Psychology vs. Philosophy

>> Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A decade or so ago, I worked with one of the worst female engineers I've ever worked with. Now, normally, when I talk about an engineer or a physicist or a whatever, the gender is immaterial and I don't mention it. In this engineer's case (we'll call her MAC), her "femaleness" was her defining characteristic. She was the living caricature of what people think a female engineer might be. Criticize her however mildly, she burst into tears and had to take the rest of the day off (no matter how valid the criticism). If there was a difference of opinion between her and our superlative electrical designer, she "had" to win because she was the engineer. She redesigned working designs because men had designed them. She was also one of the most unhappy people I have ever met in my life.

Her rampant sexism isn't really the point, though, it's just necessary to explain why she said what she said to me. She told me that, when I was 40, I'd be bitter, too, that I'd have realized, when I stopped being young and beautiful, that men were all in it together to make sure we never amounted to much. I know, see the source. But at the time, it occurred to me that, even if she were right, I wouldn't want to think like she did. She was bitter, defensive and miserable and incapable, not only of doing a good job (she sucked as an engineer), but of acknowledging her own failings. I don't think the last two traits were unrelated.

I am now 41, about to be 42 and my opinion hasn't changed.

I read an editorial today describing the difference between philosophy (that says people have inherent character traits and are inherently this or that) and psychology that says we're all a mish-mash of everything, none of which are really immutable or, indeed, predictable. In the latter, people aren't generous or honest or patient. They just have moments where they might be. The latter is presumed to be more realistic.

Geez, I hope not. But, even if it's true, I'm choosing not to believe it.

I want to believe people can be noble and inherently honest, even if it's not visible on the outside, that there are people with the kind of decency running through them that nothing can really corrupt, as opposed to people just responding to stimuli based on environment and genetics. period. I want to believe people can overcome their environments and believe in things bigger than themselves. I want to be one of those people.

I've spoken on related topics before, wanting to believe. They mentioned in the editorial that fictional characters did, indeed, generally follow the philosophy model and, sure enough, my characters do. There's darkness and tragedy and hardship in my books, but, in some ways, I make characters the way I want them to be and make the endings they way I want them to be. And I don't apologize for it.

When many thought the boy was in the balloon, a hoax was the last thing I thought of, and I was happy as hell the kid was never up there, getting exposed to cold and buffeting and at danger. I refused to assume the worst and, even though it looks like it was a hoax, I'm not going to feel bad about it. I want to believe in people and, as horrible as it is that someone used their children for a really really stupid publicity stunt, I'm actually relieved the kid never really was at risk.

Why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, do I want to believe people are good (mostly), that romance exists, that people can be more than the sum of their parts, that true nobility is out there. I don't want to assume the worst or make broad characterizations or expect to be hoaxed or lied to or cheated.

Because I'm happier this way. I know bad things happen and I take precautions and all the rest. My critical faculty works fine when there is something to lose. But, when there's not, I give the benefit of the doubt because I want to believe that people are good, that life is worth living. The alternate, to me, is bitterness and disillusionment.

You want to know what's amazing? I've been right about people, assuming the best, far more often than when I've assumed the worst. Go figure.


  • Jeff King

    I am about in the middle. I believe the worst in most people but i am willing to give a person a chance to prove themselves before i right them off.

    Plus i do not believe in second chances... unless it is something very minor.

  • Boris Legradic

    Happiness through wilful self-deception - I like it :)
    Joking aside, there have been studies that show that depressive people have, on average, a more realistic world view: wikipedia has a nice summary. Which is, of course, quite depressing when you think about it (The thing with the worldview, not wikipedia).

    That being said, I also subscribe to your strategy of thinking the best of people (to a point, and until proven wrong) - better getting burnt now and then than being paranoid and suspicious all the time!

  • The Mother

    I don't know what David Brook's credentials are, but he left out a third important school of thought on the issue--evolutionary biology/psychology.

    Humans have morality. It's inbred in us. We have altruistic tendencies--also inbred.

    Society instills morality, but people chose to live in that society, and so agree to behave morally. WHY?

    Probably a little thing called a MEME, which is an actual gene-like sucker floating around in the human race that programs thought patterns. Things like, "when you're little, you believe everything an adult tells you." Kids with the genes tend to have a survival advantage, because they aren't the ones who have to experiment with danger. Mom says, "don't go out and play on the railroad tracks--it's dangerous." Kids who listen are safe. Kids who don't feel compelled to experiment, and many probably get flattened by trains.

    An exaggeration, but you get the point.

    Memes are currently thought to be responsible for everything from religious fervor to societal morality.

    Dawkins is big on the whole Meme idea.

    I think we have a candidate for preprogramming, so feel free to put your rose colored glasses back on. I tend to wear mine--it's just easier that way.

    And Boris--it could easily be the other way around.

  • Stephanie B

    The meme thing was new to me, The Mother. Your example made me wonder, though. My daughter would follow directions as long as she understood WHY anything was dangerous. My son, forget it. But, it also begs the question, when it comes to making breakthroughs, moving forward, finding new ways to do something, wouldn't the second type of child (assuming they survived childhood) have the edge?

    Boris, I think you're saying what I'm thinking.

  • Stephanie B

    By the way, The Mother, I didn't know about the Meme notion, but I appreciate something that helps justify my beliefs.

  • Quadmama

    I'm always amazed when deception comes in to play. I don't think I'm necessarily a naive person, but I like to believe people and see the best in them.

  • The Mother

    Stephanie, you know as well as I do that survival advantages that protect our genes have NOTHING to do with intellect and innovation. It's all about surviving long enough to reproduce.

    It turns out, if you want to explore the idea, that the current theory of genius involves brain abnormalities, which force the young genius's brain to rewire in new and interesting ways.

    (and most of those folks who have true genius are not exactly the guys at the top of the mating gene pool, if you know what I mean. Hence the old joke about the Nobelist and the dumb blonde...)

  • Margo

    It's amazing to me how long I continue to see the best in people. But over time I think I've gotten much better at discerning which people to look for the best in. I think many women have deep down self esteem issues. They believe they are challenging patriarchal ideas, but really aren't at all.(yeah, this was once me) Most never face them and instead stay or become bitter, angry, competitive.

Post a Comment


Blog Makeover by LadyJava Creations