The Butterfly effect

Can we predict human behaviour?

Do you know how the kids in your classroom are going to behave next time you see them?

Some say yes, pretty much- you know them well enough, and have a sense of how they normally act. But sometimes people can act in ways that surprise even themselves, which raises an interesting question for teachers: how do you know your behaviour policy will work?

This is an important point. Do we have freewill, or are we simply automatons: the product of prior events? Or are we influenced by a mix of DNA, culture, biology and circumstance? My considered opinion is that we do have free will. But even if we don’t, we are faced with two possible alternatives:

  • We have free will; there is some part of our nature and consciousness that is not simply caused by external and internal factors, and we actually have some level of metaphysical control over our actions. One reason I like this is because it retains our sense of responsibility. If we don’t have the ability to decide one way or another, then it seems hard to see how we can be held to account for anything, as we had no say in the matter. That means that morality, and all questions of value and meaning suddenly
  • We have no free will. We are chariots of wrath, by demons driven; the product of soil and seed, nothing more.

The irony is that, for the purposes of our understanding of human behaviour, it doesn’t matter which one you choose to believe. Either way, the factors that affect our behaviour- immaterial, autonomous spirit or a million cogs in a great ethereal machine- are countless, remote, and devilishly cryptic. There are a million things that drive me this way or that, and brave is the man who tries to count them all.

It’s like the weather. We have a pretty good understanding of the ways that small, discrete particles interact with each other- Newtonian physics were good enough for a few centuries, and our understanding has only improved since, then, getting finer and finer with greater and greater detail. It’s how we’ve launched rockets that are round about now, entering interstellar space.

But there are limits to our inventiveness. Have you ever checked the weather? I’ll bet you have. The closer to the now you want, the more accurate it gets. The longer the range you’re looking for, the more erratic. The Met Office, which has some pretty big chops in the world of meteorology, doesn’t even make long range forecasts any more. Why? Because it’s all too unpredictable. Even though we know what happens when the billiard ball of one air molecule hits another, we don’t know what will happen when trillions of them hit each other at different speeds and rotations, and temperatures. It’s not that we don’t have the maths; we just don’t have the processing power.

Humans are like that. As I mentioned, I know that if I treat people kindly, they will often warm to me. But you never know…there may be someone who decides to take advantage of your kindness, or who takes offence, for reasons that may only be discernible by themselves. Our complexity and unpredictability is something quite special. I once ran night clubs, and one night, a packed evening, we had to evacuate for a fire alarm. You haven’t seen chaos until you’ve tried to evacuate a building full of drunk people. But even the most marinated of merry-makers saw the sense of not burning to death. Stimulus A led to reaction B.

Except for the one merry soul who I caught as I made my last rounds of the building, he had wormed his way onto the kitchen on the top floor and was happily frying himself an egg and whistling the theme tune toThe Magnificent Seven. When I asked him what he was doing, he said simply, ‘Nice bit of breakfast, innit?’ as if it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

So anyone who has the courage to try to form a law of human behaviour must wear a crown of caution: the law is nothing like a causal law of the natural sciences. Even they have to admit that they simply haven’t been proven wrong yet; the social sciences can’t even muster this claim. It has to be satisfied with the position that it occupies. Good social science is cautious, makes few predictions, and at best offers only a partial explanation of the processes that have led to any conclusion.

Bad social science affects omniscience; it poses as an explanation that fits every occasion; it fakes certainty; it pretends to be as rigorous and rigid as the laws of motion, but fails to be even as thorough as your average fortune teller. It is the devil. It not only doesn’t assist our understanding of humanity, it detracts from it, because it is a false prophet.

What does this mean for a teacher?

It means that when you run a room, be prepared for children to act unpredictably; be aware that the task you set for twenty-four pupils might have an unexpected effect on number twenty-five. Remember that the lovingly crafted lesson you prepared on Egyptian funerals might be the trigger for someone else’s inner turmoil. But fortunately it also means that when someone does act out of character, you should look for reasons behind it, if you have time, rather than simply assume it as their new default. If a kid suddenly works hard when they’ve spent the year loafing, try to find out why, so that you can – if possible- replicate the conditions. And if a good kid goes bad, spend a minute wondering why. They still deserve the consequences, but they also might just deserve help.

Good luck

Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him. His latest book, Teacher, is out now, published by Continuum/ Bloomsbury