Sunday, June 17 , 2018, 4:43 pm | Mostly Cloudy 67º


Russell Collins: What Were You Thinking, Tiger Woods?

Our insatiable curiosity about human failings is all in our heads

“When my father passed away, when my kids were born and then what I have done here, it puts everything into perspective. It’s not about major championships, it is about how you live your life. I needed to change, and I need to be a better man. … I’m trying as hard as I possibly can to get my life better and stronger, and if I win majors along the way, so be it.”

Tiger Woods at his news conference on Monday

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, this is just typical of men. I hope Tiger wins nothing this year. He has dragged golf down to the pits of the earth with his disgusting behavior and shouldn’t even be there. Go away, Woods, and leave the professionals to do the job properly.”

— Excitable fan commenting about the news conference

When he returns to golf this week in Augusta, many fans will be watching him with a question on their minds: “Who is Tiger Woods, really?” While the unfolding story of Woods’ rise, fall and return holds all the epic drama of a classic Greek tragedy — Achilles brought down by his single, tragic flaw — the ongoing fascination of the public is primarily a psychological one.

This man with the steely control and indomitable will on the golf course and in public, yet whose personal life was a randy circus — which is he? A cold-blooded hypocrite? Or a good man struggling honestly with his demons?

The responses to Woods’ public apology last month showed this in spades: While the media experts provided colorless commentary about brand management and “doing what he had to do,” people interviewed on the street and in bars afterward had a much more psychologically nuanced and personal reaction. “He seemed sincere, but I’m not sure I trust him yet,” a New York fan said. “Too controlled,” said a guy in a U.K. bar. “I wanted to see more of the real Tiger Woods.”

I watched the apology on YouTube last weekend and felt a similar tug between two versions of the golfer. Version 1: “Wow, this guy has really been through the ringer, taken a hard look at himself and is in a profound process of change.” Version 2: “Tiger Woods has good speechwriters and gave a virtuoso performance.”

But wait a second. Why do I even care? Why are so many of us so interested in penetrating the veil and seeing into the heart of Woods. Especially when we know from personal experience that, on any given day, we ourselves succumb to temptation a hundred times, whether it’s the Dove bar we sneak from the freezer at midnight or something more scandalous. People are fallible and inconsistent most of the time — what else is there to say?

But we want much more. We want a suspenseful story with complex moral dilemmas; we want sympathetic heroes we can root for and bad guys we can boo. We want these things — this may come as a surprise — not because we are vicious gossips with no lives of our own, but because we are designed by nature to want them.

As long ago as 1944, psychologist Fritz Heider produced a little animation of geometric shapes following each other around. On the screen, a big triangle tracks a little circle around the frame, periodically coming in contact with it. When the little circle moves away from the big triangle, another, much smaller triangle moves into the gap.

As people watched Heider’s movie, they couldn’t help but anthropomorphize the geometric shapes, seeing them as living entities involved in social activities. The big triangle was seen as bullying the little circle as the little triangle tried bravely to intervene. People are naturally drawn, in other words, to interpret even simple patterns of movement among geometric shapes as human dramas, complete with emotions, desires, personalities and guilt or innocence. This interpretation is automatic: Knowing that these were just shapes in a movie didn’t stop Heider’s test subjects from seeing the story unfold. Even with little circles and triangles, people have a psychological interpretation of their motivation, often tied in with their judgments of good and evil, fair and unfair.

Psychologists believe that this assessment of people’s mental state is an involuntary aspect of our mental functioning, and they call it theory of mind. It’s an important human faculty that begins to develop in the first months of life as an infant starts to track his mother’s gaze to see where her attention is focused. He is forming a theory, not just of her mind, but of minds generally. As adults, we build complex models of other people’s mental and emotional worlds that include most of the information needed to predict their behavior — love, anger, greed, generosity, lust, etc. We map out the minds of those around us to protect ourselves from them if they are dangerous, or to rely on them if they are trustworthy, or something in between. As we fill in the details of that map, we feel more and more settled, more and more comfortable in their presence. But if the map is confusing or points in contradictory directions, then we want to know more. As in the case of Woods.

Which brings us to the question of free will.

Sometimes, when the stakes in the drama are high enough — when the deeds are more heinous and lives are at stake — public passions run hotter, and a new psychological factor emerges.

In 2001, when the news reports came out of Andrea Yates killing her five children — filling a bathtub with water and holding them under one by one until they stopped struggling — most of the people I talked with about it had the same reaction: What was going on in her head? As more details came out, people’s puzzlement grew. After drowning the children, she laid them out on the bed, one arm of each child laid neatly across the body of the next. She then called the police and calmly told them to come and get her. When she was interviewed by police later that day, she told them she had killed her children because she had done a bad job as a mother and wanted to punish herself. Later, there was talk — much talk — of depression and stress and even psychosis. Many saw her as profoundly disturbed, yet others found her crime unforgivable. The jury returned a sentence of guilty at her first trial.

What do you think? Should she have been punished?

Your answer most likely depends on your intuitions about justice and human nature. But even more important is your theory of Yates’ mind. People often disagree about what punishment criminals deserve, but almost everyone today agrees that, while the system must protect the public and deter future crimes, what goes on in a wrongdoer’s mind at the time of the deed should influence their punishment. Were they hearing voices? Blinded by ambition or lust? Caught up in extenuating circumstances? Afraid of being hurt themselves? Getting revenge for a terrible injustice? Or just trying to gain an advantage in life through criminal means?

Obviously, this is a weighty and complicated issue — assigning responsibility for one’s acts in the case of a murder trial. But in a more mundane way, most of us are assessing the blameworthiness of others pretty much constantly as we move through life. When we are frustrated or hurt or deprived of something we care about, we feel victimized and we want someone to blame. If we didn’t include free will in our model of the mind, then we could never get angry at the person who cuts us off on the freeway, or abandons us just when we need them most, or tricks us or treats us unfairly in any way. Nor could we ever celebrate gleefully when they get their just desserts. Only if they are making free choices can we hold them accountable. While we can easily accept the view of our therapist or local neuroscientist that our own lives are plagued by unconscious, biologically activated urges and drives, we are less interested in these explanations for everybody else.

Now, the philosophical debate is as old as philosophy itself — free will vs. “determinism,” or the belief that human action is not under human control. But today, the new technology for scanning brains is eating away at the case for free will.

Several years ago, Benjamin Libet, then at the University of California, San Francisco, found that brain activity related to getting ready for action begins almost a half-second before people have a conscious intention to move. This would mean that processes below the level of consciousness have already set the movement in motion, and the “decision” to move is just an ex post facto explanation rather than the cause of the movement.

Psychologist Daniel Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard, uses Libet’s experiments and later fMRI brain scans to further this argument in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will.

Free will is an illusion, according to Wegner, created when an intention or thought about an intention arises around the same time as the action itself. The proximity in time creates the illusion that we caused the action. Wegner has designed some fascinating experiments to demonstrate this, in which his research subjects have the strong experience of causing something to happen even though it was obvious that someone else had performed the action.

As so often happens in cognitive science, additional evidence for the case against free will comes from the unusual behavior of brain-damaged subjects. “Alien Hand Syndrome” is a condition where one hand performs meaningful functions — buttoning a button or removing a hairpin, for instance — yet the subject feels no sense of having willed the action. “Utilization behavior” is another example of brain-damaged activity that brings into bold relief the neurological problem of free will. People with this affliction are compelled to utilize or manipulate an object put before them, with no sense of making a choice to do so. Put a cup of coffee and a stirring stick in front of them, or a hat, and they will automatically start stirring or put on the hat. They have no sense of will.

But wait a minute. Are the scientists trying to tell us it wasn’t Woods making all those bad choices with all those women at once? It was just a glitch in his operating system that is currently being repaired by an addiction specialist? Not a very satisfying answer, is it?

As cognitive neuroscientists are busy disproving the existence of free will, most of us may be flat-out unwilling to accept a version of humanity that doesn’t include accountability — even many of the scientists themselves. Wegner says he prefers to live “as if” free will were more than just an illusion. “I think almost everyone who is happy and healthy tends to do that,” he says. And it’s true: Can you imagine a world where no one could be held morally responsible for anything? As psychologists Joshua Greene and Jonathon Cohen point out, “It is often said that if we do not believe in free will, then we cannot legitimately punish anyone and society must dissolve into anarchy.“

The world won’t dissolve over Woods’ peccadilloes anytime soon. But a world without a little tongue-clucking speculation about what goes on in his mind may be a world without a true moral compass — a world in danger of losing its way.

As I watched Woods rage during his news conference against the press corps’ intrusion into his private life, I took odd comfort from the thought that he was tilting at an ancient, mighty windmill: our insatiable curiosity about human failings. And even Woods’ club isn’t big enough to drive that green.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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