Sliding Otter News: Carrots, Sticks and the Human Condition

Aquinnah Lighthouse

Aquinnah Lighthouse

~Every man carries within him the entire form of our human condition.~

Michel de Montaigne

Recent musings about crime, its perpetrators and its victims rekindled my lifelong speculation about why people do what they do. The simplest explanation is that people do what rewards them and avoid what punishes them.

That seems simple enough. Maybe too simple. Rewards and punishments can be immediate, down the road or far in the future. Sometimes rewards and punishments compete like an angel and and imp sitting on our shoulders whispering contradictory advice in our ears. Sometimes we don’t listen to either one but act on our feelings of the moment. As the king in The King and I said, “Is a puzzlement.”

What about the carrot and the stick? One account has a man enticing his reluctant donkey to pull a cart by dangling a carrot tied to a string before it. Another account has the carrot and the stick representing reward and punishment as ways to motivate behavior.

I worked as a psychologist for many years and never arrived at a satisfactory explanation for why people do what they do. I saw what people did and heard their explanations but often felt as puzzled as the king of Siam.

What if I just try to understand myself? What makes me tick? As long as I can remember, I have wanted to help other people. I don’t know why but perhaps it has to do with the many kind people who loved and cared for me as I grew up.

Despite their example, I also grew up in a religious environment heavy with sin and guilt, adding a fear layer to my life outlook. Over the years I developed a more balanced sense of spirituality. Now I seek to act responsibly, live harmoniously with those around me and help those I can when our paths intertwine.

I have never landed in jail or even come close. Still, I have not always followed my own life principles. There were times I could have made better choices instead of following my impulses. Yet I keep trying. I have yet to meet anyone who has not at times strayed from what they knew was the best option for them.

Should I give everyone the benefit of the doubt as I do with myself? I would like to but I have come to realize there are people who have no moral compass or at least none the rest of us would recognize.

What are we to make of such people? Some felons don’t care who they inconvenience or even kill in their attempts to satisfy their own needs. Terrorists seem motivated by revenge or a wish to eliminate from the earth those who do not think as they do. Sticks and carrots have no meaning for them. That remains a mystery to me.

Life Lab Lessons

  • List your values.
  • How well does your life reflect what you believe?
  • How do you react when people don’t behave as you would like?
  • Is there a better way for you to react?
  • Would understanding others make this easier?
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