I, Robot: Psychological Error

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It amuses me to imagine what would happen if an individual were to apply this view of human nature to themselves directly. Suppose a man walked into a psychiatrist’s office claiming that he had no responsibility for either his actions or thoughts, that he was simply the victim of whatever his neurological and genetic make-up dictated. If he asserted that his feelings and acts were simply the product of biological forces over which he had absolutely no control, wouldn’t he be viewed by the psychiatrist as suffering from depersonalization at a level approaching insanity? Imagine this defense in a court of law: “I can’t be held responsible for holding up that liquor store. My genes, my unconscious, my negative childhood environment, my reinforcement contingencies, and my neurophysiology did it, not me! Do a PET scan on my brain is you want to know what’s responsible for my bad behavior.”

Albeit a sign of serious mental illness to think of oneself as no more than a complex biochemical entity, psychology and psychiatry continue to view human beings as though we were a chemistry set to be manipulated by pharmaceutical concoctions. It wouldn’t be so bad if we just took the pills we’re offered, but we’re also led to to reject thinking through what might be going on in our minds, let alone buried in our unconscious.

All is in the name of “science.” The notion of “empirical evidence,” narrowly and statistically defined in terms of clearly measurable quantitative values, has been broadly promoted as the only alternative to dark superstition and ignorance.
It isn’t coincidental that the conclusion that human beings should shed their hubris in thinking we are more than biological machines serves the purposes of those who make the little pills that we spend billions of dollars on every year. It serves even larger purposes of those who benefit by keeping the rest of us in our place. If we are no more than complex protoplasmic automatons, then what does it matter what we think or what we feel? The more we are passive accepters of the status quo, the easier it is to control us, to limit us.

The end result is that our ability to think psychologically, that is to say, to understand how we become the people we are and, even more importantly, how we can change, becomes less and less available to most people in our society. It becomes increasingly easy to assume that patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior are “hard-wired” into us and can be altered only by the right pharmaceutical prescription.

But people do change, for better or for worse. Cold and self-centered adults may rise to the occasion and become caring parents. People with violent, criminal histories may act with courage and integrity in subsequent situations. Sadly, the inverse also occurs: positive, “exemplary” citizens may deteriorate into angry, destructive monsters. Neither history nor biology need be destiny. Humans are biological organisms, psychodynamic beings, genetic products, yes, but we are also living, feeling, thinking, choosing beings. In each moment defining who we are, who we want to be, creating ourselves. It is psychology’s task to understand this aspect of human nature and to help people generally to grasp the nature of our personal struggles and our potential to achieve greater levels of creativity, meaning, and intimacy in our lives.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning