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You Need To Be A Mind Reader To Explain Human Behavior

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You Need To Be A Mind Reader To Explain Human Behavior

Why trying to understand the motives behind human behavior is well nigh impossible

In my more than 25 years of writing an advice column I regularly get asked several different versions of “When a woman does Y, what does that mean?” or “My husband did X.  What did he mean by that?”

There seems to be an underlying notion that there is a definitive handbook on human behavior,  perhaps passed out to everyone  in high school on a day you happened to be absent from class.  Therefore, everyone else knows something about people and their motives about which you have no clue.  That’s the only assumption I can make about why a person might think a stranger or even the consensus of a group of strangers might have an understanding of the actions of someone he or she knows very well but I don’t know at all.

Human beings are strange.  They do things for the strangest reasons.  Often, they have no idea themselves why they do things.  They just did it, acted on impulse.  If you ask someone why he did it, he will often make up some plausible reason on the spot – plausible to himself and/or to you.  Now you have your reason, but you need to know that there is no deep, well-planned thought behind it. They probably just made it up because they were asked.

I have a mentor who began training me in communication skills back in the 70’s.  One of his many pithy pieces of wisdom is “Why is a lie”.  What that means is exactly what I said in the previous paragraph.  Whatever anyone tells you about the reasons for their behavior was probably just made up on the spot, often to make the speaker look good.  “Why did you do that?”  “I have no idea” makes someone come across a dim bulb, to say the least.

If you want to know why someone behaves they way they do, says what they said, or is the way they usually are, the only possible person to explain why that is would be that person him or herself.   He’s the one to ask, or she is.  Not your friends.  Certainly not a stranger. But now you know that once you have an answer, even one that even kind of makes sense to you, you still may not know much that you didn’t know before you asked!  You’re probably better off coming up with a hypothesis of your own and then testing it out.  An in-home science project with your nearest and dearest. It will certainly liven things up between you.

My own preference about attributing motives to people’s behaviors, since I am unlikely to ever know the truth for certain, is to make up an explanation that feels good to me and decide to believe it without question.  “Why is that person over there giggling and looking at me?”  It could be because I’m ugly and my mother dresses me funny.  Is that a thought likely to make me feel good?  Even if I asked the giggler and my guess about the cause of merriment was spot on, is that person likely to tell me so to my face?  Not likely. So I can decide that the cause of such mirth is utter delight at seeing someone as lovely as I.  That’s not any more likely, of course, but I can amuse myself with the possibility (which can become a certainty the longer I entertain it). That person may be, and probably is, totally unaware of my existence, but I now can walk away with a smile on my face too.

What does he mean by that? Sheesh, I don’t know, but isn’t the power of positive thinking grand?

[Isadora Alman]

Isadora Alman, M.F.T., is a California licensed marriage and relationship therapist, a Board-certified sexologist, author and lecturer. Her syndicated sex and relationship column "Ask Isadora" ran in alternative weekly papers worldwide for 25+ years. Web surfers can find her columns on her online free interactive Sexuality Forum (link is external). She is the author of two collections of Q & A's from columns: Let's Talk Sex and Ask Isadora, as well as Sex Information, May I Help You?, a peek behind the scenes of a sex help phone line which still flourishes in San Francisco today. Doing It: Real People Having Really Good Sex is a collection of helpful hints and titillating tidbits culled from column readers and Forum web site users. Her novel Bluebirds of Impossible Paradises: A Sexual Odyssey of the 70's is out in paperback on She has also contributed chapters to several books including Herotica (Down There Press), Dick For A Day (Villard NY), The Moment Of Truth (Seal Press) and Single Woman Of A Certain Age (Inner Ocean Publishing, Inc.) Isadora has been a talk show host and frequent TV and radio talk show guest, and a lecturer and workshop leader on a variety of communications topics. She conducts her private psychotherapy practice in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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