The predictability of humans

September 15, 2020

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The notion that humans are unpredictable is a common refrain. But it's not true. Humans are not unpredictable, so much as they are unpredictably predictable. This is because we fail to take into account one fundamental thing.


The notion that humans are unpredictable is a common refrain. It's a refrain that we know to be as untrue as it is true. Art, literature, and film each paint predictions of what it means to be human—both in the stories we're likely to identify with, as well as in the stories we're likely to respond to. Thousands of years of philosophy—from the writings of Spinoza and Kant to the two line Twitter posts that speak to our experiences—these things point to fundamental truths that are reflected in our own lives. Humans are not unpredictable, so much as they are unpredictably predictable.

Our inability to identify when humans will act as we expect them to act is not usually a reflection of the complexity of the human psyche, but an error in the lens we are using to interpret behaviour. As Clark L. Hull published his foundational ideas on learning theory, he noted:

We should be able not only to predict what rats will do in a maze... but what a man will do under the complex conditions of everyday life.

Clark L. Hull, Psychological Review (42)

A very basic principle of living creatures is that they respond adaptively to the environment. It is not the behaviour of humans that we should be attending to, but the environment humans are responding to. And therein lies the rub.

Unlike many animals, Humans live in an environment that grows exponentially in complexity. Some thousands of years ago, an age of agriculture moved us from nomadic hunter-gatherers to static gatherer-gatherers. Some hundreds of years ago, an age of industrialisation hastened the pace of life and production drastically. Some tens of years ago, an age of digitalisation has moved us in directions uncharted and altered the environment in ways as yet unsummarisable. When the environment is so mutable, we can only expect the adaptations of humans to be similarly volatile.

And yet, there are many ways of understanding human responding that do not change.

The fundamental motivation to act: emotion

Emotions have, both historically and contemporaneously, been viewed as motivations to act. Most recently, emotion research has followed George Mandler's line of reasoning. Humans are composed of a complex web of behavioural routines formed to automatically handle the predictable characteristics of the environment. Interruptions to these routines generate emotions to guide us in our response. To inform us that whatever behavioural routine we were following is no longer appropriate, and needs updating.

Nico Frijda's most recent article, half-finished and published posthumously, takes this perspective to its limit. Frijda has always maintained that emotions are a kind of 'action readiness': states of preparedness to respond to the environment. Off the back of Katherine Peil Kauffman's conception of emotion as a self-regulatory sense, Fridja suggests that emotions are nothing more than the body's attempt to prepare us to act in a way that will regulate ourselves or our environment.

The notion of action is crucial. To quote myself, "Antonio Damasio...discovered early in the 2000's that damage to the amygdala left people unable to make decisions. They could describe the courses of action available to them in a given task. They could even identify which actions were more favourable. But they couldn't pull the trigger. The amygdala is a region crucially involved in the generation of emotions. The idea, according to Damasio's book Descartes' Error, is that decisions require emotions."

And thus, our behaviour is the product of our emotion. And our emotions are simply our body preparing us to respond to an environment that is somehow dysregulated. The question then becomes, what constitutes a regulated environment?

Needs, autopoiesis, and the key to predicting behaviour

All living organisms have something very simple at their core: an autopoietic drive. We won't rehash that article. But at the risk of trivialising the concept, this simply means that organisms seek out states of the world that are positive, and avoid states which might obstruct good states. They seek out the good, and avoid the bad. Indeed, they must—failing to do so judiciously means that they will fail to survive and reproduce and thus will cease to be. It is those good states that constitute a regulated environment, and those bad states that indicate dysregulation.

And so bacteria will wriggle toward nutrients, and away from toxins. Daisies track the sun across the sky, though vines might follow the shade. And as animals become more complex, the possible good states and possible bad states multiply. So too do the actions available to them to seek out or avoid those states. And perhaps most importantly, so too do the systems or impulses they must develop in order to appraise the goodness and badness of those states. In less sophisticated animals, we call these reflexes and instincts. In humans we call these needs.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is not enough

Abraham Maslow is most famous for his hierarchy of needs. A broad grouping of five kinds of needs, each of which we prioritise more than the last:

  1. Physiological needs, like homeostasis, are most important. When our need for food or water isn't met, we will be far less concerned with anything else.
  2. Safety needs are next. Without shelter or security, again we will spend more time addressing this fact than concerning ourselves with anything more abstract.
  3. Relational needs, like belonging and love, hold the next most importance, even before our;
  4. Esteem needs—those of accomplishment or self value. We tend to address these least, prioritising all those that come before, except;
  5. Self-actualization—our need for expression of self, creativity, and fulfilment.

Though we might dip between levels, the priority is important. The homeless person might socialise with others, but they're more likely to spend their time seeking shelter and food. The lonely person might seek success and accomplishment, but they're going to spend far longer trying to build community than valuing themselves.

But of course, Maslow's hierarchy is description at a broad level. Each category can be broken down almost endlessly.

For example one physiological impulse is well-known: homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to the idea that our body needs to remain in equilibrium in order to function. We need a certain amount water in our cells. When there is not enough water, we get thirsty and we drink. We need a certain amount of oxygen in our blood, so when the oxygen level is too low we get breathless and we breathe. We need certain nutrients, so when these get too low we get hungry and we eat. The body keeps itself in balance.

Relationships too can be broken down. We don't simply seek any kind of connection. We seek connection based on our needs for belonging, affection, and control. Our needs for intimacy. Our need for independence and autonomy. Our relationships are also determined by our needs for a secure base—the amount of love and trust we expect of a relationship—and our need for a relational safe haven—how much warmth and comfort we derive from our connections. These are the precepts of attachment theory, well known to influence our behaviour. And these things are crucially dependant on our perception of how lovable we are, how much attention we think we deserve. And so Maslow's needs begin to bleed into one another.

Our esteem needs are also varied, reflected for example in the work we seek out. Consider the Job Characteristics Model, which describes our needs for meaning, responsibility, and impact in our vocations—the drive towards variety, significance, identity, and feedback we require to be satisfied. But, esteem needs go beyond work. We have long known that different people have different temperaments. But these temperaments appear driven by the amount of input we desire from the world across all the activities we engage in, or the amount of input we find threatening. Our extroversion, and neuroticism. Which leads us to the final point.

Not just needs, but threats to our needs

If we return to homeostasis for a moment, we illustrate one of the features of human behaviour that often appears so unpredictable.

Consider thirst. A product of low intra- and extra-cellular water content. And yet, seeing a cold glass of water will still produce the familiar twinge of thirst. Dry air will produce thirst. Dry food will produce thirst. These aren't related to the water content of the body, but an anticipation of the future water content of the body.

Seeing the glass of water produces an impulse to drink, because there's no guarantee of water in the future. Dry food and dry air produces the impulse because you're anticipating that the environment lacks water, and so you become sensitive to the more valuable resource.

These impulses are the product of threats to our water content, and our body will respond in much the same way to a threat of damage as it will to actual damage to the equilibrium of our body.

The same is true of any of our needs, psychological or physical:

  • threat of damage to the body gives rise to physiological needs (like thirst)
  • threat of damage to our concept of self gives rise to psychological needs (like a need for praise or encouragement)
  • threat of damage to our relationships gives rise to relationship needs (like greater intimacy, for example)

And so, now we are behaving in an apparently irrational way—there's no problem, but we are behaving as though there is. Often, from the outside, it appears as though we are acting unpredictably. Often, from the inside, it appears as though we are acting unpredictably. Simply because we might not recognise the nature of the threat.

Humans aren't unpredictably predictable, the environment is

This is the great danger with our obsession with the human psyche. The human animal is, at core, a living creature like any other–responding adaptively to the environment around it. The systems that have evolved within us govern much of this responding, and respond as equally to threats of damage as to damage. Any attempt to understand the human psyche in isolation will therefore only ever tell you half the story and all your attempts at prediction will be cut short.

And so, as we go through the latest evolution in the complexity of our environment—digitalisation—it seems only prudent to shift our focus from the human psyche to this new world we are bent on creating, even as we continue exploring how changes in times past influence us now. It is only by understanding how our lives extend into both these new and old spaces that we can hope to understand ourselves.

The ideas expressed in this article are, in part, the motivation for the series on building a digital architecture for our digital lives

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