Why people do the things they do, for better or for worse

This post has been bubbling under the surface for a while, but it’s been hard to figure out how to really put it into words. However, a reader recently contacted me about a shame she had been holding in, and though I may not have been able to complete my thoughts on this, I think that it is important that I get this out. This is a post about why people make the moral choices they do. This is an explanation as to why people do some very good things, and why people decide to do some very horrific things. Originally, this was meant to try to get people to look inwards at their own actions, words, and choices, But now I am hoping it can also help people to let go of the shame that they may be taking on.

To ask the reason for an action is deceptive. The assumption is that there is thought process involved, that the reason involves reason. We like to believe that we use a sophisticated logic to carefully control the decisions we make. But the truth is the contrary: we make decisions based on emotion, not logic. This emotional decision making was uncovered in the research of Antoine Bechara and Jonathan Haidt. Bechara’s research on individuals with a specific brain damage that inhibited emotional expression showed that without emotion, even the most basic decisions were also inhibited. Haidt’s work showed that people make moral decisions first and then add logical explanations afterwards. According to Haidt, certain actions are encouraged by the “moral elation” done by the decision, and inhibited by a “moral disgust” against the decision. The decisions we make are dependent on the emotional weight we give them, not the logical weight. A decision is encouraged if there is an emotional reward, and discouraged by the emotional revulsion. Logic can play a part, but only in that logic can change the meaning that trains emotion. Ultimately the decisions are emotional. The reasons people report are developed as an afterthought.

But what does that really mean?

When a person decides to do something, the decision is based on their anticipated emotional response to the act. An act is not caused by a reason, but rather the person acts according to how they think they will feel after the act. Two people can face the same screaming child, for instance, and have totally different responses. People can slap the child, not slap the child, or beat the child viciously.  The option they choose depends on their emotional reaction to the concept of hitting a child. A person who feels a sense of wrongness, disgust, or revulsion to the idea of hitting a child will do anything they can to not hit the child because they know they will feel horrible after striking the child. A person without this disgust will be more likely to hit the child to get the response of quiet they want because they will not anticipate feeling bad about hitting the child. But a person who feels a sense of reward over exercising power through abuse will not only be more likely to hit the child, but will look for reasons to hit the child because they anticipate feeling powerful and “good” after striking the child. So when it comes to whether or not a particular person will hit a child, it has less to do with the actual screaming of the child, and more to do with the person’s feelings about the action of hitting the child. The person may talk about styles of discipline, but the prime motivation behind the action is that emotional response. Similarly, two people can see the same child with a spilled ice cream cone and decide to either buy the child a new ice cream or keep walking. The person who stops and buys the child a new ice cream cone either anticipates an empathic reward for the generosity or a sense of revulsion of leaving the child in that state of suffering. The person who keeps walking lacks that sense of revulsion for allowing the suffering to continue and does not share that same anticipated reward for helping. Again, any explanation give for the choice is an add-on.

This principle of decision making is extremely important when seeking to understand sexual assault motivation and where the blame needs to be placed. A person rapes another person because the rapist lacks the emotional disgust associated with the act of rape, and gets an emotional reward from the act of the rape. It does not matter what a girl was wearing or how much she had to drink, because a non-rapist would feel revulsion towards the act of having sex with the woman without consent, and the rapist will not only lack that same disgust, but will feel as sense of reward from it. The decision to rape lies not in the circumstance or the victim, but in how the person feels about the action of the rape. A woman could be passed out, naked, and spread eagle, and where one man could have the overwhelming urge to violate the woman, another man would have the overwhelming urge to cover her up and make sure she stays safe. And when a person has no revulsion to the act, but gets a reward from the sense of power, they will seek out a victim to rape based off that anticipated reward. The only victim characteristic that plays a factor is availability. If the one victim were not present, another one would be sought out.

For the readers who are taking on the shame for their abusers, I am hoping that this explains why no fault lies with you. Your abuser was primed to abuse someone before you came along. They just happened to find you first. It was not about your clothes, your body, what you were drinking, what you said, etc. It was about the abuser’s own feelings about the actual behavior that constituted abuse. Had you been dressing or acting the same way around a decent person for whom the idea of such an abusive behavior was abhorrent, you would have been left alone, and had you not been there, the abuser would have found someone else.

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11 thoughts on “Why people do the things they do, for better or for worse

  1. Lydia

    I found out more recently that there were other women raped by the same man as me. When I learned of this I immediately felt so sad. I was crushed for two reasons. I could have possibly prevented this from happening to another person. The second is very humiliating. You see, he told me I was special. All my life no one ever noticed me, but him as much as I am disgusted by him, he gave me attention. I worry Now that no one will ever want to be with me. I have done repulsive things with this man. I know I had no choice. But they have happened, to me, to my body and now I’m left broken.

    • One of the reasons I work so hard to address sexual violence on this blog is that I know the sickening truths about how our society treats sexual assault. One of the truths is that because of the all of the biases against victims in our society, there is no guarantee that you could have saved the next victim. And ultimately, the sole responsibility for the rape of those other victims lies in the rapist.
      As for the no one ever wanting to be with you, you are more than any act a person has committed against you. Your value lies in how you treat others, not how others treat you. There are many very successful and very much loved individuals who were victims of sexual assault. Here is a list of celebrities, both male and female who are survivors http://www.ranker.com/list/famous-rape-victims/celebrity-lists
      notice the names on the list, they all have thousands of people who love and adore them. Beyond that, I know many sexual assault survivors personally, and most of them have found people who have promised to love them for the rest of their lives. The acts of your abuser do not have to define you.

      • Lydia

        May I ask, do you know about these vivid memories and pain, real pain that I am having over something that is not happening now. It is becoming unbearable.

      • There are a number of evidence based treatments that have been empirically shown to be effective in the treatment of trauma symtoms like flashbacks. The two that I am most familiar with are Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy. Every state has a psychological association (just google your state’s name and the term “psychologocal association”) and they should have links to help you find local therapists who have been trained in either of those therapies or anyone who are trained in other forms of trauma therapy. You can also call your insurance company and ask them if they have any in-network therapists how are trained in either of those therapies or other trauma therapies..
        In the short term, the work that needs to be done focuses around finding ways to remind yourself that you are no longer in those dangerous situations. This is not going to stop the flashbacks, but can help you get through them easier as you do the more intensive therapy. There are a lot of different ways that people have done this. Some people focused their attention on things in the immediate environment to remind themselves that they are not actually back in the memory the flashback is invoking. Other people have picked up new objects to remind themselves that they cannot be back in the time when the memory occurred because they did not have that item then. These are things to explore and monitor with your personal therapist. Just avoid anything that causes you personal harm, and avoid any non-prescription drugs or alcohol when you are looking for ways to make to deal with the flashbacks, as those options will harm you more than the flashback in the long run.

      • I would also suggest that you see a medical doctor about the physical pain. The pain could be the visceral memory of the trauma, but it could also be an actual physical injury or infection, and you always want to have any physical/medical causes for a problem investigated and/or ruled our before you commit to a psychological cause, just in case.
        It is not uncommon for people to re-experience the physical aspects of a trauma as part of the flashbacks. Normal memories first sit in the short term memory, are processed and assimilated into your personal story, have the extraneous information removed, and then are placed into long term memory storage. Trauma upsets this process, and traumatic memories are perpetually in the short term memory areas of the brain. This is why they feel like they are happening now, because the brain only recognizes short term memories as bing in the now, and only get recognized as being in the past when they are put into long term storage. Because they have not been properly processed, the memories are overloaded with information, including the physical sensation of the event, so a person will often experience many of the physical sensations they did during the actual traumatic event. The trauma therapies that work do so because they finish this process of processing and storing the memory. After successful therapy, you will still have the memories of the event, but those memories will be recognized as being in the past, and they will lose that visceral sensory component and exist as a memory of a bad event.

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  3. Lydia

    In your opinion does successful therapy mean going through each memory again to re-process them? There are so many. And I feel so overwhelmed by this. But on the other hand, I’m reliving these memories daily any way when they come as flashbacks. I feel so scared all the time. I am in constant fear.

    • In the evidence based therapies I have mentioned before, such as Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy, they have found that when you can process the one most distressing of the memories (using these therapies with the supervision of the trained therapist), most of the other memories simultaneously get processed as well. So you won’t have to re-process each individual memory. The process is intensive, but it has been shown to be effective.
      I would also point out that the trauma therapy generally follows this structure: 1) establishment of safety, 2) stabilize symptoms, 3) develop coping skills, 4) trauma processing. When you can identify and connect to therapist trained in trauma, he or she will not push you towards facing any memory if you are not in a space to do so safely. The whole process can seem very intimidating, but a competent therapist won’t put you into an unsafe situation.

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  5. S

    I’ve been keeping this secret. Bad things happened in my past. I have urges to hurt others. I remember shoving a girl in grade school. She cried and got hurt. I felt powerful and then very afraid. I’m afraid to tell my therapist. I’m afraid of becoming an abuser too. When I hear kids crying I just want to shake them and scream in their face to stop it.

    • Talk to your therapist about this.
      The fact that you are seeing this as a problem means that you are not a bad person. You just need some support and a more developed set of skills. This is where your therapist can help you, but he/she won’t know what you need unless you tell him/her what you are struggling with.

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