If You Can’t Understand Why Someone Did Something…

Have you ever squared off against someone pushing food you don’t want, and they won’t take no for an answer? They tend to badger people with less-than-compelling arguments like this:

But you haven’t tried MY zucchini!

The more tenacious ones will argue well past the point of incivility. If you ask them why it’s so damned important to eat their hellspawn food, they’ll say something like, “you’ll like it!”

That’s not an answer. It doesn’t offer a lick of insight as to their motivation. They’re just repeating themselves. Why?

We all wrestle with this question once in a while: how do you make sense of a person’s motive when their motive is elusive?

Lately, in answer to that question, this advice seems to be making the rounds:

If you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequence and infer the motive.

I have heard Jordan Peterson attribute the saying to Carl Jung. A rudimentary search suggests there is some basis for the quote in the fourth volume of Jung’s Collected Works.

To my mind, it doesn’t matter where the maxim originated. It is the worst kind of speculation. Why? Because it looks good, and it sounds smart, but it’s little more than a fancy way to guess.

I have started calling this maxim Jung’s Shovel because shovels are good for spreading manure. Manure is useful, but it’s not the desired end product. Likewise, Jung’s Shovel isn’t necessarily a bad way to think about un-understandable behavior. I’ll get to that.

First, here’s the problem. Suppose I’m squaring off against the zucchini bully, and they won’t relent. The consequence of their behavior is that I will get angry. In the absence of any other explanation, Jung’s Shovel would have me infer the person wanted to make me angry.

Maybe that’s true… or maybe not.

The best Jung’s Shovel can give you is a hypothesis. A speculation. A guess. I don’t like to make judgements or decisions based on guesses — especially at work.

Example: suppose a kindhearted family man exceeds the speed limit on a highway. As a result of his recklessness, he causes a 17-car pileup.

The police interview him afterward, and he honestly has no reason to explain his speeding. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t inattentive or distracted. He wasn’t late, or hopped up on caffeine, or trying to outrun the bad guys.

He was simply speeding, and he can’t explain why.

If we infer the motive from the consequence, we have to conclude he wanted to cause an accident. That conclusion is — if you’ll pardon the clinical jargon — dumb. There is simply no basis for it.

In a clinical context, it’s worse than dumb. Imagine a psychologist testifying in court that, in his professional opinion, the kindhearted family man intended to cause an accident. Yikes.

No skilled psychologist would do that in court. But we do it in the clinic all the time — as does anyone who has ever tried to figure out a boss, a significant other, or a carnie at the state fair.

I can think of three things that make Jung’s Shovel alluring to otherwise rational people.

  1. It might be correct. Technically, it’s possible the kindhearted family man intended to cause an accident. However unlikely it might be, it’s possible.
  2. It’s unfalsifiable. We can’t prove that he didn’t intend to cause the accident. To a lazy mind, or to a mind that really wants to believe a thing, that’s close enough.
  3. It’s fancy. Once we decide the outcome was intentional, then we get to contrive an intriguing explanation. People love a titillating story. Maybe the man was speeding because he was angry at his wife, and beneath his conscious awareness he was feeling especially nihilistic. That’s a good story. The less data you have, the easier it is to write that kind of story, and the harder it is to notice when you are wrong.

Here’s a more mundane and realistic example to show how tempting this kind of addled thinking can be.

Suppose a woman has a history of dating men who turn out to be distant and faithless. Maybe one ex-boyfriend fled the country after they discussed marriage. Another was unfaithful. A third was so self-absorbed he couldn’t focus on her at all.

Let’s suppose further this woman has no idea why she keeps choosing men who abandon her in one way or another. If we apply Jung’s Shovel, we have to conclude she wants to be abandoned.

That’s not so far-fetched. People have clever ways of getting affection while avoiding intimacy. Still, there are plenty of other possible explanations.

Maybe she’s drawn to qualities in men that happen to correspond with disloyalty. Maybe she’s on autopilot, unwittingly repeating the pattern her parents modeled. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw.

Jung’s Shovel can’t see those explanations. Worse than that, it encourages us to stop looking for them. Why should we keep looking? The Shovel gives us an explanation that might be correct, is unfalsifiable, and is delightfully fancy.

Having said all that, I’d be lying if I said I don’t use Jung’s Shovel all the time. I try to use it responsibly by remembering this: Jung’s Shovel provides a hypothesis, not an explanation.

Maybe the zucchini bully was trying to provoke me. Maybe the kindhearted family man did intend to cause an accident. Maybe the heartbroken woman is avoiding intimacy.

The ideas are worth exploring. They also merit skepticism until the evidence is compelling enough to reject other explanations.

I don’t know about you, but I have to be skeptical of my own hypothesizing in order to avoid motivated reasoning, which is that process of reaching the conclusion I want to reach.

Here’s how Lee Jussim and his colleagues (2019) described motivated reasoning:

When information supports preferred conclusions, people experience positive affect and easily accept the evidence.… When information supports an undesired (or belief-inconsistent) conclusion, however, people experience negative affect and critique, ignore, or reject the evidence on irrelevant grounds.

I call it buying my own bullshit. Whatever you call it, motivated reasoning is enticing because it feels good.

Jung’s Shovel can be useful, or it can be an on-ramp to motivated reasoning. If you want to be a genius, just avoid buying your own bullshit whenever you can manage it. You’ll be miles ahead of most people.

So often, what we think we know about a situation is only the beginning of understanding, not the end. Jung’s Shovel is a reasonable tool for building a hypothesis. Beyond that, it can only sling manure.


Jussim, L., S.T. Stevens, N. Honeycutt, S.M. Anglin, and N. Fox. 2019. “Scientific Gullibility.” In J.P. Forgas and R.F. Baumeister (eds.) The Social Psychology of Gullibility. New York: Routledge.