People Don't Make Sense

I read David Brooks regularly in the New York Times.  I don't entirely share his political persuasion, but he is one of the most intelligent, perceptive and articulate writers that I read on a regular basis.  His editorial for Friday, January 15, is one of the best summaries of something that I, as a licensed academic, have felt for a long time: people don't make sense.  (Do yourself a favour and read the article.)

One of the things we talk about right at the beginning of the "Communication Theory in Everyday Life" class I teach is that theory is something we all want and need.  The fact is that life is full of all kinds of data and stimuli and we need theory to make it all make sense.  So when we see a mother snuggling a baby or a teen eating fast food or the red brake lights in front of us flash, we typically want some kind of explanation that helps account for what those things mean and why they're happening.  In the first two cases, it's probably not crucial that we figure stuff out in a pragmatic sense, but in the last one, it could be life and death.  We need to know that flashing brake lights means the car in front of us is slowing down.  Even when we don't need to know, we probably still want to--most of us, I think, are uncomfortable with most of our existence being incoherent.

So when we try to explain what is happening in culture, in society, in government, in economics (which is ostensibly what Mr. Brooks' article is about) we theorize.  For example, capitalism assumes that free, well-informed individuals act in a way that will bring them the most profit--profit being defined to a certain extent by the individual (e.g. it may be less financially efficient to have a family, but worth a great deal to the bottom line of many individuals).  We theorize that people vote for the person they think would be the best politician for the job.  TV producers make what they do because they know it will make them money.

These theories have consequences.  We hit our brake pedal because of our theory about the red lights.  Governments invest money or change legislation on the basis of theories about the economy.  Producers justify crappy shows by pointing to ratings.  To be honest, engaging theories to guide actions is impossible to avoid.

Thing is--and this is what Brooks writes about--a lot of our theories are wrong.  Sometimes this is because we have a lack of crucial information: we think the person in front of us is slowing down for a legitimate reason when in fact they may be a drunk driver.  But the thing I appreciated about Brooks' article is that he pointed to a really crucial problem with our theories: we like them to be simple.  Simple theories are easy to learn and easy to engage.  It's also easy to persuade others of their validity (as theories).  And it's easy to make them rallying points in a fight.  But the more time I spend in scholarship and just observing human nature and behaviour, the more I'm convinced that simple theories need to be held loosely and treated with great care.  They may contain some truth, but a partial truth can be misleading. 

As Brooks argues, the current economic crisis has revealed that the traditional capitalist faith in the rational economic individual does not explain all economic actions.  And speaking as a media scholar, I can assure you that while TV companies try to make money with their productions, the above theory of media production is a vast oversimplification.  In our public conversations, we prefer to create the picture of a world that works in an orderly way, when any careful examination (and even not-so-careful examinations) of human behaviour reveals a swirling maelstrom of complexity.  Why did individuals and banks invest the way they did over the last 10 years?  For a millions reasons: some of them obvious, some of them hidden, some of them conscious and some operating at an inarticulate level, some of them rational, some emotional.

This is not a call to ditch theory.  As I noted, that would be impossible.  In fact, I'm not even calling for all theory to be highly complicated and only concerned with specific situations rather than thinking about large-scale, general patterns (this is an argument that pops up a lot in certain academic circles).  Rather, it's a call to recognize its inherent limitations.  Clearly, many people in many situations do act to try to maximize their financial gains.  Maybe this is even true most of the time.  But we had best be prepared to realize there's more going on than that.  And so we'd best be prepared for the times when our existing theories don't work.  The current economic crisis is one of those times, I'd say.

People don't make sense.  But imagine how dull Creation would be if they did.

Last updated Jan. 18th, 2009 at 11:23pm by Kevin Schut