Understanding Anti-Social Behavior

Understanding Anti-Social Behavior

“Why?” “What could possibly explain this behavior?”  “How did we get to this state of affairs?” These questions and a host of similar ones are asked by millions of Americans every time they read a newspaper or watch a TV newscast. Even individuals who have studied aberrant behavior simply can’t make sense of the dramatic increase in such behavior in recent years.

Why does a man approach a woman waiting on a subway platform and push her off the platform onto the tracks?

Why, when two students see a classmate standing by his hall locker, do they knock him down and viciously stomp him? And why, when several other students see what is happening, do they walk over and join in the stomping?

Why, while walking in a mall and seeing a mother with her young son, does a man come up behind them and punch the little boy in the back of the head?

Why does a high school student walk through parking lots, key ring in hand, scratching the finish on every car he passes.

Why do young people post insults and false stories about fellow students on social media?  And why, when they learn that their targets have been traumatized and clinically depressed by their assaults, do they celebrate?

Why do young men walk down crowded city streets with baseball bats in hand and swinging them at selected passersby?

Why do male college students invite female students to parties, serve them drugged drinks, take turns raping them, videotaping the assaults and then posting them on social media?

Why do gangs of people rush into stores, grab as much merchandise as they can hold, and then rush out without paying?

Why do people attempt to deny the right of free speech to anyone who merely disagrees with them?

Why do groups of young people demand that the names of America’s founding fathers and other famous people be removed from buildings and their statues demolished despite their contributions to society?

This list of outrageous, immoral, and in many cases criminal behaviors could easily be expanded.

Ironically, one of the individuals most responsible for all the behaviors I mentioned was a man relatively few people have heard of-psychologist Carl Rogers, whose ideas were expressed precisely when the rapidly expanding communications media were creating mass culture. Those ideas were known as “Humanistic Psychology.” He not only urged his own clients to follow them. He also lectured on them in universities and at major conferences, and published books on them. The many disciples and devotees he attracted spread his ideas even more widely.

A key tenet of Roger’s theory was that people should trust themselves more than authorities or experts and to base that trust on feeling and sensing instead of thinking and evaluating. (Oddly, he claimed that feeling and sensing are rational, yet then argued they are superior to rationality.) Here is how he explained his position in On Becoming a Person (1961), his most influential book.

 “I have little sympathy with the rather prevalent concept that man is basically irrational, and that his impulses, if not controlled, will lead to destruction of others and self. Man’s behavior is exquisitely rational . . .” One of the basic things which I was a long time in realizing, and which I am still learning, is that when an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing, it is worth doing. [Italics his.] Put another way, I have learned that my total organismic sensing of a situation is more trustworthy than my intellect . . .  “Evaluation by others . . . can never be a guide for me”. . . “[The healthy person] recognizes that it rests within himself to choose; that the only question which matters is, ‘Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which truly expresses me?’” . . .  He also spoke favorably of the progress of his clients who followed his guidance: “I find that increasingly [for] such individuals . . .  doing what ‘feels right’ proves to be a competent and trustworthy guide to behavior which is truly satisfying.” He explains that a positive development occurs when “the person discovers that he can trust his own feelings and reactions—that his own deep impulses are not destructive or catastrophic…”

These ideas were so widely promoted for over six decades that they became deeply implanted in popular culture.  As a result, several generations of Americans have embraced them, applied them in their own lives, and taught them to their children. Most did so without realizing how much the new ideas differ from those of earlier times or how profoundly they would affect society. This explains why millions of people are perplexed by the dramatic increase in anti-social behavior and are asking “Why?” “What could possibly explain this behavior?”  “How did we get to this state of affairs?” with little hope of finding an answer.

But there is an answer: People who engage in anti-social behavior, including the most immoral and criminal varieties, are simply following their feelings, as Carl Rogers said they should. And they are not wondering, let alone questioning, whether their behavior is wrong because Carl Rogers told them their feelings and “deep impulses” are “not destructive or catastrophic” but only “deeply satisfying.” I’m not suggesting that such people have ever read Rogers’ books. They haven’t had to because they have been surrounded by his ideas since they were born and therefore believe they are justified in doing whatever they feel the urge to do, whether it be punching and kicking a stranger, robbing a store, abducting and raping a woman, shooting children in a classroom or worshippers in a church, or committing arson.

At this point you may be thinking, “This is insane. Somehow we’ve got to spread the word that Rogers’ ideas are absurd. People can’t go around doing whatever they feel like doing. Some behavior is good, and some is bad. We are all responsible for knowing the difference and behaving accordingly, and those who refuse to live by this rule must be held accountable.”

To those who are thinking this, I say, good for you. Now your job (and mine) is to go beyond thinking  and help to spread the insight to our families, our communities, and most importantly to educators.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero