Pithy aphorisms and media shrinks

“Where do I get my ideas,” is probably the most common question I get asked. I have no idea how to answer it. To be honest, I don’t usually set out to write about a topic. I simply go about my business of living a normal life. I talk to people, I see things, I hear things, I observe myself and others, and every once in a while, I say to myself, “Hey, that would make a great column.”

While there is an ever-increasing science base to what psychologists do, the profession is still more art than science. Most of the situations and circumstances people find themselves in are unique. For this reason, it is difficult to know what is best. Those of my ilk who are in the business of dispensing advice only have a small amount of scientific knowledge to back up their opinions. Instead we must rely on the ability to think about a problem in a certain way.

This implies that our job is not so much to provide recommendations as it is to help people make their own informed decisions. To make an informed decision we must be aware of all the factors that influence us as well as all the assumptions we make. Science does not always provide the answers, but scientific thought is the best way to get closest to the truth.

The problem one faces when discussing human nature is that it leads to a tendency to write pithy aphorisms. While there many brilliant and astute aphorisms, very few are practical…or practiced. This is why I prefer to look for the germ behind the aphorism by examining the assumptions people make in various situations or by questioning seemingly simple behaviours. These often form the bases of far more important social issues. For example, in the way we cheer for our sports teams (our guys are fighters with grit and heart, their guys are dirty cheaters!), especially when national flags and colours are represented, we can easily trace the lines of social and political unrest.

So why do I torture myself writing the Métro column and this blog? Because I want to live in a world where people think more scientifically – more critically. I will do whatever I can to make a small contribution toward this goal. I want to live in a world where charlatans don’t take advantage of the ignorant. I want to live in a world where we stop making sweeping generalizations about groups of people. Most of all, I want to live in a world where people who think they know everything realize how little they know. This simple realization can open our eyes to a far deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We will always be closer to the truth when we realize how far we are from it.

Here is the 100th column written for Métro.

One column, 100 parts

(Source: Une chronique, 100 tranches. Journal Métro, January 26, 2010)

My first column for Journal Métro was entitled Parts of Lives. I called it that because my job as a psychologist gives me the opportunity to experience small parts of the lives of all the people I work with. It is a richness that I cherish. Seeing life through many pairs of eyes provides a far broader perspective than seeing it only through one’s own. The perspective gained from living these parts of lives has guided me in these bi-weekly examinations of our nature from as many angles as possible. This has led me to alternately examine both the beauty and the ugliness of human nature, as well as the range of aspects in between. This is now my 100th column.

One reality, multiple realities

I must confess I am not a big fan of media shrinks despite being somewhat of one myself. What I particularly dislike about people who write about human nature, or who dispense advice to the general public, is that precious little of it applies to everyone. In an effort to inform about human nature or mental illnesses, we are forced to make generalizations. Yet generalizing about human nature also violates a very basic principle of psychology – every individual is unique. We each carry a mix of temperamental disposition and life experiences that define who we are and how we react.

The nature of the beast

This makes it impossible to dispense any reasonable advice, or to draw any reasonable conclusions, without considering each individual and each situation in all their complexity. What conclusions, for example, can one draw from great human tragedies such as the Haitian earthquake? The inspiring generosity of aid workers risking their lives to rescue victims in a devastated country is juxtaposed against reports of scam artists trying to profit from the misfortune of others by setting up bogus charities.

Major events such as this one beg the question of whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad. The obvious, and troubling, answer is that it is both. An exploration of good can hardly be done without also considering evil.

Reflections on the banal

The examination of the banal can sometimes teach a great deal about the profound. It may not be so hard to see why a person would act in a certain way in an earthquake-ravaged country when we examine how he or she would act in day-to-day circumstances such as when a seat becomes available on the bus.

This is why these columns will pursue their meandering path along lines that may not always be obvious. I will continue to reflect on our behaviours and our assumptions in an effort to make us think and, more importantly, to question our perceived realities. If this happens, then I suppose the efforts on the part of both the writer and the readers will have been worthwhile.

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Posted in Human nature, Random thoughts.

Posted on 01 Feb 2010

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One comment to Pithy aphorisms and media shrinks

  1. Marie-Gabrielle
    On Mar 4th 2010 at 16:12

    C’est grâce à des gens comme toi que ce monde dont tu parles peut exister. Ton engagement m’inspire et doit certainement en inspirer beaucoup d’autres. Merci. merci.