Deterministic Thinking is Bad For Your Health (Part 1 of 2)

Q: Dr. Hurd, you write a lot about deterministic thinking. What is deterministic thinking and how does it develop in people?

A: Deterministic thinking refers to the subconsciously (or sometimes consciously) held viewpoint that a person is less in control of, and, therefore, less responsible for, the events of his life than is really the case.

Deterministic thinking represents not only a philosophical error, but also a psychological problem. Why? Because thinking you are less in control of your life than you really are is a distortion of reality. Specifically, it’s a distortion of reality that can lead one to feel unduly angry, anxious, depressed or otherwise psychologically disordered.

From the point of view of a psychologist, the specific source by which an individual feels determined is less important than the presence of this feeling in the first place. For example, some people feel that the entire course of their lives is determined by theological forces (God, Allah); others feel that the entire course of their lives is determined by family members; still others by their race or gender; still others by New Age notions of past lives or ‘karma.’

The list is endless. The central point is this: an individual who succumbs to deterministic thinking feels less in control of his life than he really is. He soothes himself with feelings of victimization and helplessness, emotions that shield him from the personal control and personal responsibility he would otherwise feel.

For most people, deterministic thinking starts in childhood and then is reinforced by others in the environment or culture. If a woman’s childhood is irrational and abusive, for example, then she will most likely enter young adulthood with the notions that, ‘My life is not under my control,’ and ‘Others set the course and it won’t always be fair and reasonable.’ As an adult, she would, of course, be free to challenge this mistaken thinking. The proper way to challenge this thinking would be to learn how to stop putting up with abuse in relationships, how to better care for herself, and how to be a good spouse, parent, or friend—something she obviously never could have learned from her own family-of-origin.

Such a healthy approach would be based on some important premises, such as the following:

‘I am in the driver’s seat of my own life.’

‘I am responsible for learning how to live a good and happy life, despite the experiences I encountered in my youth.’

‘My family-of-origin does not represent the way life and relationships have to be.’

This is indeed the approach some young people take. Unfortunately, more often a person from either an abusive (or otherwise inadequate) childhood will latch on to one of the many variants of deterministic thinking available in our culture. He might, for example, latch on to religion as a way to explain it all away: ‘God meant for me to be this way.’ In one case, the religious viewpoint will be more positive and the individual will conclude, ‘I have to see what God has in store for me. It must be better than what I’ve seen so far.’

While this view is positive, it also sets the individual up for disappointment because of its dangerous passivity. If a man is not actively and continuously in charge of determining the outcome of his life, and if instead it’s left entirely or mostly up to God, then there will be problems. In some cases people with a religious orientation conclude, ‘To have put me into this awful family environment, God must have it in for me. I must be a bad person, and this is how God is punishing me.’ The psychological problems with this perspective are obvious.

Not everyone turns to religion. In today’s increasingly secular society there are many alternatives to religion, but most, if not all of them, boil down to the same deterministic thinking. The political and legal establishment, today based more on redistribution of wealth than on actually protecting the rights of individuals, encourages people to sue. Angry at the world? Then get what’s yours—financially. Although superficially a very different approach from that of religion, the underlying error is the same: forces outside of my control determine my happiness. Until they pay me what I am entitled to, I’m helpless.

Instead of the passivity and depression fostered by the religious approach, the dominant emotion for the litigious person becomes one of anger. For those who can’t gain access to the courts in order to sue, they can (thanks to the corruption of our political process) increasingly ‘sue’ through their elected representatives by gaining wealth or benefits through government programs, redistributed to themselves ‘free’ of charge.

Not everyone seeks monetary compensation, of course. For others the compensation is psychological. Many people find solace in the self-help literature that typically focuses on victimhood at the expense of how to take responsibility for and charge of your own life. For example: ‘My marriage isn’t unhappy because of flaws in my husband or myself. My marriage is unhappy because Dr. Du Jour says men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Biology is destiny.’

At first, such a ‘revelation’ is, to some, liberating. Freedom from responsibility feels liberating to those who don’t want responsibility. But the course suggested by such deterministic viewpoints is inevitably one of inaction. If you’re not responsible, then of course you can’t act. But if you can’t act, then nothing will ever improve. What other mindset can this ultimately lead to but one of anger, despair and depression?

Concluded in tomorrow’s column.