Can Human Behavior Be Explained?

Fyodor Dostoevsky

In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky tries to explain the seemingly irrational behavior of humans in psychological terms. First published in 1864, the novella is a fascinating character study that has been called the first existentialist work of fiction. The narrator, “Underground Man,” is quite unreliable; since you can’t trust anything he says, it’s hard to make out what Dostoevsky is actually trying to say about human behavior, or if he even has anything definitive to say about it. Nevertheless, Notes raises several interesting and important questions, including:

  • Do people always act in their own best interest?
  • What exactly is a person’s “best interest?”

Underground Man has a lot to say about these questions: One person’s definition of best interest may differ completely from another’s; a person may consciously act against his own interest simply to assert his freedom; a world in which everyone acted according to a single definition of best interest would extinguish free will and thus be boring as hell.

A problem with attempting to establish a universal explanation for human behavior is that people are motivated to act in different ways, depending on such things as upbringing, values, intelligence, general disposition and mood at the moment of action. And not only do people vary considerably from one to another in the makeup of their motivation, each of us  is unpredictable from decision to decision because we give weight to the various factors that play into their decision-making process.

On top of that, we sometimes take actions or adopt a point of view without thinking or knowing why. When asked to give an account of our action or opinion, we are unable to do so.

Despite all this, developments in the recent past strongly illustrate the extent to which people can be induced to think and act in a particular way. A steady drumbeat from news media, entertainment media and social media, along with the “cancelling” of opposing points of view, and viola! — Herd mentality on a global scale. The questions now become:

  • How much free will do we really have?
  • How much free will do we really want?

(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

4 Replies to “Can Human Behavior Be Explained?”

  1. Brad,
    Maybe my third questions is embedded in the other two. However, it seems to me that the “free” aspect of free will is that there is an important choice to be made. If we have no responsibilities, then we don’t have to make any important choices. We just “go with the flow.” Maybe that ties into my comment about selfishness.

    As the bumper sticker notes, “freedom is not free.” Somebody (somebodies) have set boundaries and it’s our responsibility to choose at the boundary-line.

  2. Two good questions. Regarding the first question. We have as much free will as we want (although we may not be free to act). The second question is really loaded! We want “our way,” but is that free will or simply being selfish. Here’s my third question. Does free will exist without responsibility?

    1. Hi Bill, Can you elaborate on your (very intriguing) third question? As for free will versus selfishness, this is a very interesting question as well. I think if we act selfishly (do out of instinct), then it is not really an action we will (do through reason).

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