Category Archives: Behavioral Science

Actor’s Knowing, West and East

Actor’s knowing has occupied a central place in my writing for the past decade or so, including my current work on “Ultimate Satisfaction” (to be published as a monograph this Spring.) I was inspired by Peter Ossorio’s revolutionary formulation of “the Actor’s world” in his 2006 magnum opus The Behavior of Persons, which includes this electrifying vision:

As an Actor I see the real world as a field of action, as the domain within which I live my life. In it are givens and possibilities, opportunities and non-opportunities, hindrances and facilitations for behavior. In it are reasons for acting one way or another. I am sensitized to behaviors that are available and ways of being that are available. There is no question of who or what I am – I am me. There is no question of my inclinations and proclivities; I do not need to know what they are, although I often do – what is primary is that I have them, and my having them is not something different from being me. In particular, they are not peculiar entities or forces that cause me to do what I do. Ideas come – I do not send for them nor do I receive them as information. Theories come. Visions and inklings of the future come, and their coming is not something different from being me. All of this is embedded in my actions and in the short term and long term structures of action and being that I compose, sometimes ad lib, sometimes without realizing it until later, and sometimes upon casual or serious reflection.” (Ossorio, 2006a, p. 254)

In my paper “At a Glance and Out of Nowhere: How Ordinary People Create the Real World” I wrote the following:

Actor’s knowledge is the immediate, first-hand, before-the-fact knowledge of the author of an action. It is not observation nor inference; it is recognition. I only recognize things that have a place in my world. What I recognize something as is in terms of its place in my on-going structure of behavior, and I may or may not have a thought about it. And of course, what I am capable of recognizing essentially depends on my developed competence.

We know what our behavior is before-the-fact, otherwise we could not do it on purpose. As Actor, we do not know our behavior as the Observer does, by observation; we know it directly, first-hand.

First-hand, direct knowing takes various forms which are quite familiar to us (in both senses of that word.) They include feelings, images, insights, decisions, impulses and, yes, thoughts – the kind of thoughts that seem to pop into our minds, out of nowhere.”

This is a radical departure for Western thought but, as it turns out, it is an ancient and honored way of thinking in Eastern philosophy/psychology. Consider the following by a renowned authority on Kashmir Shaivite and Buddhist thought:

Buddhi is the higher mind, the intuitive aspect of Consciousness, and the seat of discrimination. Through buddhi we know things without knowing how we know them. Insights simply arise from within, manifesting as conscience and intuitive guidance.

“You might read something and say to yourself, That’s true! How do you know that it is true? Because the words sparked the inner buddhi, an inner feeling of rightness, of knowing , of Yes! – because whatever the words alluded to was intuitively obvious.

This is how we know the truth of things – not through words describing opinions or perspectives, but through our own innermost feeling.”    — D. R. Butler, 2013

There is no reason to believe that Ossorio was cognizant of “buddhi” when he wrote The Behavior of Persons; Descriptive Psychology is by no means a Westernized version of Buddhism or any other Eastern school of thought. But “Actor’s knowing” is not something Peter Ossorio just made up; like all of Descriptive Psychology, it is the result of careful observation and thought regarding people and what they do. It is not surprising to find that other people at other times saw and articulated the same thing.


Ultimate Satisfaction in Everyday Life

This is the sixth in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.

So far we have been talking as if a person has one and only one community in which they participate and thus only one world to make sense of.

Ah, if only everyday life were that simple! In fact, each of us participates in multiple communities, each with its own world that makes sense in its own particular way. Usually we switch from one community to another smoothly, without much effort, and we have no trouble keeping track of who we are in which world – that’s part of our core competence as persons and we’re mostly really good at it. Sometimes the shift is incomplete; we find ourselves a bit wrong-footed and have to focus more to make sense of what we’re up to right now. And from time to time we find ourselves in an impossible situation, called upon to participate in two communities simultaneously. This can require a quick and sometimes hard choice – which comes first? Or can you literally live in both worlds at once? Continue reading Ultimate Satisfaction in Everyday Life

More Varieties of Ultimate Satisfaction

This is the fifth in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.

We have seen examples of ultimate satisfaction involving appraisals of “fittingness” from conceptual-aesthetic, natural-aesthetic, artistic-aesthetic and moral perspectives. Notice something interesting here: in each case, the individual whose world is held together by this ultimate satisfaction had a breakthrough or initiation experience in which the world suddenly made sense in this new and fundamental way:

  • Russell’s experience of Euclid’s proof and my own experience of elegance in Cantor’s proof are clear examples of the world suddenly making sense in a new, conceptual-aesthetic way.
  • Recognizing deep unity with nature is frequently the result of a nature-based rite of passage, or a spiritual practice of an ecstatic tradition.
  • Virtually every artist, musician or performer has a story of their first encounter with their art, when they experienced its creativity directly and knew “this is what I’m here to do.”
  • Most spiritual paths have practices of initiation in which the new member of the community experiences what it’s like to be “one of us.”

Note that each of these involves direct encounter with community members who already see the world as this community does, and experience directly how this world makes sense. Ultimate Satisfaction is connected to a specific world, of a particular community – no exceptions.

But many people have no memory of experiencing breakthrough into a new world – and it’s not the sort of thing one is inclined to forget. Continue reading More Varieties of Ultimate Satisfaction

Russell’s World

This is the second in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists. This series requires a more careful reading than most prior posts on this blog; I believe the work you put into it will be well-rewarded.

The world makes sense, and so do people. They make sense now.

— Peter G. Ossorio, The Behavior of Persons, p. 2

The child Bertrand Russell lived in a world that did not make sense to him. His was not a mild puzzlement or a small discontent; he was in the grip of a profound, terrifying existential dilemma. His world made no sense, and he had no real place in it.

Russell’s early life was nightmarish. His parents died when he was young, but their deaths and the scandalous circumstances surrounding them were kept from him. He was sent to live with his Grandparents. He began to bond with his Grandfather, who also died unexpectedly, leaving Bertie in the care of his angry, hyper-religious Grandmother with her myriad rigid rules based on the view that man is inherently evil and must be constrained. Her world made no sense to him but it was all he knew.

All this changed when a tutor introduced Bertie to geometry. Working through one of Euclid’s theorems, he saw in a flash of insight that it was true of logical necessity – and in that moment his world changed. He saw that one could know reality with total certainty, through logical proof. This world made sense and it had a place for him, which he proceeded to act from with increasing brilliance and fervor. The “delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly” was the ultimate satisfaction that held Russell’s world together until the fatal day he encountered the Paradox that blew his world apart. Continue reading Russell’s World

Aftermath Part II: Living in a Radically Changed World

Remember when radical change was a rare phenomenon? When you could go for years, even decades, without something happening to make you realize the world you are living in is radically different than you thought it was? Whatever else has happened, the pace of finding ourselves required to reexamine our worlds has radically accelerated – and there’s no reason to believe it will slow down anytime soon.

The Boston bombings are fresh on all our minds – too fresh to be useful as examples. I do not intend to offer suggestions for what help looks like for the Boston victims (my friend and fellow Descriptive Psychologist Wynn Schwartz was on the scene and has offered considerable insight into what people have gone through in his blog); nor will I try here to understand why the bombings occurred (I posted an extensive paper on such matters last year called “When Worlds Collide”.) Instead I want to return to where the previous post left off: granted that our world has radically changed, what can we do in the aftermath? Continue reading Aftermath Part II: Living in a Radically Changed World

Aftermath: Living in a Radically Changed World

Peter Ossorio put it succinctly and exactly: “A person takes the world to be as he has found it to be.”

But sometimes, suddenly and without warning, we find the world to be radically different than we had previously found it. Something happens that had been  unthinkable to us – the events in Newtown, an economic collapse that wipes out our hard-earned wealth, the events of 9/11 – and we find ourselves living in an unknown world. What now? What do we do when the unthinkable becomes possible, or even real? Continue reading Aftermath: Living in a Radically Changed World

What Actually Happened in Newtown

The events in Newtown are well established by now: 20 young children shot to death, seven adults murdered, the shooter dead by his own hand. A young man struggling and failing to find his place in life; rapid fire weapons at hand in his home; he shot his mother and then went to the school to find and kill children. These are the bare facts.

But the bare facts explain nothing. We ask, Why? What are we to make of this inexplicable horror: Was it a manifestation of pure evil, as some say, or the tragic result of untreated mental illness? How could this happen? Who is to blame, and how can we prevent it from happening again? These are important questions with many answers, few of them essentially satisfying.

But one thing we can be certain of: what actually happened in Newtown is, our  world changed. And it will not soon be changing back. Continue reading What Actually Happened in Newtown

The Timber is Dry. Watch Out for Sparks.

In January I posted an analysis of panic, contagion and mass market movements in which I suggested that what actually happens in these is a shift from an outcome being “theoretically possible” to being “actually possible” needing only a precipitating event to make it real and therefore widespread. I asked then: “Has major Western government default become actually possible in the market’s eyes– or are we still just flirting with a theoretical possibility?”

It is now without a doubt “actually possible”. That warning sign is flashing red. Here’s one example of many: “Fifteen months ago when we started looking at this, we said it was unthinkable,” said Heiner Leisten, a partner with the Boston Consulting Group in Cologne, Germany, who heads up its global insurance practice. “It’s not impossible or unthinkable now.” (NY Times, 9/2/2012). He was speaking of Greece being forced to leave the Euro zone, but he may as well have been speaking, as many are today, of sovereign nation default.

Be clear: I am not referring just to the truly terrifying structural linkages by which, say, default by Greece would inevitably take down numerous European banks and probably a few other countries. These are “hard-wired” into the system and only require occurrence of the initial unthinkable event to set them off (and many, including the European banking system and BCG’s clients, have been scrambling to disconnect linkages and shore up defenses against such collapse – perhaps to some good effect.) I am suggesting that a mass market movement in response to these events is now virtually certain.

I have no inside information about when or whether Greece or anyone else may default. As a citizen I sincerely hope we dodge this particular bullet. But make no mistake: the unthinkable is now not only thinkable. It is rapidly on the way to being seen as inevitable.

It might be wise to invest accordingly.

Panic, Contagion and Mass Market Movements

Sixteen years ago I wrote down the above title on my “Work in Process” list, thought about it for a few minutes, and put it at the bottom priority. Granted, it was a complex and poorly understood topic for which I intended to offer a new  formulation – but it was hardly a burning issue. To find familiar examples I would have had to reach back to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, or the post-war hyper-inflationary periods in Germany and Hungary – historical curiosities that had no perceivable relevance to our world in 1996. Common wisdom and expert opinion agreed: We were beyond all that.

But here we are in 2012 and all that has changed. We have seen the unthinkable occur, again and again: a major investment bank going bankrupt, housing prices plunging across the board and staying down, a global near financial meltdown, people actually paying serious attention to Nassim Taleb – and now we face the  imminent possibility of default on sovereign debt by major European nations, and perhaps even the collapse of the Euro.

The topic now seems, if anything, too timely. Every second article in the financial press seems to be about when the next break in the global economy will come, how far it will spread and how rapidly. Rest assured, this is not yet another Chicken Little post. The economic sky may in fact fall, but that’s for others to predict.

What I’m interested in here is: What actually happens with individual investors that results in panic, contagion and mass market movements, and how can we spot it before it comes crashing down around us? Continue reading Panic, Contagion and Mass Market Movements

Take the Cash and Let the Credit Go

Behavioral science research reminds me of the fabled Rocky Mountain oil shale deposits: Both are reservoirs of tremendous potential value, locked up in a framework that makes tapping that potential next to impossible.

Solving the oil shale problem seems to require better and stronger technology; solving the behavioral science research problem requires better and stronger conceptualization. Fortunately, that conceptualization is available and well-developed, in the powerful conceptual net called Descriptive Psychology. What is called for now is a thorough reconsideration of behavioral science research, to create a fresh understanding of what has been discovered that unlocks the value in the findings.

Let me be clear: since at least the 1970’s an enormous body of sound empirical research has been accomplished in behavioral science, including, among many other domains, behavioral economics, social psychology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I take these findings as given. It is not my intention to question the findings; rather I intend to question the explanations researchers have given of their findings, and to offer other, more plausible and considerably more powerful explanations in their place.

As Omar Khayyam said in a different context, I intend to “Take the cash, and let the credit go.”

Here’s a specific example: Continue reading Take the Cash and Let the Credit Go