A fraction of our behaviors are governed by patterns that, upon closer examination, reveal significant steps in personal development. This article is intended for those who wish to introspect and recognize their patterns as part of the necessary step to grow and prevent becoming an oppressor.
In common use, to believe oneself free is to deny the existence of the causes that explain one’s behavior. To say “I was free to go by the left or by the right” actually means “I don’t know the reasons that make me take one path rather than another”, the reasons exist, we just don’t know them1. This is the principle of causality.
Those who believe they are free tend to believe that others are free for the same reasons. Believing that others act freely is then equivalent to denying the existence of causes in their actions. To say “this person is free to become an engineer or an artist” actually means “I don’t know why this person is in this career rather than another”.
Denying the existence of causes is not an isolated problem and Etienne Klein illustrates this very well through a funny anecdote (video in French):
The other day […], I was giving a lecture at Central [Grande École in France] on relativity and I was doing the same calculation of Einstein’s 1905 calculation in which they show that the duration of a phenomenon depends on the speed of the observer in relation to this phenomenon […]. At the end of the demonstration a pupil asks to speak and says to everyone “Sir, I do not agree with Einstein”. I was happy, I had a student who had a critical mind, I ask him to argue. I was expecting him to talk about Poincaré who restores the luminiferous aether… in short, to argue. That he would argue from arguments that come from physics and the guy says “Sir I don’t believe the dilation of time because I don’t feel it”. In other words, this young man who was accepted in Centrale, thought that his feeling, his subjectivity, had a power great enough to be able to discredit what a century of objectification has made it possible to establish. - Etienne Klein
In our case, it is not about physical phenomena but about human behavior. People denying (consciously or not) the deterministic character on which our behavior depends, oppose the theories that are more than a century old, such as the social determinism of Emile Durkeim for example. This attitude, in addition to being obsolete, is dangerous.
Omitting the reasons for human behavior leads to difficult situations that are encountered in many different contexts:
- A bad parent gets angry at its child without trying to understand the reasons for its child’s misbehavior. In fact, the child felt lonely throughout dinner and wanted to get someone’s attention.
- A bad manager blames an employee without trying to find the reasons for the delay. In fact, what was asked for in the first place didn’t make much sense when looking at it more closely and a redesign was required, making the delivery as late as necessary.
- A bad engineer denigrates the misuse of a system by a user without ever trying to meet the person. In fact, no user input control was implemented, leaving the system capable of harming itself.
Getting rid of the need to understand others generates a lot of frustration, especially if it involves a hierarchical relationship. If at the level of a team, “first accountability and then blame” is disastrous, imagine at the level of a nation.
Moreover, the frequency of torture is always a sign of faith or laziness in the Government. There is no evil that cannot be made good for something. Jean-Jacques Rousseau — Du contrat social (1762)
So where does this trend come from? There are many reasons. Etienne Klein explains it by laziness and narcissism: “I find that this relativism, when it is too strong, is a perfect legitimization of intellectual laziness, that you can judge what is going on in Nature from your subjectivity alone, sometimes even from your narcissism alone. It relieves you of having to learn a couple of things about quantum mechanics, particle physics or the Higgs boson”.
Confirmation bias or conflict of interest stem also that tendency. This is why, a manager of a team prefers to believe that another team is intrinsically incompetent rather than investing some of my resources in training them.
Last example: who would boast of not being free? It is even the first term of the French national motto “liberty, equality, fraternity”.
Although these reasons can be explained, they are no less dangerous. So what can be done?
Recognize that freedom is limited. Don’t see this as a fatality; on the contrary, it is the essential point for growing up. Consider this as a constraint of the system you are designing, which hidden, cannot help to find the appropriate solution.
Once acknowledged, areas for improvement will come naturally. Some disciplines such as UX design have understood this early on. A designer will adjust the interface if many users interact in unexpected ways. User behaviors prevail over the designer’s wishes or predictions. Thanks to the trends in human behavior that UX has been able to establish principles, evaluate them, refine them, etc.
Are we free? Should we fight for our freedom? This article does not pretend to answer these questions. On the other hand, a fraction of our behaviors seem to be governed by patterns that, if we take the time to look into them, reveal actionable steps for personal development. Denying these patterns and neglecting the need to understand them is a lost opportunity to improve and may turn into oppression.
Assuming our behavior as the result of an unpredictable phenomenon is firstly a sign of narcissism, but above all a denial of the ability to introspect, to recognize our patterns, to understand ourselves, in other words, to grow. Expanding that idea to others is dangerous. Considering the behavior of others as absolutely unforeseeable is first naive toward the social sciences, but it is above all to rid ourselves of the responsibility to understand, to empathize, in fact to free the other. So acknowledge you live in a cage before planning to escape.