Why do we do the things we do?

Anthropologists will tell you that, by and large, humans act in accordance with their beliefs. What’s more, we often conflate belief with truth; that is, we accept many claims as true … even when evidence is lacking or contrary to the facts.

In short, our beliefs are meaningful to us – they’re “real” – and we are motivated to comply with the propositions that inhere in them: Real men don’t cry. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Smoking is cool. Blue is for boys, pink is for girls. Quitting is not an option. Defend the Motherland. Wives, submit unto your own husbands.

It’s necessary to acknowledge that the worlds in which different societies live are distinct, not merely the same world with different labels attached. Consider the following observation by the 20th-century Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon were divine. … [A]nd when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest … ”

Of all the creatures in the world, we alone dwell in a world of meaning. Other than philosophers, few people give meaning a second thought. But anthropology tells us that to live a meaningful life, it is necessary to understand meaning.

“Meaning” is a particularly hard word to grasp, in part because it expresses a property that it also possesses.


Among other things, it connotes the significance of a thing, the reason for something, or the idea that is represented by a word, phrase or symbol. It can refer as well to the quality or sense of purpose that makes you feel that your life is valuable, or to the intention behind someone’s actions.

Reference, significance, purpose, fulfillment, intention, explanation: All of these senses of the word converge in the concept of culture, making cultural meaning an organizing principle unlike any other in nature. Understanding cultural meaning is therefore invaluable.

How do meanings come about? We humans tend to invent meaning out of the manifold items available in our surroundings: a manicured lawn; a man’s tears; hair; no hair; a Hummer; the Black Hills; Anthony Fauci, AOC; a total eclipse; the slurping of noodles; breastfeeding.

Then again, we also create meaning out of thin air, as with unicorns, dog years, the devil, purgatory.

Taken together, these are just a few of the innumerable elements that comprise our meaning system – our culture – by way of which we orient ourselves to our environment and to one another. It is culture – the more or less shared understandings of things that are held by people in a society – that generates people’s view of the world and that stipulates what is true, good, beautiful and efficient.

Whether inherent or ascribed, meanings are imbued with either a positive or negative value: the meaning of gold versus the meaning of plastic, for example. Or of Tom Hanks versus Jeffrey Epstein. Or of blowing out birthday candles versus going to the dentist. Meanings often evoke specific associations – with other objects, persons and events – setting off a flurry of thoughts and feelings or thought-feelings. This makes meanings momentary, mental states – the stuff of consciousness.

Those mental states culminate in the formation of an intention – what we resolve to do next in any situation. Will we stand during the singing of the national anthem? Will we recycle our plastic containers? Will we wear red to a funeral? Will we welcome the immigrant?

Whatever we do in a given situation depends upon how we think and feel at that moment. Though not total, the role of culture is nonetheless crucial in shaping behavior, society and history. And while humans may largely be free from the brutality of nature, we remain vulnerable to the brutality of ideas.

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