One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do. You can ask somebody: Why’d you choose that house? Or why’d you marry that person? Or why’d you go to graduate school? People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.
We have a conscious self, of course, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion. We know what we’re feeling, just not how and why we got there.
But we also don’t want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up some story, or confabulation. As Will Storr writes in his excellent book “The Science of Storytelling,” “We don’t know why we do what we do, or feel what we feel. We confabulate when theorizing as to why we’re depressed, we confabulate when justifying our moral convictions and we confabulate when explaining why a piece of music moves us.”
Or as Nicholas Epley puts it in his equally excellent “Mindwise,” “No psychologist asks people to explain the causes of their own thoughts or behavior anymore unless they’re interested in understanding storytelling.”
I confess I don’t like this finding. It hurts my sense of dignity. I like to think that I — my conscious self — am in some way living my own life for reasons I understand. I’m not merely some puppet on neural strings.
I also like to think we can in fact understand why we do what we do. For example, George Orwell wrote a great essay called “Why I Write” that offered compelling reasons for why he became a writer: He desired to appear clever in public, he liked to play with language, he liked to understand things, and he wanted to alter the direction of events. I like to think the rest of us can achieve at least half as much accurate self-knowledge into our motivations as Orwell did.
Finally, I feel bad for all those people — from René Descartes to modern commencement speakers — who said the key to life is to “know thyself,” “look within” and “do the inner work.” This advice seems like narcissistic nonsense in light of recent research.
I contacted a bunch of psychologists and psychotherapists I really admire to help me reject the reigning theory so I could feel better about myself.
I asked Mary Pipher, the legendary therapist and author of “Reviving Ophelia” and many other books, if she asked her patients “why” questions. She said she prefers “what, when, where and how” questions: When do you notice feelings of inferiority? Basically, she wants clients to become closer observers of their own behavior.
She isn’t really asking them to engage in introspection as we normally understand it. She is asking them to use the mental equipment people might use to evaluate the behavior of others and to use it to evaluate their own behavior. Maybe the best way to see yourself is to get out of the deceptive rumination spirals of your own self-consciousness and to think about yourself in the third person.
She also takes it for granted that telling stories about ourselves is the best we can do. She says people come to her with “problem-saturated” stories, and she tries to move them to different stories that will give them a sense of control and pride.
Then I contacted Dan McAdams, the Northwestern scholar who specializes in how people tell their life stories. Mr. McAdams also doubts that we can ever really know why we do anything, so we are compelled to fall back on narratives or what he calls “personal myths.”
These narratives are inevitably problematic. Our pasts are not a stable body of evidence from which we can derive explanations for our actions. We are constantly reconstructing our pasts based on current goals. Moreover, our explanations for our behavior may simply be wrong or self-serving. A guy may think he fails at relationships because he never got over the girl who dumped him in college, but it could be that he just has a high degree of neuroticism he’s never dealt with.
For Mr. McAdams, some stories are better than others. Stories that are closer to “what really happened” are more reliable than ones that are distorted by self-flattery and self-affirmation. On the other hand — and here’s the tension — we want our stories to be positive and affirming. Americans, Mr. McAdams has found, tend to tell redemption stories: I was rising, I faltered, and I came back better.
Yet if the quality of our self-stories is so important, where do we go to learn the craft of self-narration? Shouldn’t there be some institution that teaches us to revise our stories through life so we don’t have to suffer for years and wind up in therapy?
I called Lori Gottlieb, the author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.” She also sees therapy as a form of story-editing. But she is much more optimistic that we can actually get down to the sources of our behavior. We actually can understand our “whys.” In fact, she says this is essential.
In the first place, humans have made enormous progress in understanding the roots of their behavior. If you fear intimacy and tend to be emotionally avoidant, you can consult attachment theory to gain insight into how the attachment model you learned as a toddler is influencing your relationships today. Moreover, if you look at the patterns of your life — you tend to get dumped about three months into a relationship — you can discern the underlying causes. You’re doing something off-putting at three months for a reason, and you can gradually come to discern the source, the “why,” of that pattern.
Ms. Gottlieb says that if you just try to change your behavior without understanding the source, you will never achieve lasting change. You have to understand the “why” so you can recognize the behavior when it’s happening again and address what’s causing you to behave as you do.
Finally, I called Epley, the “Mindwise” author. “Spending two decades studying mind reading really highlighted the importance of humility in life,” he said. “Both recognizing that we don’t have privileged access to our minds, so tone down your self-confidence, and we also don’t know other people as well as we think we do.”
Maybe we can’t know ourselves through the process we call introspection. But we can gain pretty good self-awareness by extrospection, by closely observing behavior. Epley stressed that we can attain true wisdom and pretty good self-awareness by looking behavior and reality in the face to create more accurate narratives.
Maybe the dignity in being human is not being Achilles, the bold, thoughtless actor. Maybe the great human accomplishment is being Homer, the wise storyteller. In telling ever more accurate stories about ourselves, we send different beliefs, values and expectations down into the complex nether reaches of our minds, and — in ways we may never understand — that leads to better desires, better decision-making and more gracious living.
David Brooks (Twitter: @nytdavidbrooks) is a columnist for The New York Times.