Tag Archives: psychology

Do we tend to use the wrong theory of mind?

I was recently asked to give an interview to a psychologist. I asked her if she would like to send the questions in advance. No, she said, she wanted to get my immediate response. The implication was that the immediate response would be unsullied by a mental filter to produce socially more acceptable answers. It seemed she wanted the ‘true’ opinions.

Now I am not a professional psychologist, and so I have no right to comment on the working of the mind. But, hey, this is a blog. The point is this: I have a problem with this idea that there is a ‘real’ me and that a clever trick, like using silence to force me to say something or demanding an immediate response, can somehow tap in to the real Richard. All this supposes that there is a real Richard – lurking there inside. If so, I haven’t found him at 62 years. My suspicion is that this real Richard is a fiction – a myth. We spend our lives trying to find ourselves but we never do. The oracle of old said “first know yourself”. All that tells me is that this myth that our personalities are monolithic is a very enduring one, going back to the origin of civilisation. So, the next time you tell someone who is going for an interview to “just be yourself” you would be better advised to think of something else to say because we are strangers to ourselves. As admitted earlier, I’m not a professional psychologist, but the works of psychology are written down – and I know that there’s a wealth of evidence to support the idea that the mind is a not stable entity.

However, I would like to go further – much further – than this. In my view, by thinking hard, reading, learning and experiencing life – essentially by examining life – one can create a mental identity. This inverts the usual logic. Instead of finding out about oneself – trying to know oneself – one has to create oneself. In a sense, and within reason, one can choose the person that one wants to be. No, I’m not saying that you can turn yourself from introvert to extrovert. However, you certainly can select the values that drive you through your life, the philosophy which guides your actions, the priorities which you assign and the model to which you aspire.

I read of a very interesting experiment recently, which relates to moral choices and how much time a respondent is given to think about them.1 Consistent with the above idea, the more time the respondent is given to mull over the issue, the more altruistic is their response. I was manoeuvring out of the car park one icy dark night last winter, when my fender scratched the car parked next to me. My first instinct was to drive off as quickly as I could, as it was a dark night and nobody had seen the incident. It was only by re-examining my actions, and testing them against my values set, that I was driven to do the right thing, and leave my telephone number and address for the car’s owner. Of course, I’m not trying to pretend that I’m a saint, and that I’ve never done anything disreputable. However, what I do try to do is to face up to my turpitude and admit to myself that I made the wrong turn. All the above might sound pretty anodyne – I think many, perhaps even the majority, of philosophers and psychologists would agree at least with the broad thrust of the argument. However, we tend act and speak as though the mind were a stable entity ignoring its ephemeral properties. One good example is the ad hominem fallacy in argument. Again and again, I find people trying to demolish an argument by discrediting the proposer of that argument. In one famous example, people have tried to discredit Albert Gore’s environmental crusade on the grounds that he is a profligate user of energy and producer of carbon dioxide, by virtue of travel in his private jet. It does not take much to see that violation of a principle might discredit the violator but leaves the principle itself unsullied. As in all things, evil lies not in the impulse but in acting on it. In fact, if I understand the theory of cognitive dissonance correctly, then the more one schools one’s mind in a certain way of thinking, the more natural and ingrained the resulting behaviours become.

Well this blog is starting to sound a little bit like a sermon, but it does have connotations for the world of research. I’ve argued elsewhere2 that qualitative researchers should be very careful about literal interpretations of what people say to them. There’s a tendency among some qualitative researchers, to reify people’s descriptions of their lived experiences. There’s a body of psychological research which strongly suggests that some (not all) answers that respondents give are unstable, tailored to the particular circumstances under which they were elicited, and do not represent any type of stable or consistent position.In my opinion, the phenomenological traditions in qualitative research are too literal in their interpretation of qualitative data. In fact, my colleague John Paley pointed out to me in conversation a certain irony concerning phenomenological researchers who often follow a constructivist philosophical paradigm. Such people have trouble accepting that there’s a real outside world, which can be at least partially understood by following the scientific methods, while regarding accounts of people’s ‘lived experience’ as unproblematic. I hold the opposite view; there is a reality out there which science can help us understand, but we should be very careful when we interpret what people say to researchers. In fact, we should be careful about what we say to ourselves – in John Paley’s words “we are strangers to ourselves.”


01. The Economist. Time to be honest. http://www.economist.com/node/21551447 (accessed 14 December 2012)

02. Paley J, Lilford R. Qualitative methods: an alternative view. BMJ. 2011;342:d424.