A guide to everyday psychology

Basics

Useful Facts – in Brief

This post summarises some of the most useful truths about our psychology, in just a few sentences. There are – or will be – longer articles covering each of the subjects in greater detail.

I’ll add to this section on a regular basis!

Fear and anxiety

Fear and anxiety are universal. However, the specific things that cause us to feel fear and anxiety are – with very few exceptions – all learned.

Sudden loud noises instinctively make us jump. And we fear ‘strangeness’. It is also possible that fear of heights has an instinctive basis. But we learn all the other fears and anxieties. Nobody is born with a fear of dogs or spiders.

The good news is that we can, in principle, unlearn anything that we learn.

Prejudices and Stereotypes

Prejudices are universal. We all hold prejudices. The reason is that, in a complex world, prejudices save us so much time. Without prejudices, we would have to assemble all the relevant facts before we could ever decide anything.

But we do have to make decisions all the time – and often we must make them quickly, long before we can assemble all the facts. And so, in the absence of facts, we must use our prejudices and stereotypes to understand the world and reach decisions about it… I might decide not to go to Australia because ‘it’s hot’. I might choose not to go to city centres because ‘they’re rough’. The scope for uninformed stereotyping is endless. But it enables us to make speedy decisions – and most of the time our prejudices are, broadly, true.

Sometimes prejudices can even save your life. Thompson Gazelles have prejudices that they apply to all lions and hyenas. They do not wait to see if this cheetah is different – coming over to make new friends.

But mostly, prejudices and stereotypes are just useful. For example, I have a stereotype about what defines ‘a car’. So once I put an object in the ‘car’ category, I know all kinds of useful things about it. It will have four wheels, an engine and seats, for example.

Our prejudices and stereotypes give us instant answers in a complex world. They may bring us racial prejudices, misogyny and snobbery. But we couldn’t last a day without them.

Mental conflict – and its connection with happiness

Mental conflict is a normal part of everyday life. Why is that?

Most of our mental conflicts arise because life requires us to make decisions and choices – all the time. Should I ask him out or not? What career should I choose? Should I buy that car? What present shall I get her for Xmas?

Although these “shall I, shan’t I?” conflicts are completely normal, they are also a central cause of our feelings of anxiety. Uncertainty causes us to feel anxious – and perhaps the reason for that is that, in every animal, life always requires a decision. Anxiety tells us to make a decision – and the reward we get for doing so is that when we make a decision (and act) it often reduces our anxiety.

So, to be more happy and less anxious, we would, ideally, reduce the amount of conflict and decision in our lives. But life rarely offers us the chance to ‘opt out’ from choices and decisions. We have to go to school and after that we must go to work. We are required to make decisions, and often we are required to do things that we do not want to do.

So we can never eliminate conflict and anxiety from our lives.

But aren’t we supposed to be happy? Isn’t that ‘normal’?

It is important to realise that ‘Life’ does not care whether or not we’re happy. We do not inherit happiness or unhappiness, although we do inherit an ability to obtain physical pleasure from things we consume (food and drink, for example, and more controversially, from sex).

We inherit a desire to survive – at least long enough to have offspring. If we’re lucky enough to be happy along the way, that’s a bonus.

And on the subject of ‘happy’…

How to feel happy

Happiness requires us to achieve a balance between what we want and what we can have. It is hard to be happy if we always crave things we probably cannot have. To be happy, we must enjoy the things we have. Enjoy the VW Golf without wishing it was a Merc. Enjoy the Merc without wishing it was a Bentley.

It is important to remember that the opposite of being happy is NOT being mentally ill!

But what about hope and ambition and the drive to achieve more and own more? Is a competitive spirit not a good thing in a person? Indeed, is not competition inbuilt into our genes?

Yes, it is. But for the vast majority of us, competition will only result in failure – and unhappiness. In any competition, we cannot all be the winner; often, only one of us can be the winner. So we cannot all be ‘whoever we want to be’ – any more than we can all win the lottery.

Being ‘happy’ results from chasing and succeeding in modest goals. As the Bible noted centuries ago, the only route to happiness is to ‘count our blessings’.

This will sound rather obvious to some readers. And it is. The ‘happy’ trick is to actually live in line with these principles!

Are there absolute morals – such as ‘murder is wrong’?

Psychologically speaking, there are no absolute morals. Within any given society, people might – broadly – agree that certain things are ‘wrong’, such as theft, murder, and discrimination, for example. Law makers then enshrine these moral beliefs in laws, and punish people who break them.

But how we choose the things that are ‘morally wrong’, and interpret them, is entirely subjective.

For some people, all war is murder. For other people, volunteering to fight and kill for your country is heroic. In some cultures, homosexuality is viewed as immoral.

So how do we get our individual moral values? Some researchers argue that babies are born with the ability to tell right from wrong. But a close look at these studies shows that there are better and simpler explanations for the ‘moral’ behaviour (see article about ‘Are you Good or Evil?’)

We learn all of our morals within our societies and cultures and sub-cultures.

Why are people aggressive and violent?

[This post does not address sexual violence, which will be discussed elsewhere.]

There are two main (and overlapping) reasons why people are aggressive and violent.

Frustration-aggression

The first is that we have an instinctive and aggressive response to any kind of frustration. Why is that?

‘Nature wants’ us all (humans and other animals) to survive and pass on our genes. So when we are hungry or thirsty (things that might threaten our survival) we feel grumpy and sometimes get violent.

We have all seen (and felt) this – and I’m sure I’m not alone when I admit that I have doors with kick marks. We even go so far as to imagine intention in the objects that obstruct us, even though we know it is ridiculous. The timeless relevance of that Fawlty Towers sketch, the one where Basil gives his car a damn good thrashing after it ‘refuses’ to start, illustrates frustration-aggression perfectly.

Life is full of frustration. And we often react to it in ways that we are glad others cannot see.

It’s a long time since most humans in the western world had to fight for food and water. But we are often forced to compete for other scarce resources. And when it ends in frustration, our inbuilt ‘go-to’ response is aggression.

The recent fuel shortage in the UK saw frustration, violence and aggression in our fuel stations. Political frustration often ends in violence, as was seen after the 2020 US election campaign. When we drop the lasagne on its way out of the oven, we do not want to clear it up… We want to call it bad names and teach it a lesson by hurling it across the room.

Wherever there is frustration in life, there will often be aggression. And life is full of frustrations.

Social Learning

The other reason why humans are violent is, simply, that we learn to be violent in our societies. This takes many forms, but social learning for boys has always taken quite a fixed format.

We see/read about heroes being rightly violent from our very earliest days. And we want to be like them. The media heroes that we see on screen are (nearly) always good looking men, improbably wise and they only kill bad people. When we play video games, we actually are the righteous hero!

Who would not want to be like an action hero – all-seeing, wise, handsome and fit… feared by men and admired by women?

The problem is that – in the real world – we don’t all share the action hero’s wisdom and clarity of vision. The ‘bad’ people that we identify in our world might not be bad at all. They might simply be people who support Arsenal. Or they might be people from another ethnic group.

Summary

Frustration makes us aggressive.

Sometimes the victims will be the person who has caused the problem. But it could also be anyone that we have learned not to like – a person from a minority group maybe. Or it could simply be the person, cat, dog or an object unlucky enough to be near us! We slam doors; we kick walls.

And, with any luck, no one is looking when we do it.

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