Human Behaviour

There are no exact sciences of human behaviour. Economics, criminology, sociology, and the various branches of psychology are amenable to study through observation, data collection and statistics but the results are invariably subject to interpretation and experts differ without being able to resolve their differences through critical experiments.
The human world is less predictable than the physical world. Very few can make fortunes backing horses or investing in the stock exchange. It is impossible to predict with certainty re-offending behaviour in the criminally insane. This problem was captured for all time by a former medical superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital who observed ‘We all know that half the patients in Broadmoor could be released, the trouble is we don’t know which half. Patrick McGrath was the Medical Superintendent and I met him as a young psychiatrist when I visited the hospital.

There is a particularly valuable generalisation which arises from these limitations in our understanding expressed as Goodhart’s Law. My preferred way of expressing this is ‘Any robust statistical pattern breaks down when people rely on it for forecasting.’ Reductionists think this is to do with the great complexity of human beings, because they think everything, in principle, can be reduced to physics. This is an astonishing dogma. In fact it is to do with volition or intentional behaviour. If we were in a deterministic straitjacket (or indeed a random and unpredictable world), why would not human history be as monotonous as history on the moon.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

2 thoughts on “Human Behaviour

  1. Dear David.

    Thanks for Human Behaviour. Nicely compact and insightful. I want to take you up on one point concerning volition and intentional behaviour.

    Unless I am mistaken, your position is that these cannot be explained in a conventional way as a matter of cause and effect. That is, they do not have reductionist ‘causes’. Yet surely what we think , feel and intend are a product of experiential influences which we encounter from infancy onwards, acting on an organisational neural substrate which we inherit from our forebears. I have always felt that my reactions and volitions are closely related to my experience of life hitherto. My reaction to things and people, and my decisions as to what I should do, have seemed throughout my life to have been coloured profoundly by my early childhood in that rather deprived Welsh valley—deprived not only materially but socially too. So my clumsiness in negotiating awkward social challenges was dictated by my lack of exposure to them when growing up and hence not learning how to cope with them. All this came home to me vividly when as a raw boyo of 18 from the valleys I went to Trinity College Cambridge to meet up with Old Etonians who seemed to comprise a considerable proportion of the undergraduates there. They were polite in the sense that they behaved as if I wasn’t there, and they lived in a world of assumptions and volitions wildly different from mine. Surely a product of their experience of life hitherto?

    Hence I have the belief that as a thinking volitional human being I am to a considerable extent a product of what I inherited and what I experienced subsequently.

    I sense this view will make you cringe in horror.

    Keep smiling



    1. Thank you, Gethin. Reductionism would say we are determined by our genes and environment. Existentialism would say we can transcend these preconditions but only in certain limited ways. If I am built like a shot putter it is doubtful I shall ever be able to complete a marathon. None of us can fly by flapping our arms. But I may egregiously defy the wicked orders of a fascist state, even if it threatens my future, possibly my life. So, I would say we can transcend our limitations in certain ways which are themselves limited. The excitement of young adulthood is in discovering this capacity.
      “ The things that men inherit come alone
      to true possession by the spirit’s toil.”
      Goethe – Faust Pt 1 Act1 scene1


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