One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do. You can ask somebody: Why’d you choose that house? Or why’d you marry that person? Or why’d you go to graduate school? People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.

We have a conscious self, of course, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion. We know what we’re feeling, just not how and why we got there.

But we also don’t want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up some story, or confabulation. As Will Storr writes in his excellent book “The Science of Storytelling”: “We don’t know why we do what we do, or feel what we feel. We confabulate when theorizing as to why we’re depressed, we confabulate when justifying our moral convictions and we confabulate when explaining why a piece of music moves us.”

Or as Nicholas Epley puts it in his equally excellent “Mindwise,” “No psychologist asks people to explain the causes of their own thoughts or behavior anymore unless they’re interested in understanding storytelling.”

I confess I don’t like this finding. It hurts my sense of dignity. I like to think that I — my conscious self — am in some way living my own life for reasons I understand. I’m not merely some puppet on neural strings.

I also like to think we can in fact understand why we do what we do. For example, George Orwell wrote a great essay called “Why I Write” that offered compelling reasons for why he became a writer: he desired to appear clever in public, he liked to play with language, he liked to understand things, he wanted to alter the direction of events. I like to think the rest of us can achieve at least half as much accurate self-knowledge into our motivations as Orwell did.

Finally, I …….


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