Let’s say I am elected the leader of a group of 100 people, those 100 are made up of a representative sample of the US population – 62 of them are white, 18 are Hispanic, 13 are black and the remaining 7 are a mixture of other races. 48 of them are male, 50 are female, 1 is LGBT and 1 doesn’t really know.
Now let’s say the majority has voted on a rule that no one can have chocolate ice cream on Monday’s. Now lets further stipulate that some people spread across the population ate chocolate ice cream on a given Monday and as it happens, white women and blacks of all sexes really, really like chocolate ice cream. Because this group broke the rule, I had to enforce the law by punishing them by banning them from eating any ice cream of any flavor for a month.
Since I am a male member of the 62 whites in the population, I am:
A) A racist for punishing blacks, or
B) A white supremacist for not punishing more whites, or
C) A sexist for punishing females, or
D) A homophobe for punishing the LGBT person, or
E) A prude for punishing the gender confused person, or
F) All of the above, or
G) None of the above – I’m just doing my job as group leader.
The real answer is that you can’t know. Even though I am enforcing a rule that was agreed to by a majority, you don’t really know my motivation…all you can know is whether I am applying the law fairly to all or I am applying it selectively and in an arbitrary and capricious manner. If I am applying it fairly and across the board, the answer is “G” and my motivation doesn’t matter to the outcome but if you want to attack me, you can assign a motive of A through F and start to make the case that I am any or all the above even when the evidence doesn’t support your position.
Assigning a motive is dangerous for a number of reasons.
Bobby Hoffman, PhD, author, professor and researcher in motivational dynamics, notes 5 reasons (I condensed and paraphrased them) people often miss the mark in assigning motivation:
- Most people don’t know or understand their own motives. People react to things for reasons even they don’t understand. Sometimes our own motivations are implicit and nearly impossible to define. These implicit motives are driven by habit and lack of conscious attention to what we do and why we do it and in many cases account for much of our daily behavior.
- Behavior is interpreted through personal perspectives. Humans filter actions through their own lens of experiences and beliefs – which are often not an objective standard. For example, we all fuss and cuss at people on the highway who drive faster or slower, or more/less aggressive than we do. We are comparing them to our behavior because we believe our way is the best way. The fact is that we have no idea why the other folks are acting the way they are – there may be an emergency, they are a new driver, or they may have just witnessed an accident and are overly cautious.
- The same behaviors may represent entirely different motives. As in my example above, any of the choices of A through G COULD be accurate. Accurately deciphering observed behavior requires an understanding of the specific reasons why motives and goals are pursued, which cannot be confirmed by observation alone. Properly assessing a motive requires consideration of multiple strands of evidence to enhance the probability of accurate motive detection.
- Motives are often conflated with personality and character. How I feel about someone often leads to a prejudiced view of their actions. If I personally don’t like them, I am more likely to assign a nefarious motive that I am if I like them. How I feel about someone is NOT a rational basis for forming a conclusion regarding a motive, especially if it is the major (or only) data point used.
- Emotions can disguise or disrupt normative behavior. Emotions can disguise or disrupt normative behavior. Emotions are a game changer and can quickly lead to false interpretation of motives. When people are under emotional strain, response patterns change. As the mind succumbs to the perception of elation, pressure, stress, discomfort or distraction, normative physiological and psychological patterns are hijacked by the prevailing emotion.
For our purposes of governance, the only way to avoid accusations of bad motives is to enforce the laws – all of them – as written and passed and in every situation. Arbitrary and capricious application opens a leader to charges of bias, favoritism or persecution. If the populace does not like the outcome, the laws must be changed.
Intellectually dishonest people will fall victim to every one of the five reasons. Due to their desire to defeat their target, they will assign the most nefarious motive possible to bolster their position. Rational people will focus on the evidence and outcome before doing so.