The Art of High-Stakes Psychological Diagnosis Pt. 2

Skillful name-calling for healthier social relationships

Posted Nov 30, 2016

In Part 1, I argued that slouching impulsively toward whatever psychological diagnosis feels satisfying could really screw up your chances of solving relationship problems. I also suggested a way to get beyond your self-satisfying gut-first diagnoses so you can really hit the nail on the head and have a better chance of managing the problems.

By diagnosis, I don’t just mean the fancy technical-sounding terms. Calling someone a racist, jerk or egomaniac is diagnostic too. I don’t distinguish between name-calling and our everyday use of semi-technical-sounding diagnostics, for example saying, “My ex is a narcissist.”

And to be clear, I don’t have any problem with name calling. We all do it, directly, indirectly or under our breath. There’s nothing morally wrong with name calling. If there were, then calling Hitler a monster would be immoral.

Go ahead and name call, but you owe it at least to yourself to hit that nail on the head. Don’t just call people whatever damned name comes to mind. If they’re causing trouble, hit them where they live with something that lands and sticks, whatever name is most likely to solve the relationship problems most effectively.

To choose the right name requires thinking about three distinct questions:

  1. What’s the problem behavior?
  2. What motivates the problem behavior?
  3. What diagnosis and strategy will be most effective in modifying the behavior?

In part 1, I illustrated this method by applying it to Trump and Trump supporters’ troubling behavior. I’ll do the same here and focus on a diagnosis from the large pool of possible diagnoses for his win that has been of interest to me lately: Trump and his more vocal supporters use of what I’m calling the know-it-all formula, which employs three easy-to-learn moves.

  1. Consistently ignore all challenging evidence.
  2. Consistently act as though you are the judge presiding over every debate you enter.
  3. Consistently employ a handful of easy rhetorical tricks that all amount to, “I know you are but what am I?” to turn all challenges back on the challenger.

In diagnosing their use of the know-it-all formula, which diagnostic question am I answering? The first, of course. Behaviors are a good place to start if you want to get beyond your impulsive interpretations. Behaviors have the advantage of being objectively observable. They ground your diagnosing in ways that motivations cannot because we can observe behaviors, but we can’t observe motivations.

For example, if you see someone consistently and automatically using the know-it-all formula, you can place a bet that the know-it-all formula is a problem. You can’t be absolutely sure they’re using it but you can make educated guesses, and you can compile the evidence to support it.

Having bet that the know-it-all formula is the problem, you then need to look at the range of its application. Does someone apply it to all topics or just a few? For example, someone can apply it to politics, morality, economics and religion while still being a receptive learner elsewhere – on the job, or in school. You might, for example, find an engineering student who is attentive to learning in the classroom but moonlights as a know-it-all internet troll.

On to the second question: What motivates them to employ the know-it-all formula? You could ask them but you’re unlikely to get a straight answer. People don’t know what motivates them and often don’t want to know. If you ask people whether they have some problematic motivation, for example, “do you use the know-it-all formula because you have a chip on your shoulder?” even if they want to give you a straight answer they’ll go spelunking around the dark recesses of their mind, find no evidence of it and report back some positive motivation for what they do.

If instead, you psychologize them, telling them their motives, they’ll say, “don’t tell me how I feel!” There is no final authority on motivations, which is a good reason to watch out for diagnoses that are based on them. For example, calling people racists, fascists, egomaniacs, narcissists or psychopaths all suggests something about their motivations. As such, it will put you in ungrounded territory. They’ll deny it, you’ll reassert it and there’s nowhere to go for evidence or proof one way or another.

Guessing at motivations is just one person’s guess against another’s. It’s the reason that in the mid-20th century behavioral psychologists gave up on talking about motivations altogether. There’s no way to test for them so they become a bastion of idle speculation. But psychologists eventually returned to the study of psychological motivations in part because they make a big difference in how you address a problem.

People who I diagnose as using the know-it-all formula are called other names, one of which is true believers, based on a classic, much-cited study on the problem written by, of all people, a longshoreman who moonlighted as a social scientist. Eric Hoffer’s book, True Believers, was a breakthrough because it didn’t focus on the content of what true believers believed but on their MO, their behavior. It argued that you can be a true believer for communism, fascism, racism, religion, whatever – the supposedly motivating belief wasn’t the point. It wasn’t the beliefs they held but how they held them, as absolute truths, immune to challenging evidence. My behavioral diagnosis, use of the know-it-all formula is in the tradition of Hoffer's true believer diagnosis. People apply the know-it-all formula to defend all sorts of beliefs. It's not the beliefs they hold but how they hold them that's the issue.

Still, Hoffer’s book argued what by now is a familiar point about what motivates people to hold them with such a lock grip. It’s because their lives are so uncertain and dismal that they grab and hold on tight to a belief, which serves as a …..

So there we get one possible motivation for the problematic behavior. According to Hoffer, true believers (in my diagnosis, people who employ the know-it-all formula) are motivated by insecurity.

But I don’t think it’s that simple. I count many possible motivations for this behavior. True believers could be lazy thinkers who indulge in the shortcut to feeling like a know-it-all or they could be bad at thinking, dim or dull. They could be proud egomaniacs, or the opposite – deeply insecure, as Hoffer suggested. They could be insensitive to the risks of getting caught and being marked as lying hypocrites, or they could know those risks well, but be so eager to feel smart that it’s worth the risk. They could be highly sophisticated manipulative leaders or very naïve followers. And this is just to name a few motivations.

Notice the difference that misdiagnosing motivations makes. To take just one example, if arrogance motivates their true believer behavior, you’re going to have to tear them down off their high horses. But if insecurity motivates their true believer behavior, then tearing them down will only make them feel less secure and therefore more resistant to changing their behavior.

In sum, when diagnosing, distinguish between behaviors and motivations and declare diagnoses that identify a behavior, not a motivation – in my example, the use of the know-it-all formula. Don’t ignore motivations, they are important to your strategy for present your diagnosis. We are often more strategic when we let our guesses at motivations guide our strategy for confronting people, but don’t disclose our guesses about what motivates them. Doing so opens ungrounded debate that takes you off message. It’s the behavior that you’re trying to change regardless of its motivations, so keep the focus on the behavior.

In part 3, I’ll address that third question: What name and strategy will be most effective in modifying the behavior?


Hoffer, E. (1958). The true believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements. New York: New American Library.