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On Social Learning and Consistency

‘How could a normal, sane person do something like that?’ is arguably one of the most frequent questions we are prone to ask ourselves and others in the face of actions people take which appear to violate the core values to which most of us adhere: lying in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, taking actions which harm the vulnerable, including their own close ones, or pursuing an agenda which is obviously damaging to themselves as well as others. The most common response to the question is that some people are plainly irrational, or that all people, under, certain conditions, succumb to acting irrationally.

One of the problems with this last interpretation is that we may ascribe to someone the propensity to act out of one’s ordinary (supposedly ‘rational’) manner for a limited time, on the spur of a moment, but some people are capable of pursuing whole policies which can take months or years, doggedly inflicting harm on innocent others and on themselves, despite the better advice which they receive from friends or family members. In psychotherapy, such behavior sometimes leads to the ascription of various diagnoses, including those of personality disorders, especially when one’s choices and decisions inflict sizable and lasting pain or damage on those one would not normally want to hurt (one’s children, family members or friends). However, the diagnoses are often of little help to us when we wish to understand and change a person’s behavior, because destructive action is not necessarily a result of pathology; it is more often an outcome of a set of psychological and social circumstances and mechanisms triggered by such circumstances which take their course regardless of any ‘treatment’ the person may receive.

The first mechanism at work here is usually that of social learning. We are all prone to making decisions, in situations of uncertainty as to what exactly we should do, by looking, tacitly, to what the others are choosing to do. This is especially the case in emotionally laden, crisis situations. If we are unhappy with our lives as they are, or undergo a period of self-examination with regard to a relationship, and during that time we meet a person who appears similar to us (same sex, similar age, someone we can identify with) who gives us advice to ‘change our tact radically’ and start acting aggressively, many people will succumb to the advice. At first they may do so hesitantly, but as time goes by, once they make an important decision (file a lawsuit, for example), they will receive additional support by the person who has caused this decision and will be pressured into reinterpreting many of the ensuing events as a desired ‘change’ in their lives. For example, they may interpret the alienation from partners or family members not as what it really is, but as ‘a sign of taking control’; they may interpret the damage and pain inflicted on others as ˜empowerment’, and even the loss of their own quality of life as ‘facing reality and paying the price of change’. Once such destructive actions are rationalized, sometimes the ‘social proof’ disappears: the consequences become so drastic and so obviously immoral or harmful, or both, that the person meets with disapproval from the immediate social circle. However, that is when the second mechanism takes over: the mechanism of maintaining self-respect at any cost by a pursuit of ‘consistency’.

By the time a person’s actions have caused her to lose social supports, largely isolate herself, and become alienated from the most valuable relationships in her life, her self-respect is threatened in a major way: she fells that she can no longer revert to more constructive behavior because this would invalidate her as a person; she must remain consistent and prove that she was correct by consistency alone. This, then, leads to taking more destructive and ultimately unsustainable actions: cutting communications with important others, dissolving relationships, lying, filing false criminal charges: actions which, now, carry an even greater social stigma and potential for disapproval. The person is caught in the vicious cycle of self-validation which, like all processes which arise from mistaken premises, inevitably leads to collapse in the end: the longer the person pursues this agenda, and the greater the zeal with which she does so, the more likely it is that the person will ultimately ‘de-compensate’ and suffer a psychotic episode. This episode may be obvious (developing a mental illness with serious dissociation from reality) or less so (attempting a suicide or self-harm, harming others physically, developing a major depressive episode, etc.).

The desire to act consistently is so deeply ingrained in our way of thinking about ourselves and our self-worth that it often leads individuals to inflict incredible damage on their own and the lives of their close ones, a damage they would never have considered possible at an earlier point in their lives. This is why Polish-American philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once wrote an essay entitled: ‘In Defense of Inconsistency’, where he pointed it out that a healthy, morally well integrated person is often inconsistent because she occasionally checks her own views and decisions against reality and adjusts the course accordingly; self-checks, however, require a good social environment, reliable friends with adequate values, or proper advice and care delivered through counseling. These are the tools which prevent us from ‘flying off’ into psychosis once we do something less than exemplary. It is the community, family, friends and counselors that bring us back from the edge, and that is why the company one keeps is so crucial to one’s mental health and well-being.

So how does philosophical counseling proceed in the described situations? It is both simple and straightforward: it seeks to show the person that her self-respect is better served by humility and self-examination than by sheer consistency; many evil-doers are consistent, but only a few have been able to examine themselves and change to good-doers. The philosophical counselor will explore with the client alternative values to that of consistency: values such as respect for others, obedience of elders, a sense of inner peace which often arises from cutting off one’s raging will and passions in tempting situations, or the welfare of family members regardless of what or how we might feel about ourselves at a particular point in time. The counselor will relate some of his or her own experiences, human weaknesses and defeats.

George Orwell is well known for his ingenious futuristic novels, but is less well known as the humble and wise man who once wrote: ‘The life of every person, when observed from the inside, is a series of defeats’. Accepting this fact may be emancipatory and empowering at the same time: the fact that we are all defeated so much of the time, visibly or invisibly, serves as a remainder that our grand self-delusion that we ought to be ‘consistent’ in order to have adequate ‘self-worth’ is borderline psychotic in itself.

Consistency is only a limited, superficial policy which we need to adhere to for a short time only, when our attention and resources are too committed elsewhere for us to be able to ‘look out the window’ and check the reality of our lives. It has nothing whatever to do with self-worth and is in fact one of the greatest dangers to our navigating our course when we are churned up on the inside and when suffering prevents us from assessing the circumstances accurately.

It is in this regard that counseling is a tool for everyday life which helps replace the more ‘organic’ ways of checking against reality: talking with family members and friends, consulting a community authority (a priest, a doctor, an elder), meditating, or praying. In the hustle and bustle of everyday existence in large cities, with their often exhausting tenor and pace, counseling is a link to self-correction; a lighthouse in dark, heavy seas; a tool which, to ignore, means to risk drowning in the modern urban life.

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