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Most Problems are People Problems

January 20, 2012

The Romans named the first month of the year January for Janus, the god of beginnings.  The Romans worshipped Janus for his ability to look back into the past and take stock of what had been accomplished, but to also look to the future to set new goals and resolve to change for the better.  Even in today’s modern world January is still a time for taking stock, not only of one’s own life situation but also of the condition of the world in which we live.  Every January people to look back to assess whether the previous year was mostly good or bad, and news organizations recount the past year’s noteworthy events and forewarn us about the challenges that lie in the year ahead.

Any honest accounting of our current situation shows that the modern world faces innumerable problems, many of them appearing to be intractable.  Of course, every generation since the beginning of the human species has faced serious problems that threatened people’s well-being and undermined the quality of their lives, and we are no different.  Yet, globalization and the information age have amplified our struggles because challenges that were once local affairs are more likely to affect people in distant locations than they once did, and modern technology now allows each of us to see more easily the sheer extent of problems around the world.

If we took a  poll of what Americans view as the most serious problems facing us today, I suspect that the problems listed below would appear on most people’s lists, and the concerns of people in many other parts of the world would probably not be much different:

• War and terrorism
• Violence
• Crime
• Economic issues (poverty, economic inequality, unemployment)
• Environmental problems (pollution, climate change, overpopulation)
• Prejudice and discrimination
• Illness and disease
• Alcohol and drug abuse

Such problems are complex, and their solutions often elusive.  Yet they share a common link.  Each of them is caused or exacerbated by the behavior of human beings.  Put simply, most of the problems that we face today, both at a social level and in our personal lives, are caused by people (and sometimes those people are ourselves).  Human behavior is by far the single largest cause of almost all of the misery that each of us experiences.

Granted, a few problems — such as tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods — don’t require human collusion, but most do.  Even many medical problems — such as certain cancers, HIV, and accidental injuries — are caused by behavior, for they are the result of people’s actions or inactions.

Although few people would challenge the idea that human behaviors lie at the base of war, terrorism, violence, economic problems, the destruction of the environment, prejudice and discrimination, crime, and so on, the implications of this fact are rarely recognized. If human behavior causes most of the things that threaten both our happiness and our viability as a species, then changes in behavior are needed to fix them.  And, if changing behavior is the solution to most of the world’s problems, then tremendous resources should be devoted toward understanding the causes and solutions of these various patterns of dysfunctional behavior.

Scientific and technological breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and other fields improved the quality of human life immeasurably during the 20th century, and they will continue to do so.  But they can do virtually nothing to solve the problems that arise from how people behave and treat one another.  Problems that are caused by behavior must be solved behaviorally.  In many ways, our individual and collective futures lie in the hands of the social and behavioral scientists who study human behavior.

Although our greatest social and personal problems stem from human behavior, the resources that are devoted to understanding and solving these problems are miniscule compared to the resources invested in other scientific and technological pursuits.  For example, in 2010, only 3.7% of the budget of the National Science Foundation was dedicated to supporting research across all social, behavioral, and economic sciences.  Within the National Institutes of Health — whose mission is to support research on the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and cure of diseases and mental disorders — the focus is overwhelmingly on biomedical research despite the fact that human behavior is central to the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and cure of physical and psychological problems.

Yet, despite a low — and decreasing — level of research support, a great deal of social and behavioral research has enhanced our understanding of problems as diverse as race relations, aggression and violence, terrorism, academic failure, social isolation, bullying, unhealthy behaviors, marital strife, dishonesty, crime, and intergroup conflict. Consider, for example, Reis’s (2012) analysis of interpersonal relations and health posted here in Personality and Social Psychology Connections. As he explains, the impact of treatment is significantly influenced by the quality of the patient-caregiver relationship, and so understanding this process has implications not only for people’s health and well-being but also for health care costs.

Clearly, our current approach to solving these pressing problems has been largely ineffective.  And, we should not expect major changes until government, business, and scientific leaders begin to focus greater attention on behavioral solutions. The major problems that face the modern world are caused by people, and the solutions to these problems lie not in improved technology or medicine, but rather in understanding human behavior.


Reis, H. T. (2012). The difference between a placebo and a caring relationship Personality and Social Psychology Connections. Retrieved from


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