Inside Information

Of motivations and their context in interviews

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Hello. I love history. I love it so much that I even view our contributions here at the Tracy Press as a small addition to the history of this time.

I actually try to apply history as a way to gauge possibilities for the future. But no one would blame you for not having heard of a 13th-century Christian monk named William of Ockham. Like most monks of his day, William was a scholar. Indeed, many scientific principles were born from the study of the natural world done by clergymen. (I’m not being insensitive to women here. You all just by and large were not allowed to indulge your scientific curiosity at that time.)

William spent many years studying logic and philosophy. But there is one maxim attributed to his philosophy that I want to call your attention to: Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor speaks to the analysis of differing theories about a theorem or argument. Essentially, simple solutions to problems are more likely than complex ones. (The “razor” is used to cut away improbable explanations.)

Scientists and mathematicians apply this maxim early on when trying to develop a theory about why a result is happening. My own application of Occam’s razor has more to do with deducing motivation and human behavior.

You see, in reporting a story, I almost always have to figure out why a person is talking to me. It helps me understand their possible motivations to speak ill or well of someone or something because their motives are almost always relevant to the story. I frame questions designed to draw out their motivations based upon this early assessment.

I have found that these motivations are rarely so complex that they are multiple layers deep. It’s the reason so few people are really good at chess: They just tend not to think 7-10 moves ahead. Motivations are usually basic and easily grasped.

For example, it is possible that someone is trying to manipulate the city to allow a paid parking structure downtown, which they will build and run, by commenting on an innocuous-sounding story about whether there is enough dining variety downtown and flippantly opining that they once had a plan to rent a couple of spaces and combine them into a restaurant with 300 seats to accommodate a sellout performance at the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts but then abandoned the idea because there wasn’t enough parking. It is just more likely that he wants to get free publicity about a restaurant in which he owns a stake.

Now, I have to stay open to all possible motives, but in my experience, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

If you want to accuse Executive Editor Michael Ellis Langley of being a Machiavellian genius, email him at or call him at 830-4231. 

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