I always want to understand everything, but sometimes, when looking backwards, trying to figure out "why" is impossible and overrated. The "20/20" of hindsight is often little more than after-the-fact rationalization.
Research psychologists have known for decades that it is very difficult to determine causation in mental life and thus, of behavior. For one thing, we can never perform an experiment. Take my patient Karen, 50, who spent most of the 1990s smoking crack. She is certain that the decade-long binge would never have happened had her mother not died when she was 12. We will never know if she is right because we cannot rewind Karen’s life, play it again, and see what would have happened if her mother had lived.
Reconstructing the story of one’s life is a complicated business for other reasons. What scientists call hindsight bias kicks in when we try to figure out the causal chain of events leading to the current situation. We may well come up with a tidy story but, inevitably, it will contain large swaths of revisionist history. It’s not that we bias ourselves deliberately; it happens because the mind tends to make events in the past appear comprehensible and orderly. We forget the uncertainties that might have beset us as we struggled in real time.
Sometimes we can understand ourselves by looking into the past, but getting caught up in it is a fool's errand.
It is time to retire the myth that insight is a prerequisite for change. For the patients in our clinic, change without hard-won insight is the rule. And who has time to wait? Not Natalie. This past month she and I worked on getting an abusive, shiftless boyfriend out of her apartment; finding tutoring for her son; and building a new social network to replace the drug users that she used to hang out with.
At this stage in her treatment, awareness of what she needs to do will get Natalie further than insight. Less chaos in her life means less anxiety and that means less risk of relapse.
Down the road she may ask, “Why did I use drugs?” But in the meantime, what’s important for Natalie and her son is that she is determined to stop.
Oftentimes the quest for "insight" is just a way to procrastinate making the changes we know we need.
(HT: My brother.)