Monday, November 10, 2008

Is there a positive intention behind every behaviour?

I hope that by the time I finish writing this piece I will have made up my mind whether I think there is a positive intention behind every behaviour. I can accept that the ultimate end of human action is nearly always the satisfaction of some desire of the acting person, but it seems to me that lurking behind some behaviours – for example, some self-destructive behaviours – there is probably a physiological problem of some kind rather than a positive intention.

Before going further I should acknowledge that the intention of NLP practitioners in suggesting that there is a positive intention behind every behaviour is to get people to “try on” this proposition to see whether it is a helpful way of thinking and perceiving. If a person can find a positive intention behind some unwanted behaviour (e.g. a phobia or an addiction) this might set them free to resolve the problem that they are experiencing.

Robert Dilts argues that the proposition that there is a positive intention behind every behaviour is an epistemological presupposition (here). What he means by this is that it has an epistemological status like that of the fundamental concepts of Euclidian geometry – it can’t be proved or disproved. He demonstrates that it is an implication of two fundamental epistemological presuppositions: “the map is not the territory” (human perceptions of reality are not reality); and “life and mind are systemic processes” (they are based on self-organizing principles and naturally seek optimal states of balance or homeostasis. These presuppositions imply that:
“People make the best choices available to them given the possibilities and capabilities that they perceive to be accessible within their model of the world. Any behavior no matter how evil, crazy or bizarre it seems is the best choice available to that person at that point in time” (here).

I have no problem in accepting Dilts’ interpretation of the idea that there is “a positive intention behind every behaviour”. It seems to allow that a person could be making the best choices available even if they display bizarre behaviour that is ultimately attributable to physiological rather psychological causes. An example that comes to mind is Antonio Damasio’s discussion of Phineas Gage, who suffered an horrific brain injury in 1848. Prior to this injury, Gage had a strong sense of personal and social responsibility, but afterwards he no longer showed respect for social convention or concern about his own future (“Descartes Error”, 1994: 10 – 12).

It seems to me that there is a lot to be said for considering what lies behind choices that result in unwanted behaviours. It makes sense that the possibilities and capabilities that people perceive to be accessible are often distorted by hidden frames of meaning about themselves, their personal powers, their relationships with others, time (their past performance and expectations) or about the way the world works.

When I began writing this piece I thought I might end up considering the question of whether the inner nature or core of humans is good. By following Dilts’ approach I avoided this, even though I think our answers to this question are an important component of the models of the world that we carry around with us. I will consider different views on this question in my next post.

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