Why study Behavior?

“You in the back.  Yes, you.  Blue shirt, chewing gum.  Why are you here?”  I used my gravelly voice.

She looked about, casting for help, and responded timidly.  “Because I want to study behavior?”

“I already know that.  This class is Behavior 101.  More to the point, why do YOU want to study behavior?”

She stared at her device, blankly, then looked up again with fear in her eyes.  I’ve seen that fear at the beginning of every single new class.

“I’m not sure?”  in the form of a question.

“You’re not sure?  Are you in the right body?”

The class tittered, giving me time to find her name.  I wandered across the stage for drama.

“Perhaps, Miriam, you have a boyfriend and you want to understand him?”

Her eyes widened, and she shook her head no.

“No?  Perhaps then you wish to learn why your mother always acts crazy with you?”

“Leave my mother out of this!”

“Miriam, do you want to save the planet?  Do you care about your unborn child?”

“Of course!”  Almost petulant.  Good, perhaps she had a backbone.  But a backbone can also be a weakness.  Best to test her now, rather than later.  I let the silence linger.

“Miriam, do you have a hidden agenda?

“What?  No!  I don’t think so.”

How do you feel about drug testing on cute little animals?

“Very much against it!”

“Mizz Miriam!”  I put as much fury into my face as I could without laughing.  Acting was the hardest part of my job, and I can’t write about it without smiling.

“Who made you God?”

“Professor!” she gasped.

“You, all by yourself, encouraged by your animal-loving friends, have already decided.  How can I trust you to learn the truth, if you already have the answer?”

“But they’re so cute.  How can hurting them possibly…?”

“Miriam, you might be right.  Perhaps it is cruel to hurt cute little animals.  But our job is to study behavior, not to judge it.  You have to learn to put your judgements away, and to study behavior with a completely open mind.  Do you understand?

“Maybe.”

“Miriam, are you the kind of person who distorts reality to fit your agenda?  Will you sacrifice logic and respect for others in order to achieve what YOU think is right?”

“I don’t know.”

“YOU … DON’T … KNOW?”  I bellowed this to the whole class because it was so important.

“Listen, all of you.  By the end of this semester, you will know why you’re here.  If it’s not to start understanding behavior, you will at least begin to see what it takes to understand behavior.  This road to knowledge is not for the greedy, or the weak.  You will be dissecting live specimens in this class, and that specimen is yourself.  If you have an agenda, you will fail.  If you have a problem with truth, you will fail.  If you have a bias or preconception of any kind, you will fail.”

I turned back to face Miriam again.  The poor thing was already trying to sneak out the back door.

“Miriam!” I bellowed.  She stopped and turned.

This time I smiled and asked her the ultimate question.

(stay tuned!)

 

You want to study what?

The guidance counselor screwed his face into a Picasso print.

Behavior,” I said.

There is no such major.  How about psychology?

Sure, sounds good.  Does psychology study organizations?”

Sure, there’s Industrial Organizational Psychology, and Organizational Behavior.

Great, and do they teach you how to lead people?”

No.  For that there’s Business.  And maybe Military Science.

That sounds good too.  Does they also teach what’s best for the nation?”

No, not necessarily, that would be Political Science, or maybe Philosophy.  You could study those.

Great!  Do they emphasize history, and other cultures?”

Not so much.  You could study History.

But what of also studying other cultures, both those that still exist today, and those that are extinct?”

Well, for those you could use some Anthropology, Archaeology, and maybe some Ethnology for variety.

“Now you’re talking!  And will those disciplines help me understand the big picture, the grand forces that help define success versus failure, growth versus death?”

That’s a tall order.  No, for that you should get into economics.  Yes, you’d make a great economist.

That’s pretty cool.  I’d like to be an economist.  They get to be on TV all the time.  Do economists also deal with what makes people really care about?  Things like the meaning of life, where we come from, what this all means?  You know, like what happens when we die, that sort of stuff?”

Well, no, for that you should really be studying Religion.  You could become a priest, or rabbi, or mullah.

I’m okay with that, too.  After all, people give you lots of stuff.  But will I also be able to study all the rules that people should live by in order to always be safe, respectful, and kind to each other?  Are there enough religious rules to make everybody always kind to each other?”

Not quite.  For that you’re probably going to have to study Law.  Yes, the law is all about the rules that govern how we deal with each other.  Yes, I can definitely see you as a lawyer.

Nice.  My father always wanted me to be a lawyer.  Maybe I could be a great trial lawyer.  Yeah, I’ll be a prosecutor and take on creeps!”

The counselor looked at me with a sigh of relief.

Good, I’ll put you down for trial law, he said.

He started typing away, but was thinking aloud…

First, you should start learning psychology…

 

 

50 shades of self-loathing

There’s a popular book and movie running around at the moment that features a young woman being sexually manipulated.  The fact that he’s a older man is not important for now, because the subject of today’s observation is the fictional young woman. [1]

Many cultures have ways of keeping themselves organized.  The British have always been good about tracking their families; what schools they go to, what lands they own, what titles their ancestors have carried.  In Britain, you can be part of the nobility and upper class, or an ordinary person without status.  How they indicate this is both obvious and secret.  Obvious signs of status might be your title, or your school tie, or the fact that you live on an estate.  Secret signs might be the very way you pronounce “heredity” or “worcestershire.”

Signs of status are more numerous in India, where the caste system has been in effect for thousands of years, well before England even spoke English.  And in Japan, there is a very well engineered caste system embodied in the language itself!  Women speak to each other differently than men speak to each other, speaking to elders is different, and speaking within your social rank is different from speaking up or down in rank.

Now we have a popular fictional character submitting to acts of sexual stimulation for another person, and as a culture we find this acceptable.  What does it say about us?

It says that a new form of status expectation is forming.  It reinforces the stereotypes of young versus old and woman versus man.  It re-emphasizes the importance of sex as part of that relationship, and sends an unambiguous signal to everyone that these are considered acceptable behaviors.

As an indifferent observer, I’m not going to label these developments “good” or “bad.”  They simply exist, and whether or not society is a better place because of them will be for others to decide.

But as a parent and husband, I choose to teach and reinforce self-respect and confidence in my daughter and wife.  They never need to bow or pretend for anyone.  They stand equal with anyone on this planet, including the queen.

And in this there is no grey – only black and white.

 

 

[1]  Spoiler alert: I know nothing about this story, and don’t have enough popular culture curiosity to find out.  I do know it makes older women giggle and whisper among themselves.  And I’ve read the first few paragraphs on wikipedia.

 

Foster Parenting for Fun and Profit

Want to drive a social biologist crazy?  Look them in the eye and ask them to explain “altruism” in 25 words or less.  It’s fun to watch them stammer and melt.  Have a drink handy, they’ll need it.

Altruism means helping others even though it hurts you.  It’s love in its most extended form, because sometimes those you help aren’t related to you.  Heck, you may never even meet them.  They might not even be alive yet!  I call this long-distance altruism.

People who practice long-distance altruism are the kind of people who believe that being good today has great effects on all of society down the road.  An economist could argue that this is ultimately selfish, because if you are part of society this means that you or your offspring will ultimately profit.  Economists are big on selfishness.

I’ve recently met several people who are very active foster parents.  In one case he and his wife had 4 of their own children, have adopted four others (youngest is only 12), and have fostered over 20.  Incredible dedication and investment on their part.  Yet they are not revered by society, heck we hardly even notice them.  And there is a tragically large backlog of children of all ages who need a safe haven from their current conditions.  Foster parents are in short supply.  What are we to do?  From the perspective of a great nation that staunchly believes in profit,

Let’s open up the profit gates!  Let’s calculate the cost to society for abusing and tormenting children today, because tomorrow they may have to be retaught, or worse, simply caught and put away.  Let’s pay these wonderful people a significant fraction of what we think the long term cost is, and let them use the money as they see fit.  Of course there will be oversight, but let’s bring this out in the open!  Let’s have a reality show featuring the best and worst of these foster homes.  Let’s make it a competition of sorts.  Why not?  We’re a competitive society, let’s see if it can’t be entertaining?  After all, if we enjoy watching families swap their wives, what’s wrong with swapping out a few kids?

Not enough praise can be given to today’s foster parents.  They do it for themselves, with only a small amount of help from the government.  But as a society we leave them alone, and as a result many children “fall through the cracks.”

Anyone want to join me in patching up the cracks?

 

Altruism, for fun and profit

July is a great month for birthdays; birthdays of Democracy, that is.

The US of A was effectively born at the beginning of the month, and the next great democratic experiment was born in the middle.  That second country was France, and we here in the US owe the French a bit of a debt for our birthday.  They were sort of a midwife, helping us into the world.

From there our paths quickly split; France got an emperor and had lots of middle age nonsense to deal with.  Even today they are pretty big on letting the central government decide everything (not always a bad idea) while here in the US we try to go to the other extreme.  Keep decision making local, because many times it’s the person closest to the problem that knows what to do, and how best to do it (also not always a bad idea).

Another way the US and France differed back then is what we consider the best motivation.  The US went the way of laissez faire – free enterprise.  The French pretty much stayed back in the middle ages, telling people what to do and letting them grow into their professions through family associations or apprenticeships.  The fact that today’s France fully embraces the idea of profit and risk means that they also think it’s a good idea to run a society.  Let’s make money!  That get’s a whole lot of us motivated.

But there’s a lot of things that go on in our society that don’t really lend themselves to this whole “making money” thing.  Like giving women the vote.  Or trying to prevent child abuse.  Or cutting back on residential drug use.  Or reducing our carbon footprint.  So what’s a good modern society to do?

Let’s get creative!  It is one of the best things in our nation that we are allowed to get creative.  And it’s about time all citizens start exercising that right.  Tomorrow, I’m going to exercise my right and see if we can’t take a behavior that is very hard, very much in demand, and yet imposes a heavy load upon those who perform it.  Foster parenting.

Got any ideas?  Let’s hear them!

 

Unleash your child

Don’t you hate it when you see parents toting their children through a park while tethering them to a leash?  At least I do.

Did you know there’s a good chance that you are doing the same thing?  Yes, the same thing.  Except the leash is inside you, and that child is your inner child.

Yesterday I wrote about how kids can ask the funniest questions about our world.  Why this, and how come that.  You were once that same child.

There’s a good chance that you were also treated like other children, told to wait, told to never mind, and told that it was just the way it was.  There’s another good chance that you hid your inner optimism, curiosity, and enthusiasm from your parts all the way till you went away to college.  There you allowed it to express itself again in new ways.

You probably took courses like English, or Psychology, or even Philosophy, in an attempt to get a better understanding about our world; your world; yourself.

It didn’t work, did it?

Faced with the pressures of family, reality, economy, and survival, you have grown the way almost everyone else has grown – into a common sense individual who no longer asks silly questions.

But that child is still a part of you.  Look inside.  Don’t you still wonder where sneezes come from?  Why we sleep?  Why baby bunnies are so cute?  Why their tails are white and round?  Or why their poop is so tiny, round, and black?

Let your child out.  Ask questions.  It’s the only way we’re going to get out of this mess.

 

 

Listen to the Children

Don’t kids say the darndest things?  Sometimes it makes us laugh so much.

Funny thing about laughing.  It usually wipes our minds clean of what other meaning there may have been underlying their innocent statements.

The questions that children ask about the world usually come about after they have thought deeply about a subject.  The entire universe is new to them, and like all young, they want to understand it to survive and succeed.  So they ask us, their mentoring adults, for advice.

When they ask a question it usually reveals what their underlying thinking is about that subject.  We can tease out how the world works inside their heads.  We can figure out where their logic is going wrong, or if they are getting the wrong impression about an object or subject.

We can also use those questions as an opportunity to lead them, guide them, entice them into a greater world of learning and wonder.  We can use it as an opportunity to help them grow and improve.

Sadly, I overhear many parents doing exactly the opposite to their children.  “Don’t ask me that,” they say.  “Just because,” they say.  Or worse yet, “because I say so” they say.  The child knows they were wrong, but is no wiser.  And the worst part is that whatever curiosity and energy they may have had to delve into the subject more deeply has been thwarted.  The children turn away from their parts and the world around them and instead play with their video games.

Know any children?  Try encouraging them – by listening.  They might surprise you.

 

Listening is hard to do

They say that we are all born with two ears and one mouth.  But it seems that most of the people we meet act as if they have two mouths and only one ear.  How many times have you been with a friend who gets a call on their phone.  Instantly their one ear is attached to the phone, yet they are talking to you and the other person.

Listening is behavior.  And it’s time I heard something from all of you.  I’ve got tons of questions, a few billion questions (they don’t weigh as much), and some fairly good observations.  And writing these down now and then is not only good exercise for me, but it keeps the old neurons on their toes.  Did you know neurons have toes?

So it’s time to listen.  What do YOU think about all this sort of behavior stuff?  Do you have questions?  I know you did, once upon a time.  When we’re young we bother our parents with all sorts of bothersome questions.  They typically tell us to go away or not worry about it.  Do you remember any of those questions?  I’d like to hear them and maybe, together, we can figure out some answers.

Maybe it’s not as hard as we think.

 

 

Living the Gym

I hate exercising.  I hate to sweat.  Yet, I do it anyway.  Several times a week.

Why?

If I work out so hard that I feel like dying, then I know I must be alive.

I know, it doesn’t make much sense.  I’m hoping that if I say it often enough I’ll believe it.

But exercise is behavior.  It’s something we do; at least, it’s something that many of us do.  If you’re a die-hard writer, it’s hard to get up the gumption to sweat, especially since it might interfere with the creative juices.  Then again, pushing that damn pen (or keyboard) can be hard enough.

What does exercise tell us about others?  Or about our society?

We seem to like to exercise in groups, for one thing.  We like to be led, and we like something that is new and somewhat flashy.  Remember when fancy dancing was the rage, then lots of ab work on balls?  Then there was slidy things, and now it seems to be hot yoga and lots of boot camps.  It also seems that many people like to be seen when they work out, so it’s a form of parade where we show off our social status.  We work out in only the ‘best’ places.

How many people exercise because they know it’s good for them?  And indirectly good for their families because it means they’ll be around longer to help them and less of a burden on them in their old age?  How many people think that it’ll be a good thing for society because their health-care bills will be lower?

Or do we do it because someone will take a long look at us when we’re in our skimpy bathing suit?

Because that’s how you know you’re alive.

 

Yoga Reviews

This wonderful Chicago doctor is spreading the word (and practice) of yoga as a way to save money on health care!  How cool is that?

And that got me thinking.  There are TONS of different yoga teachers out there.  Literally.  Yoga teachers don’t weigh a lot, as a rule.  But if you put them on a scale and weighed them, there would be, like, a million of them.  And a million yoga teachers would weigh, probably, a thousand tons.

And there’s a zillion different styles of yoga, too.  Well, maybe not a zillion, but there’s a lot.  Even if there’s a fixed style that’s legally copyrighted and patented, it’s still going to change a little bit depending on the teacher and the class.

Anyway, it suddenly came to me; It’s like restaurants!  Look, there’s a godzillion pizza places, right?  And you might say, pizza is pizza.  So what does the local news media do?  They employ a restaurant reviewer.  Someone goes around and tries all the restaurants for you and then writes about it.  This place has great sauce but lousy crust, but the owner kisses everyone who comes in.  Another place has great prices but the sauce is never the same.  You get the drift.

We need someone to do this for yoga studios!  And teachers!  It’ll be fun!  Imagine the stories; This studio has great ambiance but I’m being herded through like cattle.  This other place does a full 15 minute savasana (I only go for the savasana anyway).  Or, so-and-so teacher can be a bit temperamental, but is worth standing in line for.  This other teacher is too nice, and never corrects your alignment.

Will this be a high-paying position?  Probably not.  Will it bring you fame and glory as a writer?  Probably not.  But is it a bona-fide profession?  The answer is YES!

Here’s where being a serious student of behavior pays off.  We can make solid predictions of the future.  Just as the profession of being a restaurant critic emerged as “restaurants” emerged, so too will Yoga-Reviewer soon come into being.  If it hasn’t already.  You’ll have to go incognito.  You’ll have to be knowledgeable in the art of yoga without coming off as too smart.  And you’ll have to travel all over your territory.  Can you handle it?

No, don’t nod your head… write me!

Hmmm.  What is the sanskrit word for writer’s pose?