One way to approach the investigation of behavior, including the relative role of thoughts, goals, and feeling, is to consider what we’re trying to do. When we’re acting we’re not always trying to do something. Sometimes we’re just reacting. Other times behavior has a definite direction, purpose, and intention. We have an end in mind. Our behavior is about something.
Some of the background that might affect what we’re trying to do can include our ongoing pursuits, common activities and long-range goals. Also relevant are the specific details of an event or situation that evokes a reaction or response. And coloring it all are characteristics of our human condition, existential realities that constrain or afford behavior, in a manner that can be described using the perspective of phenomenology. Eugene DeRobertis, for example, in his book Humanizing Child Developmental Theory: A Holistic Approach (2008), describes the work of Robert Knowles (1986) who created a modified Eriksonian theory outlining how salient facets of human existence emerge sequentially across the psychosocial stages of development. According to Knowles, each stage is characterized by a dominant ego issue and one of two organizing tendencies. These are contrasting tendencies going in opposite directions in handling the age-specific ego issue.
Erikson’s stage of trust versus mistrust, according to Knowles, is dominated by the issue of consistency and predictability, organized by fear or the escape into fantasy. This stage is characterized by our growing awareness and understanding of contingency in the environment, as we progressively recognize the variety of possible events and whether they are desirable or undesirable. The stage of autonomy versus shame or doubt is dominated by the issue of control, organized by willfulness or the escape into wishing. This stage is characterized by a growing awareness of things that can be done or their different consequences. The stage of initiative versus guilt is dominated by the issue of direction, organized by boredom or an escape into enthusiasm. This stage is characterized by a growing awareness of individual preferences in how we engage with life. In middle childhood, the stage of industry versus inferiority is dominated by the issue of method & technique and a desire for constancy, organized by technology, or by an escape into anti-technology. This stage is characterized by a growing awareness of the importance of doing things well and the variety of devices and techniques that might contribute to competent functioning, as well as being characterized by a pervasive application of evaluative processes to assess how we’re doing and guide our activity. And finally, in adolescence, the stage of identity versus role confusion is characterized by a growing awareness of our constant attributes, organized by fanaticism or by an escape into faintheartedness. Through these stages we successively discover and master our human capacities to manage contingency, control, direction, technique, and integration. Successful navigation of the stages, as described by Erikson and emphasized by Knowles, successively endows the developing individual with the strengths of hope, will, purpose, skill, and fidelity. This view of the human condition reflects the central role of active participation in facing and surmounting the challenges and adversity represented by the environment and the potential limitations of the human capacity to survive in the face of adversity.
If we experience an event or situation of adversity, it will likely produce stress, and our responses will fall into the category of coping. A good deal of human behavior qualifies as coping, because adversity is everywhere in human life. This accounts for a fundamental characteristic of human existence, our vulnerability (Spencer, 2017). Coping has been described as strategic behavior (Fisher, 1986). We act strategically when we consciously and deliberately take into account our circumstances and the potential unfolding of events, including possible actions of others, in choosing our next move. Strategic behavior reflects another fundamental characteristic of human existence, our capacity and tendency to act agentically (Bandura, 2006, 2018). While vulnerability reflects the reality of our limitations, agency provides the reality of our opportunities to respond and overcome using evolved capacities. These two realities provide the field of action that defines what we’re trying to do, what we’re about in what we’re doing.