Chapter 4 - What You Do, And What It Means

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14 Apr 2012
Chapter 4: Choices & Actions The Self in Control
What You Do and What It Means
Skinnerian behaviourism: an approach that emphasized learning from reward and punishment as the main cause of
behaviour and that dominated psychology in the 1950s and 1960s
o Failed to provide a satisfactory account of human behaviour, precisely because of its failure to deal with
Human behaviour often guided by ideas, which is to say that it depends on meaning
Culture: network of meaning, and human beings who live in culture act based on meaning; that is what makes them
different from other animals
Meaning: depends on language and is therefore learned only through culture
Thinking: enables people to make use of meaning
o Basic uses of thought: perform actions mentally before doing them physically
o Just imagining a good outcome isn‟t as effective as imagining yourself doing all the hard work to produce the
Making choices
o Two steps of choosing
1) Whittling the full range of choices down to a limited few done quickly
Risk: potentially good choice will be rejected without careful consideration
2) Careful comparison of the highlighted option
Mental cost-benefit analysis for each option
People often less than fully rational, and their decisions are subject to biases, errors, and
other influences
o Error management theory: the idea that both men and women seek to minimize the most costly type of
error, but that men‟s and women‟s goals, and hence worst errors, differ
o Influences on choice
Major patters that guide people’s choices:
1) Risk aversion: people more affected by possible losses than by possible gains
o Rational bets: ones that conform to what expert statistical risk appraisal would
o People were often rational, but when irrational, their irrational behaviour geared
toward avoiding losses more often than pursuing gains
2) Temporal discounting: greater weight give into the present over the future
3) Certainty effect: greater weight given to definite outcomes than to probabilities
o People tend to put undue weight on things that are certain
4) Keeping options open: some people prefer to postpone hard decisions and keep options
open as long as possible
Why people don’t choose
o Status quo bias: the preference to keep things the way they are rather than change
o Omission bias: the tendency to take whatever course of action doesn‟t require you to do anything (default
o Anticipated regret: people avoid making choices and taking action they fear they will regret later
People anticipate less regret over doing nothing than over doing something
Greater risk of regret if you decide to change than if you stand pat
o Some decisions become too difficult
Too many options people don‟t choose anything!
Other researchers say opposite too few options, people don‟t choose anything!
o 2 reasons for failing to make a selection from a group of options:
1) None of the options seems good enough
More and more options, it is less and less plausible that none is good enough
2) Hard to tell which one is best
o Reactance
Reactance theory: the idea that people are distressed by loss of freedom or options and seek to
reclaim or reassert them
Reactance = negative feelings people have when their freedom is reduced
3 main consequences:
1) Makes you want the forbidden option more and/or makes it seem more attractive
2) May make you take steps to try and reclaim the lost option
o “reasserting your freedom”
3) May feel or act aggressively toward the person who has restricted your freedom
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Choice and change
o Entity theorists: those who believe that traits are fixed, stable things (entities) and thus people should not be
expected to change
Do things they are good at
Dislike criticism or bad feedback
Choose easiest tasks
Learned helplessness: belief that one‟s actions will not bring about desired outcomes, leading one
to give up and quit trying
Interpret others’ behaviours: reflecting their traits
o Incremental theorists: those who believe that traits are subject to change and improvement
Enjoy learning and challenges because they expect to improve
Choose the toughest tasks
Interpret others’ behaviours: caused by temporary states and external factors
Freedom of Action
Disbelieving in free will causes people to become more aggressive and less helpful towards others
Belief in free will: helps cultural animals act in more pro-social ways, thereby helping the social system function
More or less free
o Although absolute freedom is debatable, relative freedom is important feature of social behaviour
o Greater freedom = greater behavioural flexibility, controlled processes, and self-regulation
o Inner processes serve interpersonal events complex demands of living in human society call for an
elaborate inner system for making decisions
o Humans rely on meaning to make their choices, and meaning generally offers multiple ways of understanding
and deciding (based on abstract rules, moral and ethical principles, laws, plans, contracts, agreements, and
the like)
Free action comes from inside
o Self-determination theory: the theory that people need to feel at least some degree of autonomy and
internal motivation
o People who act on the belief they are acting autonomously and from intrinsic motivation:
Derive more satisfaction
More interested in and excited about what they are doing
Have greater confidence
Often perform better
Persist longer
Show greater creativity
Less prone to fall victim to passivity, alienation, and mental illness
Having an out vs. no escape
o Panic button effect: a reduction in stress or suffering due to a belief that one has the option of escaping or
controlling the situation, even if one doesn‟t exercise it
o Even the false belief that one can exert control over events makes them more bearable
o At a broader level, many people believe in free will, and that belief could stem in part from the panic button
Believing you have free will means you think you have some control over your life, which reduces
Goals, Plans, Intentions
“A goal without a plan is just a wish”
Ideas and meanings are centrally important to human action
o Meaning connects things; thus, an action is meaningful to the extent that it is connected to other things or
Goal: idea of some desired future state
o Meaningful link between values and action
o A goal tells you how to pursue and uphold your values
o Can also be personal projects of strivings
o Average goal list = 15 things
Animal goals: involve the immediate situation and an outcome that is already almost visible
Human being goals: pursue goals that may be weeks, years, even decades away
Setting and pursuing goals
o Inner processes and cultural factors
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