Why study behavior?

Why study behavior?

Why should we study behavior, at all? Really, why do we bother? After all, it can be quite a pain. We analyze it, debate it, argue over it, and never seem to come to any conclusions. So, I ask again, why study it at all?

Fact is, we all study behavior, whether we want to or not, all the time. I’ll prove it, right here, right now. If you already agree then you can skip all this. After all, you’re already a student of behavior, like me. On the other hand, if you are intrigued with the idea of learning about behavior, but think it’s something you don’t have to do, then read on.

Let’s start by looking at some headlines from today’s Yahoo feed.

Global economy is slowing down.
Great lakes states may make money selling fresh water.
Japan’s economy is showing strength.
Fighting in Syria is spilling over into the Lebanese city of Tripoli.
US FDA is slow than Europe in approving new heart valve technologies, putting older patients at risk.
Anti-gay marriage protests are held peacefully in Paris.
Actor Anjelina Jolie’s aunt dies of breast cancer.
An Oregon teenager is arrested for plotting an attack on his school.
A Cleveland man, arrested for heldig 3 women captive for 10 years, may be changed with murdering many fetuses even without evidence.
A young girl is murdered after being lured into a sexual bondage trap.
Finally, an even younger girl hung herself out of humiliation. She was tormented by pictures being circulated of her naked body. Those pictures were taken by three teen boys who had raped her, drawn pictures on her flesh, and then snapped their trophy photos. She was in a drunken stupor at the time.

These eleven headlines are not unusual, unfortunately. They cover the gamut, from economic and political events at the global scale, to intensely personal experiences of people we may know.

Now, here is my point. At any time did you find yourself thinking: how does this impact me, why does this happen, or, how can I prevent this from happening? If you did, then you’re a student of behavior.

I ask myself these questions all the time. Why do any of these terrible tragedies happen? Why aren’t our children better taught? Why aren’t our governments more intelligent and responsive? Why aren’t we all more tolerant of each other? Why, after so many years of Nobel Prizes, can’t we figure out how to keep our society balanced and productive?

I ask myself these questions because, deep down, I’m still an idealist. I’d like to think that everything bad that we endure happens because of ignorance. Someone, somewhere, has made bad choices.

Still not convinced? There’s another reason to study behavior, and that’s for sheer curiosity. This is more the egg-headed academic approach, and it’s as good a reason as any. Unfortunately, many academics don’t seem to be as motivated at the practical level.

You’re not an academic, you say, and you’re still not convinced you already study behavior? Are you, by any chance, ambitious? Do you seek to increase your income, legally or not? Do you seek professional advancement, such as recognition or advanced degrees? Or maybe you’re interested in power – best exemplified by career politicians. Or, perhaps, you are an idealist and want to help others.

If you are ambitious, then, in each and every case, you can’t achieve your goals without studying behavior in some form. Are you a teacher trying to reach more students, or being more effective with a single student? Then you need to better understand how they think and learn, both as a group, and as individuals. Are you a real estate agent trying to sell more homes? Then you must understand your neighborhood, your owners, buyers, competition, and even agents working for you. As an ambitious politician, you know, perhaps better than anyone, that you need to understand your constituents, your donors, your party, your own organization, and the media. There’s even a remote chance, if you’re idealistic enough, that you will even have to better understand your own government so that you can actually contribute to your nation in a positive way.

What, you’re not ambitious? And you’re still not convinced? Fine enough, but are you a nice person, a member in good standing of your own family, and a law-abiding citizen? If you are, here’s a surprise. Being nice to your mother, saying “please” and “thank you” to strangers, even driving close to the speed limit, all these things are learned. Our customs, our taboos, our posted laws are all aspects of behavior. These are socially specific behaviors governed by rules allowing all of us to live together.

As these rules change, then, so must you. In the old times, people drove without seat belts, now it’s mandatory. Today, drivers are learning that driving and texting are dangerous. So, even in this most limited sense, you are still a student of behavior.

Ah, you say, you have me now. You reject society, politicians, indeed, you reject everyone. You’re an anarchist, a survivalist. It’s going to be nothing but you and Nature. Fine. You’ve got me.

Except, well, there is this one thing. What happens when you get hungry? This basic life function must be obeyed or you will die. Guess what? You can’t eat unless you study behavior. That’s right. Do you hunt? Where does your game live, sleep, drink? What’s the best way to sneak up on it? Do you use your bare hands, or a tool? If there’s a tool, how was it made, and how does it work? Maybe you’re not a hunter, but a gatherer. In this case, where does the best food grow? How is it best prepared? Or perhaps you will be a minimalist survivalist, and eat bugs. Fine, what kind? Where do they like to live?

Every single question can only be answered if you study behavior. Not just the behavior of people, but of animals, bugs, and plants. Even as a survivalist you must still study behavior in some form in order to exist.

Gentle Reader, I hope that now you’ll agree that, no matter what you do or what you may aspire, you are a student of behavior. Even if you only live to survive, you must still study behavior even if it is in some small way.

Well then, fellow student, welcome to the club. For al these reasons and more, I too, am a student. Follow me next, then, as we quickly explore the next question; what is the best way to study behavior?


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