Are Human Beings Rational and Purposive?

Are Human Beings Rational and Purposive?


do people act purposively and pursue their goals using broadly rational methods? Is it even desirable that they should behave in such a way?

          The issue really belongs to basic psychology and theory of history, but since it first came up with regard to films, I start here.

          Some sixty or so years ago, Joseph Campbell, drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of myth and folklore, came up with the idea that very many of these stories had a basic pattern which he called The Hero’s Journey  and  which, broadly speaking, could be broken down into twelve stages. Typically, the hero is first shown living in an ‘ordinary’ environment, he then receives a ‘Call to Adventure’ which takes him on a perilous journey to ‘another world’. If successful (which he almost invariably is) the hero returns from the other world with a treasure or secret of some sort, elixir, cornucopia, wonder weapon, important piece of knowledge &c. which he then confers on the community. He (more rarely she) typically retires ‘a better and a wiser man’ for his deeply challenging adventure.

          A little later on, Christopher Vogler had the brainwave of applying this schema (slightly adapted) to Hollywood films, especially action movies, and brought out a highly influential book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screnwriters.  

          Christopher Vogler’s book is extremely interesting and illuminating, but more with regard to life generally than to filmcraft — there are very few films indeed to which this schema can be applied directly. (To take two examples chosen by Vogler himself, the schema applies tolerably well to An Officer and a Gentleman but hardly to Titanic.) And countless would-be screenwriters must have cursed the man since the Vogler schema has given producers and readers of screenplays a marvellous all-round excuse for dropping scripts into the trash-can without giving them a second reading. “My God, his hero misses out Stage 5! We can’t have that”, or “Can you believe it? She’s got Stage Ten and Stage Nine the wrong way round!”.

          People in the film industry don’t rely on Vogler’s schema so much these days, thank God, but the idea that films should be written according to a specific formula is far from dead. There are any number of schemas and templates, the Three Act Form, the Twelve Decisive Moments, and so forth, and discussion of films  within the industry evolves around arcane issues like how many turning points a film should have and where the mid-point should  be. Film critics — except possibly in specialist magazines — never mention any of this : they go straight to the point and say whether the film grabs them and whether they engage with the central character. I would say that the main reason most English language films are so bad is not that the screenwriters don’t know their stuff, but precisely the reverse — they know far too much  and write films according to an approved template rather than just getting on with it.  It is ironical that in 2007 a slow, hopelessly old-fashioned and cliched film with negligible sex and violence was refused a showing at Cannes (doubtless for these reasons) but topped the audience polls as film of the year in this country. I am referring to Das Leben des Anderen (The Life of Others). The film is certainly no masterpiece but made such a pleasant contrast to the usual stuff on offer because of its obvious sincerity and what one might call ‘film innocence’ that the audience rightly went for it, as I did myself.

  But I am in this article more concerned with the plausibility and realism of contemporary films,  than their artistic shape and form. The dominant genre of the last twenty years has  been the action movie cum thriller, and the schema and underlying psychology which has worked (up to a point) here has become de rigueur in most other genres. Cobbling together what I’ve picked up from workshops and books about how to write a successful feature film, the schema goes something like this. 1. Choose a hero (or heroine) who is given, or who gives himself, a specific mission or goal;  2. Make him decide to achieve this goal at all costs using all his formidable intelligence and strength of purpose; 3. Set up obstacles to the achievement of this goal (to make the film interesting); 4. Introduce characters who help or hinder the hero in the achievement of the goal;  5. End the film with the successful achievement of the goal and 6. Leave the audience with the feeling that the hero or heroine has learned something really valuable by  the experience, however tough it was. (See Note at the end for an example.)

          Is life even remotely like this?  No.

          In my experience, people very rarely have any sort  of goal  in life beyond  the vague one of being  reasonably attractive to the opposite sex (or desirable members of the same sex) and becoming tolerably well-off without having to work too hard for it. People’s careers often  depend on unplanned events  such as  chance meetings with someone in a bar who offers you a job, and people typically end up marrying, or living with, a particular partner because they don’t expect to get anyone that much better. In saying this, I am not necessarily criticising people for living their lives in this way : there is plenty of evidence that so-called “satisficers” — people who content themselves with the first available option — tend to be  happier than ‘maximisers’, people who always have their eye on the jackpot. One might even argue that the famous ‘traditional wisdom’ of the ancients simply boils down to ways of changing people  from  being  unsatisfied ‘maximisers’ into  contented ‘satisficers’ — certainly both the leading philosophies of the Roman world, Epicureanism and Stoicism, had this as their goal. Similarly, the main reason people today are so miserable, though far richer than ever before in history, is that the free market economy encourages ‘maximisers’ and disapproves of ‘satisficers’ because satisficers are less likely to buy what they don’t actually want and less likely to spend their lives hankering after the unattainable.  

          Even when they do have a particular goal in life, people never  pursue it with the ruthless dedication and infallible logic of the typical film secret agent or detective. (One doubts that these Secret Agents and Private Eyes would in practice be any good in their profession : they’re usually ‘too clever by half’ and far too rigid in their methods.) Most important of all, people practically never learn anything  from a particular adventure or assignment, because the next challenge that life throws at them is almost certainly  going to be completely different. As a rule, people (and governments) drift into situations they did not foresee or found it convenient to ignore  (like the present credit crunch), they cope more or less with life’s predicaments because they can’t afford not to,  and succeed, when they do succeed, more by luck than judgment.

          OK,OK, one might say, but this is just ordinary people : exceptional people, the really successful ones, don’t behave like this. And films and novels should, arguably, be concerned with exceptional, or at least special, people, not with Joe Bloggses. But, surprisingly, if you look at the lives of famous people, world-shakers and movers, the situation is not so very different. There are a few examples of people who received an unmistakeable call from the beyond —  Joan of Arc and Saint Paul spring to mind  — and one or two examples of highly ambitious men who pursued a specific goal from the start with iron dedication and persistence, Christopher Columbus for example.

          But, take a long hard look at history,  and you will find that by far the greatest number of individuals who changed the world for better or worse were people who showed no particular promise in their childhood and youth, whose sense of mission, if it came at all, came fairly late in life, and who never had more than the vaguest idea of where they were heading. Without the very specific circumstances of seventeenth century England, in particular the conflict between the Crown and Parliament, Oliver Cromwell would have remained  an obscure country squire who never bestrode a horse except to go fox hunting. Genghis Khan, as a young man, never had his eye on world domination : he started off, like a petty Sicilian mafiosa, painfully trying to assert his authority in a small clan because he was the senior male in the family left alive. And  the adolescent Hitler never had any boyhood dreams of being a great dictator and military strategist : he saw himself as a brilliant architect and if the Viennese School of Architecture had seen fit to accept him, maybe the history of the twentieth century would have been very different.

          Typically, a world-historical individual finds himself unexpectedly in a situation where he has to sink or swim : if he swims, he discovers powers within himself he never knew he had — like Hitler discovering by chance that he had a formidable gift for public speaking, or Oliver Cromwell discovering that he had a natural talent for being a cavalry leader and military organiser. Nothing succeeds like success and the world-historical individual, if he’s lucky, gets ferried along by the current and he may well conclude that, all things considered, that it’s less dangerous to keep going than to turn back. Although I don’t entirely pooh-pooh the idea of ‘world-historical forces’ moving individuals across the chessboard of history, what actually motivated famous people on a day to day basis was often extremely mundane. Julius Caesar frittered away his youth as a Roman playboy and at forty found himself crippled with enormous debts. In those days the only way to make really big money was to wage a successful war, so this is what he did (several in fact); furthermore, Julius Caesar didn’t dare to retire from public office because he would have lost immunity from prosecution and he had, more or less right up to his assassination, big lawsuits pending.  For him and people like him, the only way to move was up.

          This is not to belittle the greatness of these figures, on the contrary. But very few of them got there by sheer ambition, reasoning power and systematic effort. Indeed, two of the persons already mentioned, Cromwell and Hitler, were past masters at using chance situations to their advantage : they were great opportunists rather than far-sighted planners. Cromwell is credited with the astonishing remark, “A man never rises so high as when he does not know where he is going” and Hitler once said “I go to my goal with the precision and confidence of a sleepwalker”. We don’t generally think history is made by sleepwalkers.

          The point about all this is that the entire portfolio recommended  by rationalism and conventional  self-help : assessing the data logically, setting oneself achievable goals, developing deep-sighted strategies and so forth is largely irrelevant in the real world because  successful people, on their own admission, even (or especially) businessmen, rely above all on hunches, gut instinct, chance situations, rapid adaptation to changing circumstances… They are pragmatists who employ methods that work, not methods that are intellectually respectable.  

          I’m not being facetious or flippant in saying all this. There’s plenty of findings coming out now that suggest we don’t live our lives by taking rational decisions at all :


“It’s difficult for people to accept, but most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment” says John Bargh of Yale University (quoted New Scientist, 7 July 2007 p 37).


The NS article in question, written by Mark Buchanan, concludes with the astounding statement — astounding since it comes from a scientist —  “Perhaps the best way to understand human behaviour is to ignore the supposedly rational, consciously generated actions of individuals.”
To return to the cinema.

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As a sweeping generalisation, I would say that films today are based on the premise that what drives history, both personal narrative and world-wide trends, is character rather than events. I believe exactly the opposite : it is events that drive history and especially unforeseen, apparently ‘chance’ events. Character really only comes into it when and if specific events provoke deep changes within a person, which they can but rarely do in practice, (not even extreme events like war and imprisonment).  And few people ever learn anything from their experiences, usually because their most traumatic, or ecstatic, experiences are strictly unrepeatable.  

          If this is roughly true, it follows that the ‘hero’ — the ‘real’ hero, not the impossibly fictional James Bond one — is not someone who ‘makes things happen’, but is more like a surfer who ‘goes with the current’, though remaining upright and ready to jump off if there’s a waterfall ahead. But in most thrillers and detective dramas we are confronted with two unbelievably prescient  and determined people, the criminal and the detective : they pit their wits against each other, knowing exactly what their respective goals are (catch that murderer/ avoid getting caught) and how and where they want to end up (get promoted/ escape to a safe country &c.). Victory goes to the more alert and rational of the two Supermen, the one who makes the least mistakes. Not only is this tussle of wits and muscles becoming increasingly boring, it is a hundred miles from reality and though we certainly need escapist films to counterbalance the boredom and ugliness of everyday life, we need some sort of plausibility and verisimilitude as well. 

          Fortunately, there are a small number of   films, even one or two Box Office successes, that are beginning to break away from the tired rationalistic, goal-orientated mould. Take the Jason Bourne series. Here we have a protagonist who, though a trained killer, is a romantic and not a conceited macho thug and misogynist like James Bond or the young Michael Caine. More significantly in the context of present discussion, Jason Bourne  never  knows what he’s supposed to be doing, since he is not given a specific assignment (or rather he reneges on it and forgets what it was), nor does he have a specific goal of his own except the vague one of staying alive and somehow getting to the bottom of the mystery. Though capable of rational planning, he  survives because of his brilliant improvisation, his adroit use of chance events, his inner confidence and reliance on gut feeling — he senses at once when a situation is going bad and whether someone is trustworthy or not. He surf rides on the sea of events and is rapid enough to keep upright on his surfboard. Moreover, there is no final conclusion (or not yet anyway) : in the next round (next film) he is no further advanced than he was at the beginning, but has to start everything all over again. All this is far closer to what actually goes on in real life  — provided, of course, we discount the fatuous car chases and other impossibilities.

          Jason Bourne actually has a foot in both camps : he is not a perfect  example of what one might call the ‘drifting hero’ , and this is, in a way, right and proper since the genre is, at the end of the day, still the action movie/thriller. But Jason Bourne is very different from his tiresome know-all  predecessors because, for one thing,  he is reactive rather than pro-active : he is at his best when he is being attacked which is why he employs the highly original tactic of making his whereabouts known so as to get his enemies to come at him (by deliberately getting picked up at Naples Customs in The Bourne Supremacy and, again, by using a known passport identity in New York in The Bourne Ultimatum). He is someone who never knows who he is nor where he is going, and thus finds himself continually buffeted about by unforeseen events,   because in his case he has literally lost his memory. For once the amnesia cliche has an existential dimension : Jason Bourne is humanity thrown into an unintelligible and dangerous world  where,  to survive, one has to adapt, endlessly adapt, to endlessly novel situations. Maybe, the future, if there is one, will depend on people like this, people who do not know who they are (but are eager to find out), and who do not know where humanity is heading. 

A much purer example of a ‘drifting hero’ is Solly in the much underrated film Europa, Europa. The main character is a young Jewish boy successively forced to flee Germany and then Western Poland because of Hitler. (The film does not depend on suspense, so I do not think I am giving anything important away by summarising the plot.) Solly is the ‘victim’ of events throughout the film, but surprisingly this works to his advantage partly through luck (or providence if one believes in such things) and partly because of his chameleon-like adaptability. He does not choose to flee, his father orders him to do so and he reluctantly obeys. It is chance not intent that separates him from his brother and makes him fall into Russian hands which, as it happens, gives him temporary protection. Again, by chance not judgment, he gets separated from the fleeing schoolchildren of the Komsomol orphanage and thus gets captured by a division of the German army.  Far from being a disaster, once again this ends up to his advantage and despite his Jewish origins  and eventually he is even enrolled in an elite Hitler Youth  school. He has throughout the film no goal whatsoever except to stay alive, no tactics to speak of except to play along with whatever happens to him. He only ever makes two decisions off his own bat, one to desert from the German army to the Russians  and the other to try and make it look as if he has a foreskin. The first decision results in him leading a successful attack on th Russians — the last thing he aimed to do — and his feeble attempt at tying up his penis has no importance in the story except to show his desperation. 

You may be surprised to learn — I was not actually —  that this  completely  fantastic tale is based on reality, which James Bond and Rambo most certainly are not. (Solly’s story is roughly  that of Solomon Perel, a German Jew who survived the Holocaust .)


Another example of the same sort of hero, or rather protagonist, is Butch Haynes in what is perhaps Clint Eastwood’s best film, A Perfect World. Two convicts break out of an American prison and take a young boy as hostage. Predictably one of the two gets shot and good riddance. The rest of the film is taken up by Butch Haynes (brilliantly played by Kevin Cosner) driving around Texas with the young boy hostage. He has no special goal and, as one of the pursuers says, “he’s just going  around in circles”.  Instead of using the boy as a human shield — which would be the expected and indeed rational thing to do — Butch Haynes develops such a good relationship with the boy that from then on his main interest  is to stay with him and enjoy life. on a day to day, or rather hour by hour,  basis. There is some talk of ‘going to Alaska’ but they never even get on the road there and this detail is actually not only redundant but strikes  a rare false note.  Nor does Butch Haynes end up in the town where he was born in a sort of  Freudian ‘return to the scene of the crime’  (as it looks at one point  that he might): he just keeps driving around with the engaging young boy and changing cars.  I cannot say much more without giving away the plot which, in this case, does matter. The unexpected conclusion is emotionally unsatisfying (to me at any rate) and just prevents the film being a masterpiece,  but is entirely convincing realistically — suffice it to say that it is all based on a mistake as so many tragic events are in real life (think of the Menzies shooting). 

Whether there are going to be any more films predicated on the sort of human psychology I have suggested remains to be seen : I think this very likely. We are moving into a very different era now and presumably this will eventually be reflected in the films and novels that will be  produced. Something like a paradigm shift  is emerging in Western society, a movement away from the whole rationalistic, macho, goal-directed take on  human nature  that we inherit from the Enlightenment . Towards what exactly? Something much more fluid and adaptive, and something which makes much more use of the unconscious.  But there is a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ way of drifting your way through life : indeed the aim of one of the world’s  most important philosophies, Taoism, is to teach — or rather encourage —   the ‘good’ way of drifting.

1 Comment

  1. ron hansford said,

    November 20, 2008 at 10:39 am

    A thought-provoking essay drawing together insights from diverse disciplines: philosophy, history, politics, economics, psychology, religion, film-criticism. This is a brilliant piece of writing.

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