Why we do what we do. How psychology determines our everyday life

Why we do what we do. How psychology determines our everyday life

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Droemer 2018 - everything is psychology!

Jens Förster is head of the "Systemic Institute for Positive Psychology in Cologne" and is professor of social psychology. Positive psychology criticizes the fact that 20th century psychology concentrates too much on psychopathology, that is, on mental disorders and not on the spectrum of the functioning psychic mechanisms. Rather, positive psychology is about using knowledge about the human psyche to enable “normal people” to live better lives. Förster's new work "Why we do what we do" shows exactly what the title promises.

"Everything is psychology. Every handshake, every purchase decision, every boring political debate reveals a lot about the actors as soon as you look at things psychologically. ”
Jens Forester

Thinking, feeling, behavior

The 500 pages are divided into three parts. The first thing is what psychology is. Then Förster goes into the basic pillars of psychology: thinking, feeling, behavior. The third part deals with topics, areas and problem areas of everyday psychology.

The book is as scientific as it is understandable for laypeople and, which is rare in psychological textbooks, can be directly transferred to everyday life, so it is valuable for understanding your own thinking, feeling and behavior and to steer it in a positive direction. Starting with purchase decisions, through conflicts in the job, the (anything but objective) assessment of people, meaning and dangers of stereotypes to the manipulation of opinions. Förster also addresses major questions: life goals, relationships, intelligence, happiness, communication, helpfulness and aggression.

Personality and environment

Förster shows that thinking and behavior are based on an interplay of personality and environment. However, we never see an “objective” environment, but distort the environment through our perception. So what we see as the environment is a construct. But Förster is not a social constructivist for whom there is no real environment, but an empiricist. For him, psychology is an empirical science that, in studies, makes statistical statements about the behavior of people, but cannot predict the behavior of an individual.

Already in the first part, Förster analyzes how thinking, feeling and behavior arise. He emphasizes that rewards are motivating and differentiates between positive and negative learning. Positive education ignores unwanted behavior in children and promotes positive experiences, while negative education punishes unwanted behavior and the absence of punishment is a learning goal. In later life, positive upbringing showed itself as idealism, self-actualization, but also as a willingness to take risks, while people who learned to avoid punishments remained more dutiful and risk-averse.

According to Förster, people are neither rational nor economic, but are easy to manipulate. According to Förster, prejudices such as stereotypes have evolutionary roots and determine our perception. For example, subjects rated politicians, partners or products more positively when happy music was playing in the background. If you don't know where a good mood is coming from, quickly think that the subject of the judgment is causing it, even if it isn't. On the other hand, if the test participants were previously informed that the music could put them in a pleasant mood, the mood did not influence the ratings.

Emotions control motor skills - and vice versa

Expression patterns and motor skills are closely linked to our emotions. Physical expressions alone could change, intensify or soften emotions. Folding your hands in prayer leads to greater self-control, stretching out your stinking finger lets us notice the aggression of others, straightening up (position of power) increases the tendency to risk, leads to the release of testosterone and lowers the cortisol level. Washing your hands alleviates guilt for unethical behavior, says Förster.

In a good mood we tend to think of positive events and in a bad mood we tend to think of negative events. When we are in a good mood, according to Förster, we remember successes rather than failures.

The mood serves us as information: “We feel it immediately, and it is often (...) triggered by external events. However, using it uncritically as information leads to errors in judgment. (...) My son has just composed a great song, and I use this good mood as information for the assessment of the federal government, I act against all rules of reason. "(87). But that's exactly how judgments work, explains the psychologist.

Willingness to take risks

In general, people are willing to take more risks if they feel good. Förster says that a positive atmosphere is usually the result of a safe environment, and this security means that people are more confident and more creative. There is an upward spiral, according to the Broaden-and-Built theory: I'm in a good mood, then I get a great idea, it makes me feel even better, I remember more and my mood continues to rise. However, bad moods are a signal that danger is lurking. In such situations, we should not experiment and avoid mistakes.

If people know too little about the influence of moods on their own behavior, they could slide into a downward spiral. Then an expectation of failure leads to over-cautious behavior, which in turn leads to real failure, which contributes to an even worse mood, which leads to further failures and worsening of the mood.


According to Förster, motivation starts with a need or a goal. There are motivation to move closer to a desired goal, as well as avoidance motivation such as giving up smoking or avoiding the boss.

Having goals doesn't mean tackling them. The point is decisive for motivation, which is what the will leads to action. Technically, this would be the pre-decision phase, which ends with the decision to either pursue the goal or not. This is followed by the postdecisional, preactional, actional and postactional phase.

Some motives are of a physiological nature: eating, drinking, bowel movements or sex. Motifs in the narrow sense, on the other hand, are socially oriented and dependent on the personality. This includes power and connection to a community.

First of all, elementary needs such as eating, sleeping or security would have to be met before people choose more sophisticated motives such as creative thinking, self-actualization or moral action, says Förster.

Elementary or social?

This difference is not easy. Even very hungry people would not eat everything. According to Förster, physiological needs also go hand in hand with social and individual motives. Our environment reinforces certain activities and we store their value in our memory. This value arises in turn in a social context, which we often do not become aware of.

Forester asks, for example, whether our choice to study medicine is based on the fact that we wanted to help others or that our parents are doctors? The cultural aspect also plays a role: in a society in which doctors enjoy high prestige and income, the motivation for such a degree is higher than if their work was considered normal.

According to the author, the value of actions increases through many positive inputs. But we often find that values, interests and goals entered from outside are our own.

Motivation from within is stronger

Really intrinsic motivation is a much stronger drive. Whoever studies medicine because he enjoys it, is more motivated and in a state of deep concentration, is more likely to come when someone is enthusiastic about a task and it fits their own abilities. This condition reduces stress and is also healthy.

If tasks were boring, people would motivate themselves with additional stimuli. As a result, forest rangers hate both being underwhelmed and overwhelmed. Slightly overwhelming meanwhile encourages the motivation extraordinarily.

In addition to the fun, there is also the importance of being a motivating factor. Visiting relatives with Alzheimer's in the retirement home was not necessarily fun, but would be considered important. Goals with a focus on security and obligations, as well as goals with a focus on growth of self-fulfillment are characteristics of a stable character.

Doctorate and prevention

Positive reinforcement or withdrawal of positive promote self-realization. People who are in the doctorate focus can be better mobilized for activities in which they can realize themselves, people in the prevention mode better for those in which they have to show responsibility, says Förster.

For example, people with a PhD focus could be motivated with better prospects of doing sports. Prevention is more likely to motivate people with the negative consequences of lack of exercise.

Goals can be conditioned unconsciously if positive affective values ​​are linked to an activity. This will make it more interesting. Relocations or tidying up in studies were rated more attractively when words such as love, vacation or sun appeared on the computer.

Expectation of success

Another factor of motivation, according to Förster, is the expectation of success. No matter what the value of a goal is. With zero expectations of being successful, we would not tackle the goal. So you choose an action if something is important, interesting and promising for you at the same time. We would not tackle a goal that we expect to achieve but do not care about, nor would we fix ourselves to a goal that we care about but think we cannot achieve.


Knowledge of one's own abilities is often only pseudo-knowledge. In this way, expectations of failure would lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. The author emphasizes that people would be able to do a lot of things if they took away the negative view of themselves.

To reach the goal

Once the decision has been made, start planning. Now the advantages and disadvantages would be hidden - there is no longer any room for doubt and you concentrate on the goal. The more specific the plan, the more important it is to clarify when, where and how it will be implemented. Those who have concrete plans are more likely to stick to their goal if they encounter resistance. Goals should be specific, measurable, appealing, feasible and timed.

The post-action phase

Attributions of control, changeability and intentionality are highly motivating, according to Förster. The best thing is the appeal "I can do it, and I have to make an effort to do this and that so that I can do it". In this way, one honors one's own talents and promotes efforts without falling into idleness. Phrases like "I can't do it and I can't change it", on the other hand, slow down motivation.
The best way to achieve self-efficacy is to attribute the success to yourself and think that you can achieve something similar in the future. For example, people with depression showed patterns in which they viewed success as external, changeable and uncontrollable, but failure as internal, stable and also uncontrollable. That leads to helplessness.

Optimists, on the other hand, would have generalized self-efficacy. They tackle their problems frequently and are not discouraged by failures, face challenges and are therefore actually able to do many things better, explains Förster. In childhood, they were often encouraged to solve problems and parents attributed their success to their talents and efforts.

Unconscious goals

In studies, people became more aggressive when they heard an aggressive word without being aware of it. This would also result in contrast effects: If you unconsciously activate an action that you don't like, you often automatically do the opposite.

The fast unconscious

Many thoughts run in the background, but would become consciously controllable if you draw attention to them, says Förster. The unconscious can also activate to perform, as can systematically distort judgments about people, for example when math teachers overlook girls who report. This also applies to unconscious racism, for example. Activations of unconscious associations happen automatically and in a fraction of a second.

They are subject to errors if the information retrieved is incorrect. Sometimes we have no control over what is stored in long-term memory. Simply reading information such as “aggressive” activates a trace in the memory that is retained for a while.

Such associations only worked if the person did not know it. Like when we get drizzled with music in the supermarket and buy three chocolate bars instead of one without knowing why. The consciousness helps us to control such influences.


Activating awareness and correcting influences takes time and energy. Automatic processes, on the other hand, are fast and require little mental effort. Automatic thinking and behavior are characterized above all by the fact that we are not aware of the influence and the triggered process cannot be stopped.

According to Förster, the formerly mysterious unconscious is part of memory. We would activate information from it, but partly not know its sources. Consciousness, on the other hand, enables us to store things that have meaning for us. We couldn't plan without it. Planning makes it possible to postpone rewards, to do something or to let it go and to know why. Such self-regulation leads us to control the environment to a certain extent.

Awareness is the prerequisite for self-confidence. It enables ethical and prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is hard to imagine without an awareness of what could happen. Awareness also includes understanding yourself as someone with a past. We had to learn that in early childhood. Awareness enables flexibility. However, the unconscious is also quite flexible. So we did not let ourselves be subconsciously made to do things that we consciously reject and rejection of which we have internalized.

Förster focuses on developmental, personality, social, motivational, advertising and organizational psychology: From prejudices to relationships, from external and self-perceptions, to motivation and learning.

He explains how associations become attitudes and attitudes towards global judgments, which we do not check for their reality, although we mostly think that we have done so. We would not necessarily correct attitudes because of an insight into reality, but especially to compensate for cognitive dissonance, i.e. the contradiction between behavior and attitudes. Attitudes could also be changed through subtle, situational manipulations. If, according to Förster, we are looking for something positive about a stock in our memory, then we will also find something positive. Likewise, we would find something negative about the same inventory if we were looking for something negative.

It is difficult to change cognitive dissonance by changing one's behavior, as he explains using the example of smoking. It is easier to trivialize, trivialize or rationalize. For example, trivializing would be comparing yourself to someone who smokes a lot more. Or with someone who uses worse drugs. For example, rationalizing would be: "If I don't smoke, I will get fat, and that wouldn't be healthy either."

Another way to reduce dissonance is to question scientific findings or to provide false arguments: "Helmut Schmidt smoked like a chimney and turned 96."

Real behavior changes are more effective to reduce dissonance. If we really stopped doing undesired activities, we would be proud and our self-esteem would increase sustainably.


For a book that teaches the basics, Förster is unfortunately too stuck in social and societal psychology and does not deal with the evolutionary development of memory, consciousness or motivation. That would have given the icing on the cake, especially since it almost imposes itself on physiological needs or fears. The author vividly explains hundreds of psychological phenomena that occur in our everyday life and, more importantly, gives useful tips on how we can use them for our own good. In this respect, “Why we do what we do. How Psychology Determines Our Everyday Life ”by Jens Förster is a very worth reading book. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)


Jens Förster: Why we do what we do. How psychology determines our everyday life. Droemer. Munich 2018. ISBN 978-3-426-27741-6

Author and source information

Video: The Real Reason Youre Not Motivated (August 2022).