Living with ambiguity

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University Psychology By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Psychology » University Psychology
Last updated: 18/01/2008
Tags: anecdotes and stories, university psychology


I am a psychologist working in a university in London UK. I have spent the best part of 10 years now researching the fundamental question of what causes people to behave the way they do. Why does one person react to a situation one way and another person reacts completely differently? While psychology is deeply interested in these questions the answers offered by more than 100 years of academic psychology are perhaps less exciting than one might imagine. The media portrays psychologists as all knowing sources of infinite wisdom with almost magical powers to see into the very depths of the human soul, but the reality is far from this. The majority of academics would probably be happy to acknowledge that whilst great strides have been made in the discipline of psychology fundamentally we still do not know why any person does what they do on a day to basis.

What are the reasons for this? The reasons are simply that the “causes” of any act are highly over-determined. Thus, any act is caused by multiple interacting factors such as ones personality, ones previous experience, genetics, current mood, one’s intentions, and the presence of others. Therefore perhaps the most honest appraisal of our current knowledge is that why we do what we do remains a mystery.

If that were the whole story this would be a very short article, but of course it isn’t the whole story. As humans we seem to have an inbuilt need to believe in certainties or at least to expect a high degree of certainty. The product of this need is a life where one acts to reduce uncertainty and increase the number of dependables. This serves many functions but one of the most important is the reduction of fear that comes from believing one has certainties. Yet one can see the paradox involved in this. One lives as if certainties exist all around whilst at some level being aware that they do not. At times when life throws a curve ball one is forced to re-evaluate. Common examples include the discovery of a terminal illness in a close family member or oneself or the death of a close friend or relative. These experiences temporarily destroy the certainties we have built upon.

Whatever the options are though, our need for certainty seems to be deeply ingrained, as it were saturating us to our core. Yet when one comes to appreciate the beauty of ambiguity, of mystery one also comes to be able to accept things that happen in life as less painful. Life is not necessarily rational yet our drive for explanation, control and certainty tries to impose a rational framework on something that may largely be inherently irrational. One of my favourite examples of this is the thoughts that occur to us when we have just been rejected by a potential date. Picture the scenario, you enter a quiet bar and take a seat in a spot from where you can see everyone, you sip your drink and moments later notice a beautiful woman not meters away glancing your way. After some serious self-talk and self esteem boosting you finally work up the courage to talk to her. You ask if she would mind if you join her. She does not mind and you both start an interesting conversation. You loose track of time and before you know it you have chatted for 30 minutes, you offer to get another drink but she declines saying she must go soon. Somewhat taken aback you make your move and ask if she would like to meet up for another drink some other time. Again she politely declines collecting her things and says it was nice talking to you and leaves saying maybe see you around.

Now you are really in the moment of mystery or ambiguity if you prefer. As humans after such an interaction the need to explain what went on (or more usually what went wrong from your perspective) is painfully tangible. Thoughts such as why didn’t she want to go for a drink may be uppermost in ones mind and often the answer we formulate is “because she found me unattractive” or “because I don’t speak very well” or “its my accent”. But lets step back a moment and review what is the “real” reason she declined. The real reason is that we will never know, even were we to ask her she would probably be flustered and give a false reply, and of course you are assuming she knows the reason she said no, which might not be the case. So we are faced with a paradox, which of the millions of possible explanations for her decline do we accept. Perhaps she is married, maybe she has just broken up with a long-term partner and can’t face another relationship, maybe she is shy and really wanted to say yes but freaked out at the last minute. The “real” reasons will never be known but by being willing to be open to the ambiguous nature of life we instantly feel better. It’s possibly nothing to do with you, but it’s interesting that very often our instant reactions are that it is.



















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