or your societal, comforming self that is bombarded by cultural images and messages that offer only one very tightly-prescribed—and very skinny—conception of beauty?)
• You resolve to relax more, not work so hard, and have more fun. But a primitive part of you is always anxiously on guard, hypervigilant to danger. Perhaps your child self learned from your parents that you will only be loved if you achieve great success. Your social, relational self says you “should” work hard, because that’s what your colleagues seem to be doing. And your societal self, too, tells you to get a sensible job, settle down, keep calm and carry on—that’s what everyone expects of you.
• You decide you’re tired of being alone. You go through the motions of online dating. But the rejected self that was once unloved by a parent, or deeply hurt by a lover, secretly sabotages every approach to prevent the possibility of any further pain. The requirements for a future partner become absurdly numerous so as to ensure that they will never be met.
In all these scenarios, we end up with a kind of internal mutiny on our hands. So perhaps new year’s resolutions are best avoided. They only set us up for inevitable failure and disappointment. Perhaps, instead of wishing for change, we might resolve in the coming year to try to be grateful for all that we have. To be more accepting of all our various imperfect selves. And those of the people around us, too. You can understand, accept and have compassion for things being exactly as they are. Or your can be filled with frustration, resentment and disappointment. What we sometimes fail to grasp is the paradox that the former mindset is much more likely than the latter to result in positive changes.
When we consider the shortcomings of our lives, it's better to be empathic than emphatic.
Love is a much better motivator than hate.
Happy new year.