I hoped that giving up my international teaching job in Hong Kong and moving to a little tropical island would give me more space to write, I thought that this change would actually make me “a writer”. 7 months later I find that I have written less than I did when I was a busy teacher. What went wrong ?
Seduction by silky chocolate love.
My belief that I would be miraculously transformed into a writer by moving to a tropical island paradise was the seduction of silky chocolate love. This is a deviously powerful seduction, quietly creeping up on us whilst we’re trying to get on with the apparently important stuff of the rational world. For example, as a teacher I would be sat in a curriculum planning meeting, and my frontal cortex would be focussed on the riveting prospects of fitting learning competencies into a progressive rubric. However, during the meeting my hindbrain, without my conscious knowledge, would be succumbing to the seduction of silky chocolate love. On my way home from work I would find myself in the supermarket buying a large size bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, and a bottle of Chilean Merlot in place of a balanced evening meal. The seduction of silky chocolate love is:
a) Seduction: it’s against my conscious wishes. I wanted to be a sensible grown up choosing my 5/day, instead my cerebellum has been lured to direct me towards chocolate and wine.
b) Silky Chocolate: it feels good, it makes me feel happy, warm, safe & secure. It’s naughty, but we like naughty, we like the sense of freedom and autonomy we get from naughty acts.
Silky Chocolate Love is an important psychological process driving much of our behaviour, and therefore it needs some serious psychological terminology befitting of it’s import. Let’s call it CHORE Behaviours.
CHORE behaviours, or “tendencies” are found in many aspects of human behaviour, if we want to understand irrational behaviour, and unhappiness, we need to understand CHORE. Examples of CHORE from everyday life:
a) I eavesdropped on some backpackers discussing their behaviour at a party, one girl was regaling her friends about how crazy & ecstatic she gets when she’s “properly drunk”.
b) My friend replaces his car with a nearly new model every 2 years, he also upgrades his phone every time a new model comes out, he also has a surround sound home cinema system.
c) The Daily Mire of Dieting Delusions. The constant obsession with dieting, and the way in which the media portrays that “A New Body = A New You”.
c) A teacher thought that he could give up work, move to a tropical island, and this would make him a writer (what a fool !).
By envisaging the new me in a brighter future of Som Tam and Singha I was tempted by CHORE tendencies. CHORE not only seduced me, but it actually caused me to act. I think that it’s influencing much of the behaviour of all of us.
Essentially, CHORE is displacing our dissatisfaction onto our situation, or explaining our unhappiness on our current circumstances. Logically, we think that if we change our circumstances we will become happier. Of course our circumstances could include situation, consumption of goods, or relationships with people.
Much psychological research on body image disorders shows that the disorder arises not from a perceptual defect but from a “cognitive-evaluation dissatisfaction” (Skrzypek et al 2001). People experienced unhappiness with their own body image, and this could be attributed to a whole range of factors. I very much suspect that CHORE is one of the main factors.
It could just be possible that, just like people with body-image disorders, we often experience life-image disorders. We attribute our unhappiness to situation, and experience relative dissatisfaction. A sort of “everyone else’s life is better than mine, I deserve to be happier than this” internal dialogue. The next step is the palliative situational attribution: “it’s not my fault it’s the fault of my girlfriend/football team/poverty/job/body/weather/Bieber etc”.
Put simply: our expectations can make us unhappy.
These expectations are often based on social comparison, or at least exacerbated by social comparison. It sounds something like this “Everyone else appears to be having a great time, in their wonderfully loving relationships, enjoying their beautiful bodies. It’s just me whose life is relatively crap, and that’s not my fault, so I’m going to console myself with some Silky Chocolate Love.”
Advertisers & marketing people know all about CHORE and social comparison, and they use it to sell us stuff we don’t need – but this only exacerbates our dissatisfaction. So, they produce an advert telling me that I’ll be happier if I buy the latest shiny thing, I buy it and don’t feel as happy as I expected to. My unrealised expectations drive me back to the mall next weekend to try to buy some more of that happiness of the people with shiny stuff.
But we know this, right ? We know that buying stuff doesn’t make us happy, I’m just stating the obvious, yep. You’d never be stupid enough to fall for the consumption con would you ? No, neither would I, and pigs may fly.
As we’re now all meta-consumers of both knowledge, and shiny things, psychology gets re-packaged into a self affirming stories of individualist reassurance by a cognisant media. These stories say: “look, everyone else is stupid, but not you, you’ve seen through the media cons”. Therefore, at the start of the recession we started to get stories such as:
the general gist being that happiness is not realised through consumption of material goods, and now that people consume less they are happier. When we look at research (e.g. Diener & Biswas Diener 2007) we find some interesting interactions between well-being, security and happiness. Key to most findings is that money does improve well-being when the frame is global (acknowledge obvious problems of cross-cultural psychology). Further, in Abundant Scenarios there seems to be a positive correlation between income and happiness. So, we have apparently contradictory research findings when looking at attribution of well-being.
Let’s pick out some issues with this situation:
1. There are a huge range of values in any individual’s happiness. Research has shown that gender, ethnicity, age and location are also linked to well being. Correlations only show associative strength of relationships, and multi-variate analysis in this area is highly complicated.
2. Motivation and aspiration seems to be related to both well-being and happiness (Emmons 1996). It may be the pursuit, and achievement of goals which makes us happy.
3. Social Comparison and relative affluence have consistently been shown to influence our well-being(e.g. Easterlin 1974). Comparison of wealth with others around us, or with our own previous income levels, affects our happiness and well-being (there’s a clear link to CHORE).
Whilst the idea of increased consumption leading to increased happiness is a seductive one it may not actually have the effects on well-being that are so commonly peddled by advertising and marketers. The perceived relative disadvantages caused by social comparison and expectation leads us into an insatiable spiral of constantly wanting more. This thirst can never be sated.
Internal attributions and well being.
I posit that well-being is not closely linked to consumption, but is actually closely linked to our internal attributions. Put simply – it is not what I have but how I explain what I have which makes me feel happy or sad.
Which brings us back to CHORE (which actually stands for Causal History of Reason (Malle 2011)) – Professor Bertram Malle argues that conventional attribution theory does not take sufficient account of people’s intentions in influencing behaviour. Intentional behaviour is defined as intentional:
1. the action must be based on a desire for an outcome.
2. beliefs about the action’s relationship with this outcome.
3. a resulting intention to perform the action
4. skill and awareness when actually performing it (Malle & Knobe, 1997)
The important thing is here that people make a distinction between intentional and unintentional behaviour when explaining actions. Now, this is where the ‘magic’ of Prof Malle’s psychology comes in. He has discovered that not only do we look at the reasons (intentions) for people’s actions when explaining their behaviour, but we also look at the background causes for those reasons. These background causes could include:
Historical antecedents leading up to the decision to act.
The social and moral context within which the decision to act was made.
Wider motivations & perceptual schema.
Beliefs and Desires.
By using CHORE we move away from the conventional constraints of situation-disposition, and subjectivity-objectivity frameworks in understanding of people’s behaviours. As such my movement to an island in order to become a writer wasn’t the actions of a delusional idiot swayed by his environment but actually had a set of underlying causal reasons which led to that movement decision being made.
Seduction 3: It’s not me, it’s not you, it’s just causal.
In conclusion – can we blame our situation on our need to consume ?, and does consumption increase our happiness ? Well, when we start to apply The Causal History of Reason framework I think we can start to uncover some new(ish) understandings in this are:
1. Our perception of our situation is not only contextualised and comparative but is also influenced by a wider set of motivations and aspirations.
2. As such, the situational aspects of attribution could be understood as an intentional component of causal reasoning (breaking down that old situation-disposition dichotomy).
3. Our decision to consume goes beyond emotional affective outcomes, it is actually underpinned by a chain of causality (of which we are usually unaware) consisting of historical antecedents and beliefs.
4. If marketers spent more time / energy building these long term causal reasoning links they could sell us more useless stuff we don’t need. I
5. If clinical psychologists / therapists had more funding / time to research these causal reasoning links they could further contribute to the development well-being for all.
and, it’s that last point which is the really important one.