Purposes, beliefs and psychic suffering
The mind as a computer
According to the model of behavior driven by purposes (Castelfranchi, Mancini, Mycelia, 2001) the mind is a system of finalistic regulation of behavior based on two types of representations: purposes and beliefs. The purposes guide our actions according to the outcome, or how we want things to appear.
“I want to succeed in work, become a parent, be admired etc…“. Those just enunciated are all purposes present in our minds. In a more or less unconscious way they guide the behavior and influence our emotional life. Desires, aspirations, regrets, expectations or needs, are all part of this class of purposes.
Beliefs are representations of how the state of things appears. They are based on opinions, inferences, memories, predictions and perceptions.
“Peter is more handsome than I am, an engineer is a graduate, the dog is a four-legged animal, the water boils at 90 degrees centigrade”
Beliefs, or knowledge, represent everything we know about the world. This baggage is organized in a hierarchical network system. Whenever a new information is inserted, it is integrated with everything else. The human mind has an implicit imperative: coherence.
New and old information is verified and transformed to ensure that the system works harmoniously, without contradictions.
Terminal and instrumental purposes
Even the representations of the purposes have a hierarchical organization. Therefore, there are terminal purposes (to become famous, to be loved, always to do good) and instrumental purposes (to study, to find a job, to weave emotional relationships, to eat, to mate etc…). Through the instrumental purposes we organize the actions to reach the terminals. So what defines mental activity and orients behavior is the comparison between representations. Between purposes and beliefs.
What shapes the particular and unique structure of purposes and knowledge of each, is one’s life history, one’s childhood, ultimatelly what we learned is important to obtain. What we believe is best to avoid.
In this computational vision of humans, emotions and emotional life are inserted. Emotions have a close relationship with purposes and reciprocal influences as well.
These relationships introduce the topic of psychic suffering.
Why do we suffer?
Pain may refer to different objects; when it’s referred to the body we talk about physical pain, but if it’s referred to mental states we talk about psychic pain. Psychic suffering stems from the frustration of an existential purpose. As the purposes possess a coefficient of value (they are not all equally important) their frustration will generate a gradient of suffering linked to the value of frustrated purpose.
We do not suffer the same way if our favorite football team loses the championship or if our father decides not to talk us anymore. More in detail, if we have a purpose like “I want Carl to Love Me” and a belief “Carl loves Stefany”, the resulting will be the frustration of our purpose. It follows the condition of psychic suffering.
Suffering is reported by an emotion, a psycho-physiological activation and a correlated behavioral. Prostration, anger, despair. Through these channels we “feel” the psychic pain. It is usually necessary for the frustrated purpose to be also active in the mind of those who think, but as we know there are unconscious purposes (and beliefs). That is, not subject to introspection and meta-knowledge. Wishes we don’t know we have. It is possible during a psychotherapy session to discover its existence. That insight that usually takes the form of a “Eureka” detector.
We still talk about psychic suffering when we refer to the disappointment of an expectation. We often have a purpose and belief that this can happen. As a result of real events, or only supposed ones (we always remember that for the mind in general what is assumed true often is as important as the objective reality of things!), our belief changes in a prediction of unfeasibility.
We convince ourselves that we won’t get what we wanted. Our purpose therefore comes out frustrated. The more time we have lived in the conviction of realizing it, the more effort and resources we have employed, the more the pain of disappointment resembles the pain of a real loss. As if we had lost something we actually still didn’t own!
The degree of psychic suffering associated with loss is greater because it is the sum of two factors: the frustration of the purpose and the discomfort of having to cognitively reorganize its own purposes.
Internal restructuring of the mind. In a nutshell a double pain, because it puts us not only in the face of mourning, but also the weight of a reorganization of our internal world.
The description of the mental functioning according to this model offers important cues in the clinical practice of psychologists and therapists. Beyond the theory, which remains perhaps not quite understandable. Beyond the computer-like language. Yet he manages to grasp the nuances of the psychic life of the human being at nothing irrelevant.
For the good outcome of a therapy it is important to know what are the purposes of an individual. Where and how did he/she inherit them or form them? How do he/she read the reality surrounding him/her? And how does it react to it?
Thinking in terms of purposes and beliefs can help both the patient and the therapist respond to fundamental doubts about change.
First of all, the one called “neurotic paradox” “because in spite of the unhappy and infelicitous consequences, we continue to slam at the same points, expecting a different outcome, and why we can not consider better alternatives?”