You are here: Home / Users / Ramsay MacMullen / Why Do We Do What We Do?
Social Media Buttons fb twitter twitter twitter
  • Metadata

    • Document type
      Presentation (monograph)
      Author (Presentation)
      • MacMullen, Ramsay
      Language (Presentation)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • MacMullen, Ramsay
      Why Do We Do What We Do?
      Motivation in History and the Social Sciences
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      De Gruyter Open
      Number of pages
      Subject classification
      Auxiliary sciences of history
      Time classification
      20th century
      Regional classification
      Subject headings
      Decision-making as process
      Integration of historical and social science findings
      Cognitive and affective input
  • Citation rules

  • Terms of licence

    • This text is subject to the creative-commons-licence Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC-BY-NC-ND), which means that it may under these conditions be used electronically, distributed, printed, and provided for download. Here you can read the licence’s text:
  • Links

Ramsay MacMullen: Why Do We Do What We Do? Motivation in History and the Social Sciences (presented by Ramsay MacMullen)

Show table of contents

1. Psychology and Individuals
2. Anthropology and Small Populations
3. Reason and Decision-making
4. Culture as Cause
5. Conclusions

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Motivation in History and the Social Sciences

The wide embrace of the question "Why do we do what we do?" must explain why inquiry turns up no other book-length treatment of it. Psychology, anthropology, sociology, behavioral economics, history itself, all have a lot to say about the mental moment that leads from stimulus to action, but each discipline stays within its own the bounds, addressing its own community. To scout around among them all, noting what ideas seem to hold up across these boundaries, is the point of this book.

Predictably, the answer discovered isn't neat. In logic perhaps it ought to be. After all, the choice that leads to action can only be Yes or No, appetitive-aversive, digital. But as human reflexes come into play, there is an initial interval of a split second, for example, on hearing the shout of "Fire", or longer, of as much as ten seconds, for more complicated situations. In that interval one's entire acculturation may come into play – before one is aware of thinking about one's choices at all. With conscious thought thereafter, of course the process may stretch out much longer.

For an individual, the process is likely to be complicated in proportion to its consequences, that is, considerations. These, as has long been clear, are principally resolved in the affective regions of the brain, so that "thinking" is in fact "feeling", in auto-description; and we say a decision "just feels right". Certain pre-literate peoples have a word to be translated "thought-feeling". Teaching what's right and wrong in conduct is wrapped in emotions at the earliest moments of childhood, associated with people close in, and subsequently reinforced by wider social experience. The child thus replicates the group, taught and reminded by affect. In memory, items of experience are, so to speak, color-coded for retrieval. All this is in plain contrast to what is called cognition, which operates more simply at an instrumental level, not motivational.

A decision that justifies study must have weight and consequence. In a group as in an individual, it must touch the lives of many persons, each with his or her priorities. The many particulars involved, a mass of raw data, must be formed into a general statement, an understanding, by disregarding differences and rounding off. Investigators must count by tens, approximating; otherwise, it's all chaos.

Consequence, however, can only be measured as results across time, beyond "now", increasing the complications; and "here" also may be too confining a point of study if conclusions are to take in human nature as a whole, treated theoretically; for they must include at least some variety of cultures where values determining choice will naturally differ. Even ideas of what is "reasonable" differ.

Such loosely outlined thoughts as these, regarding the book's object of study, will naturally be contested. Something of the problems of methods may serve to suggest the difficulties.

First, about the idea of "science" itself, whether social or natural or any other: It aims at what can be quantified, the best kind of knowledge, for "That is the good of counting," as Dr. Samuel Johnson said. "It brings everything to a certainty which before floated in the mind indefinitely."

Regarding motivation, can we not determine an individual's personality from the study of his character traits, and then predict what he or she will do from the operation of one or more of those traits in action? Walter Mischel tested behavior to find out, and thanks to the most refined mathematics was able to demonstrate that prediction must fall below any acceptable level of significance; from which it was necessary to conclude that personality study in toto was untenable. A decade later, with a considerably greater data base supporting his conclusions, Seymour Epstein was able to raise personality theory from its grave, showing incidentally that his argument had been anticipated decades earlier in a neglected publication. Yet he qualified his conclusions: research is only capable of "predicting most of the people much of the time".

There are many other ways to show, from methods applied in the social sciences, how little susceptible to quantification human behavioral patterns must remain. That does not prevent prediction in everyday use, nor in the most solemn and formal way, also: for a procedure to determine "why we do what we do" is quite familiar at least in Anglophone populations, namely, through jury trials. A narrative of action and its underlying motivation, constituting the charge, will be presented to a small group of ordinary individuals, and interpretation will be argued so as to shape the narrative toward one or another interpretation. Appeal will be had be to what is "reasonable", defined (quite circularly!) as what a reasonable person would do or think; and the jury's consensus will be counted as truth "beyond a reasonable doubt". In miniature, exactly this process is involved in the determination of what will be called "knowledge" in historical research publications and conferences. It is little different in the social sciences, too, where, if Epstein is right, truth still unquantifiable is the best that is humanly possible.

But from what was said above, about "thought-feeling", a last point may be made: in any form of prediction, as in any form of courtroom analysis, one's imagination must come into play, and with it, emotions recalled from one's own experience. The process needs no description; it is simply empathy, and long established in social science -- at least since Clifford Geertz asked a full forty years ago, "What happens to Verstehen when Einfühlung disappears?" Without empathy there cannot be understanding.

In all that long period of more recent research and discussion focused on the question of this book, "Why do we do what we do?", Geertz' question makes more and more sense, pointing to better ways of thinking about motivation.