by Divya Menon, Association for Psychological Science
“People don't really care what they're doing - just as long as they are doing something. That's one of the findings summarized in a review article published in “Current Directions in Psychological Science”, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
When psychologists think about why people do what they do, they tend to look for specific goals, attitudes, and motivations. But they may be missing something more general - people like to be doing something. These broader goals, to be active or inactive, may have a big impact on how they spend their time.
Author Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says she started paying attention to people's different levels of activity in various countries and saw how much busier people are in the US relative to other areas. "People have this inclination to do more, even if what they do is trivial," she says. In recent years, she has been doing research on how people feel about activity, including how easily she could change the level of activity that people aimed for. In one set of experiments, for example, she found that getting people to think about physical activity made them more interested in political activity. Albarracin co-wrote the review article with Justin Hepler and Melanie Tannenbaum, also of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Experiments have shown that the desire for activity is quite strong; people will go to a lot of trouble to maintain their desired level of activity, which can include unhealthy behaviors. Many psychologists have "the idea that people have these highly specific goals," Albarracin says. "But quite often some significant proportion of our time is engaged in this global level - we want to do something, but what we do ends up not mattering much. You could end up with productive behavior, like work, or impulsive behavior, like drug use."
The main obstacle to progress, according to Gurdjieff, was the mechanical nature of contemporary man, and his inability to carry anything through. From “In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching” by P. D. Ouspensky: "Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him - all this happens. Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the results of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels - all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything. It all happens.
Everything happens - popular movements, wars, revolutions, changes of government, all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as everything happens in the life of individual man. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire - all this happens...
There is another kind of mechanization which is much more dangerous: being a machine oneself. Have you ever thought about the fact that all peoples themselves are machines?" "Yes," I said, "from the strictly scientific point of view all people are machines governed by external influences. But the question is, can the scientific point of view be wholly accepted?"
"Scientific or not scientific is all the same to me," said G. "I want you to understand what I am saying. Look, all those people you see," he pointed along the street, "are simply machines - nothing more." "I think I understand what you mean," I said. "And I have often thought how little there is in the world that can stand against this form of mechanization and choose its own path." "This is just where you make your greatest mistake," said G. "You think there is something that chooses its own path, something that can stand against mechanization; you think that not everything is equally mechanical."
"Why, of course not!" I said. "Art, poetry, thought, are phenomena of quite a different order." "Of exactly the same order," said G. "These activities are just as mechanical as everything else. Men are machines and nothing but mechanical actions can be expected of machines." "Very well," I said. "But are there no people who are not machines? "It may be that there are," said G., "only not those people you see. And you do not know them. That is what I want you to understand."...
"People are so unlike one another," I said. "I do not think it would be possible to bring them all under the same heading. There are savages, there are mechanized people, there are intellectual people, there are geniuses."
"Quite right," said G., "people are very unlike one another, but the real difference between people you do not know and cannot see. The difference of which you speak simply does not exist. This must be understood. All the people you see, all the people you know, all the people you may get to know, are machines, actual machines working solely under the power of external influences, as you yourself said. Machines they are born and machines they die. How do savages and intellectuals come into this? Even now, at this very moment, while we are talking, several millions of machines are trying to annihilate one another. What is the difference between them? Where are the savages and where are the intellectuals? They are all alike. But there is a possibility of ceasing to be a machine."