The Roundup -

Success and Failure

Guest Opinion


The determinants of success and failure in life are complex. People who have had advantages in life are more likely to succeed, and people who have not had these advantages are more likely to fail. The seeming inevitability of this trend is depressing. Is there no remedy to this situation? This question is more than just theoretical in nature.

When I was doing my premed studies and getting a psychology degree at the University of Minnesota (before I went to medical school) I took a lot of classes that said a person’s behavior was determined only by hereditary and their environmental circumstances. They said that “Nature versus Nurture” explained all behavior. That school was dedicated to the principle that psychology is a science just like biology. Since we can’t change someone’s Genetic makeup, the only way we can exert a positive change in a person’s life is to change their Environment. This theory implies that criminals and sociopaths can be made valuable members of society if only they would be rewarded for good behavior, and not rewarded for bad behavior.

The champion of the so-called “Behavioral Science” was Dr B.F. Skinner. He was the psychologist who based his understanding of human behavior by watching what rats did in a “Skinner Box” where rewards (reinforcements) could be controlled. Rats could be trained to do the right thing, and – by his way of thinking – the same thing should apply to humans. Skinner’s views on environmental influences on behavior have been widely accepted. This has influenced how our country attempts to address poverty, crime, and other psychosocial problems. The promise of fixing these problems has never been realized, though – even though billions of dollars have been spent on these programs. Many people say that we just have not spent enough money in these areas. I won’t get into the politics of this . . . The more interesting point, in my opinion, is how many disadvantaged people have done well in spite of their lack of opportunities in life. Dr Ben Carson is a good example. Equally amazing are the many examples of people born “with a silver spoon” who have not done well.

Dr. Skinner wrote “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” and in this book he proclaimed that environmental influences are everything. He implied that human will is irrelevant. No one can truly be called Free, because circumstances determine their behavior. In a similar way, no actions can be truly worthy of credit (Dignity) because they are the result of the environmental influences that shaped them, and only occur because of past and present rewards received.

I strongly disagree with the premise of this book. Although Skinner’s work has many valid points, I believe freedom and dignity are real. Environment alone does not explain all behavior. While “Behaviorism” has been the dominant school of psychology in this country, I believe other attempts to explain human behavior are also useful.

There is a school of psychology called “Transactional Analysis,” which is an offshoot of psychoanalytic theory. This discipline was the brainchild of Dr Eric Berne in the 1950s. Dr Berne upset the psychiatric world by implying that people with mental illness could actually be cured – rather than just treated. A student of Berne’s was Dr Claude Steiner, who wrote an excellent book called “Life Scripts.” This book discusses how people have a life script, which is a complex set of internalized instructions, that predicts their failure or success. Negative life scripts are the result of unhealthy childhood experiences. These people have been told, usually unintentionally but sometimes intentionally, that their life is destined for failure. They compulsively do things that jeopardize their own success. Analyzing a person’s script can help free them from the compulsion to do self-defeating behaviors. Since this script is a learned decision made in their youth, it is possible to “undo” this internal message. It is possible to re-write a life script into something that is more conducive to happy and successful living.

In contrast to Skinner’s teaching, it is my contention that Thoughts and Beliefs influence behavior in humans as much as (if not more) than environmental factors. If a person believes the world is an awful place, then it usually is. If a person believes they will fail, then they usually do – and vice versa. A classic example of how expectations influence behavior are the studies that have been done on school performance. School teachers were told that randomly chosen groups of children were “above average” or “average” in their potential for learning. Lo and behold, the “above average” kids performed better on follow-up testing. Teaching methods were presumably influenced by these imaginary differences. These children believed they could do better, and they did. This phenomenon, which has been frequently demonstrated, is called “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Replacing negative expectations with positive ones is the first step to changing tragic and self-defeating life scripts. It takes a lot of effort to get people to change their negative life scripts into positive ones. Counselling is often needed. Some of this can also be done on an individual basis by reading good books and other inspired writings. Learning problem solving skills is important. Co-existing illnesses (including biochemical depression) will need to be treated. The effect of expectations have also been demonstrated in traditional medicine. People with diseases who believe they are going to do well seem to have better outcomes. This does not mean that medical disease can be cured with positive expectations, but it helps.

This article has been a brief discussion of how “life scripts” can influence outcomes in life. Many of these attitudes are lifelong and resistant to change. It is helpful to look at negative attitudes and replace them with positive ones. This concept is simple enough, but is important nonetheless. It is possible, albeit difficult, to overcome unfortunate environmental influences. Thoughts and beliefs, in my opinion, can help overcome negative early childhood experiences.


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