Imagine a middle-aged guy named Jerry Engel. He is a real estate appraiser. Business has been a little slow since the bottom fell out of the market. Jerry likes to spend a lot of time driving around in a pickup truck, even if he isn’t driving from house to house to do appraisals. As a result, he goes through trucks in just a few years. So last April, he was in the market for a new truck. His wife, Annie, said, “Jerry, these pickup trucks you buy get terrible gas mileage and we are SO strapped for cash right now! Do you really need to be able to carry a ton and a half? Can’t we get a high-mileage car?” Jerry just shook his head in the way that let’s her know what his answer is, and that to change it would require a huge argument. “Fine,” she said. He bought another F250 with the biggest engine and strongest suspension Ford makes.

Why would Jerry by that truck? He knows his truck is part of who he is, and that who he is is the most important thing to him. He doesn’t want to be seen as “one of those people who drive high mileage cars and worries about the air all the time.” He wants to be the guy who drives a big truck. He knows that science supports the notion that the climate is changing but he doesn’t make his decisions about what to drive because of what a bunch of scientists say.

For some reason, I’m trying to put together a more comprehensive picture of why we humans do what we do. I’ve been working on it for a while. I think that once you get past the emergency or reptilian stuff (HELP—I’m burning/starving/suffocating, etc.) it boils down to this: I think people make decisions to extend and support their idea of exactly whom they are and the world they fit into. I think once they have it, people hang on to these ideas like grim death. They’ll run into a hail of bullets, vote against their interests, hurt themselves on purpose, or go bankrupt if they can confirm and buttress their image of themselves in the world. It’s the first thing people grab when they get out of bed in the morning and it’s the last thing they set down when they go to bed at night—then they dream it. So here’s a simple, fairly clear and misleading diagram of what I’m talking about.

This diagram includes the following pretty well established truths:

• Our environment has a big influence on us.
• We experience our environment through our senses: our biology, and that biology is also part of our environment.
• Culture is a construction that is a response of our biology to our environment over time. It’s also part of our environment. We also perceive our environment through the lens of culture.
• A single individual is very influenced by, and is also a part of that environment. We perceive the environment through the lens of our personal beliefs and attitudes.
• (This where my observations depart from the literature as far as I can tell). Both cultures and individuals form identities and worldviews. I think that cultures make decisions based on identity and worldview just as much as individuals do.

This diagram is misleading because it’s neat and clean and makes things that are really complicated and not very well understood look simpler than they are. I like this one better.

What do you think? Why do you think Jerry bought the pickup truck? (And please don’t say, “Because he likes pickup trucks.”)