Thinking and Doing

I read The Reader by Bernard Schlink over ten years ago in 1998, the year it was published in this country. The recent movie version of the novel brought the tale back to me and clarified a number of uncertainties I had when I first read the book.

While I found the story both moving and disturbing, when I checked the inside back cover of the book, I was surprised to find I made note of only three passages. I must have been more frugal in the early days of collecting passages for my Commonplace Book than I seem to be now.

Two of the three--one long, one short—confront a problem that was among the central concerns of my work in psychology. And I recall how pleased I was at the time I came across them to find the issue so clearly articulated in a work of fiction. This was long before I came to appreciate the truths that are so often found in literature.

The passages address the relationship between saying and doing, between thought and action. Schlink writes:

“There’s no need to talk, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does.”

“I don’t know why I did it. But today I can recognize that events back then were part of a lifelong pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together—I think I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something—whatever that may be—goes into action; “it” goes to the woman I don’t want to see anymore, “it” makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head, “it” keeps on smoking although I have decided to quit, and then quits smoking just when I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a smoker and always will be. I don’t mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.”

A lifetime of thinking about this discrepancy has convinced me that all too often we overestimate the influence of our thoughts on our behavior. What we think is only one of the many factors that influence behavior, especially in situations where there are strong external pressures to act in a contrary fashion. In these situations, individuals may find it very difficult to translate what they believe into what they actually do.

The task before us is to learn how to overcome this effect, to learn how to make what we know and what we believe more salient in those situations where we wish to act consistently. Sometimes this occurs naturally, when, for example, newly acquired information is still readily available to us or a when a resolution is newly made. However, these beliefs and intentions usually become less and less decisive with the passage of time. Individuals then need something more to make what they believe to be an imperative for action. Until we develop more effective ways to accomplish this, we should be careful not to overestimate the extent to beliefs, even strongly held ones, are closely related to behavior.