Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘human behavior

The fallacy of the superior observer

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Preamble: This item has been on my backlog for a long time, in part because giving it a fair treatment would require a considerable amount of effort, including for gathering proper examples. Below, I give an abbreviated and a little simplistic treatment, in order to get rid of the backlog item. The general idea should still be clear.

Time and again, I see someone* trying to observe, analyze, or even psycho-analyze the intentions, behavior, whatnot, of someone else in a very smug and superior manner, somewhat like a stereotypical** anthropologist in a jungle village, displaying an attitude of “I observe you; ergo, I am superior to you”, “I observe you; ergo, I understand the world better than you do”, “I observe you; ergo, I understand you and/or your situation better than you do”, or similar. These “ergos”, however, are fallacies. Firstly, the respective conclusion, as such, does not hold.*** Not only is it a non sequitur, but a contradiction can easily be created by having the parties simultaneously (or at different times) observe each other.**** Secondly, the facts at hand are often, but by no means always, the reverse, with the subjects being smarter and/or better informed than the observers.

*I do not claim to be innocent of the same type of analysis, but, attempting to look back, I hope to have avoided the fallacy part, which lies in flawed reactions and conclusions.

**I leave unstated how common this behavior is among real anthropologists in jungle villages.

***Note that bad logic remains bad logic, even should it land at the truth, just like a still-standing watch still stands still even when it shows the right time (as it, twice a day, proverbially does). Also note the major difference between “I observe you; ergo, I am superior to you” and “I observed you do a handful of stupid things and, from your behavior, I am inclined to see myself as the superior”.

****A situation that can easily arise naturally, even for a more formal setting. Consider e.g. Student A trying to earn extra money through participation as a subject for Study X, where Student B has the task to observe his behavior as part of his course requirements—while Student B tries to earn extra money through Study Y, where Student A is the observer. In more informal settings such cases abound, as with those who play “Psych 101” on forums and usually reveal more about themselves than about their victims.

An illustrative case is an anecdote that I read somewhere (approximately paraphrased from memory and with reservations for details):

A psychologist is giving a personality test to a group of engineers.

Psychologist: Any questions?

Engineer: Should we use the same personality on both sides of the page?

Psychologist: You are supposed to answer truthfully!!!!

Engineer: How stupid do you think that we are?

Here, firstly, the psychologist seems* to commit the fallacy, by seeing the engineers as test subjects, who are to be obedient, cooperative, and analyzable, with no regard for their own interests,** much like school children filling in a similar survey—inferior, because they are observed; the psychologist superior, because he observes. Secondly, the engineer seem to believe himself well ahead of the psychologist in terms of understanding the situation and/or of general intellectual capabilities, which is premature.*** If the engineer also applies an “observer mentality”, we actually have two parties simultaneously committing the fallacy against each other. (I suspect that this reciprocal fallacy is somewhat common in certain circles.)

*I can only speculate, and a common contributor to the fallacy and/or a common result of the fallacy is to take speculation to be the truth. (However, for convenience, I will skip the “seems” and whatnots below.)

**Various tests and surveys can reveal more about an individual than he wishes to be known, and if the wrong entity sees the information, and/or if the information is not sufficiently anonymized, this can have negative consequences, e.g. that a promotion goes to someone else, because HR sees a certain character trait as negative.

***From what I have seen of engineers and psychologist, he might well be correct, but the belief is premature, even should it be correct—unless it also draws on earlier interactions and whatnots.

Other typical examples include that guy on a forum who likes to “Psych 101” his co-debaters, their intentions, and their whatnots, often while being entirely wrong;* the Leftist, especially Feminist, ideologues who write papers on groups that they dislike, while assuming that these groups see the world the wrong way, are naive, whatnot;** and, indeed, many anthropologist, psychologists, etc., who try to analyze societal behavior.

*In those cases where I have been on the receiving end and can judge the truth.

**In reality, it is usually the other way around.

An impulse to finally get this item done was the recent mention ([1]) of a paper that “explore[s] how September 11 and subsequent events have been experienced, constructed, and narrated by African American women, primarily from working-class and low-income backgrounds.”, which not only seems to be an absurd topic,* but also stands a good chance of committing the fallacy. (Whether it does/the authors do, I do not know for sure. However, I have seen similar formulations used by those with the wrong attitude before.)

*While I do not think highly of research into “constructed” and “narrated” in general, here a more interesting and potentially legitimate choice would have been a compare and contrast between different groups, e.g. whether men and women, Whites and Blacks, high- and low-income subjects, whatnot, have different views of the events, experienced the events differently, etc.

Finally, as an exercise for the reader: If a psychoanalyst engages in self-observation/-analysis, should we expect the result to be a superiority complex, an inferiority complex, or both?

Excursion on borderline cases:
It can often be hard to draw borders, e.g. between the fallacy and attempts at manipulation of third parties, horribly misguided speculation, and similar. For example, I once saw a (likely German, but set in China) news clip, which featured a well-dressed woman on a bicycle—and a voice-over on how this woman would consider herself something better than the rest of the persons present. However, if the makers of the news clip had even exchanged a single word with this woman, it was not shown on screen—and neither was any other act of hers than riding a bicycle. (And, no, she was not someone famous, nor anyone of any major concern for the clip.) This was certainly poor and unethical journalism, to the point that a firing seems warranted, but was it also an example of the fallacy or was the cause something else?

(If it was an example of the fallacy, it was also hypocrisy beyond belief.)

Excursion on being in charge:
In some cases, e.g. with psychologists performing a study, there can be overlap with another fallacy, namely that the one who is in charge is automatically superior in general and/or that he* is in charge because he is superior rather than, say, by coincidence or because he happens to be on his home turf, e.g. in an office where he wields some power in the name of his employer, while the cards would be reversed in his counterpart’s office. Remember, in particular, what they say about small people who are given a little bit of power.

*But note that the problem, in my impression, is much more common among women, including the type who leads a three-person department and considers herself a big shot, while she is actually small fry by any reasonable standard. This to the point that I wrote the first draft of this excursion using “she” and “her” over the generic “he”.

Excursion on observers revealing themselves and going full circle:
As I note above, the “Psych 101”-ers usually reveal more about themselves than about others. This is a potential issue with observers in general, even among those who do not commit the fallacy (although, it might be more common among them), and including me. What we relay to others is almost invariably colored by our perceptions, our priorities, our attempts to guide the perceptions we leave with others,* whatnot, and this allows others to draw conclusions. Of course, their conclusions will in turn be colored by their perceptions (etc.), which can make their conclusions misguided and tell us more about them. And so on. Indeed, one of the issues with “Psych 101”-ers is how often they try to, so to speak, describe the color filters of their victims but end up describing their own color filters instead.

*We all do, to some degree, and that too is something that might inadvertently reveal things about us. For instance, I have a perfectionist drive, but am usually forced to write texts well short of perfect, e.g. for reasons of time or priority. This, and the (maybe, irrationally perceived) risk that the reader will believe that I fail to spot the flaws, often irks me to the point that I add a comment on the issue, as e.g. with the “preamble” at the beginning of this text—even when I know that very few others would have felt the need to do so. (Many of my footnotes are also caused by this perfectionist drive, but in a more immediate manner. Here it is not a matter of what the reader might think, beyond “Too many bloody footnotes!”, but of a wish for completeness and thoroughness.)


Written by michaeleriksson

November 4, 2022 at 1:22 pm

Likelihood of violence from non-dominant groups

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In the overlap between the previous text ([1]) and the observation that many current societies are extremely Left-dominated, I strongly suspect that there is a tendency for political criminals, terrorists, and similar, to be found among those whose ideology/opinions/wishes/whatnot (hereafter sloppily shortened to “ideology”) are far away from the dominant ideology or ideologies.* This could be explained by those close to the dominant ideology simply not having the need for certain actions. Those far away typically differ (obviously) in that they see a larger need for change, but also (less obviously) in that their opinions are often marginalized, condemned, suppressed, whatnot, which reduces the availability of less extreme actions (especially, use of the democratic processes). A very good example of the former is independence movements: those content with or preferring non-independence really have no need to to use any methods, let alone extreme methods, to achieve a change, while those who wish for independence have to actively work for it (and some among them might be willing to use more extreme methods).** The latter is well illustrated by the treatment of immigration critical parties and persons in Sweden and Germany in recent years, often for expressing opinions that were dominant a few decades ago.*** Another example might**** be the difference in behavior between the old Irish and the new Scottish independence movements: the latter is given much more room in public debate, is allowed referendums, and whatnots—and is much less violent.

*Note the difference between “most criminals are X” and “most persons who are X are criminals”. For instance, above, the average seeker of an independent or “single Irish” Northern Ireland was likely never a builder of bombs and attacker of policemen.

**A further complication is that there might be outright asymmetries in laws. For instance, some years ago, I saw statistics on political crime in Germany where a superficial look seemed to indicate more crime on the “Right”, but this turned into a rough parity between “Right” and Left, when asymmetrical crimes were excluded, e.g. that it is illegal to wear a swastika but not a hammer-and-sickle.

***Cf. any number of earlier texts for examples; also note a somewhat similar discussion of consequences of feeling unfairly treated.

****Many of the other circumstances are different, including religion and time since integration, and these might be more important.

A particularly negative side-effect is that this can skew the public image of who is good or evil, willing to use what methods, and similar; where it, on the contrary, often is reasonable* to see signs of violence as indications of a lack of influence or as a reaction negative treatment by others. For instance, in Germany, we have the paradoxical situation that media obsess about “Right-wing” violence, while Germany has a long history of Left-wing violence (and my impression of other countries that I am familiar with is similar). Few people on the Left today have strong incentives to e.g. use violence against the “establishment”, because Leftist ideas are so common in the “establishment” and e.g. very extensive wealth-transfers take place according to Leftist ideals—and the risk that a second RAF would appear is correspondingly much smaller than in the 1970s. (Notwithstanding that the RAF was even further Left, by some distance, than e.g. the SPD, which currently co-rules Germany.)

*Which should not be taken as “the violence is reasonable”: an evil action is an evil action. However, the discussion in [1] applies in that the one faction has been tested and found wanting and the other is untested (not “tested and found sufficient”).

Of course, there are other causes of violence, like the common “we are good; ergo, our opponents are irredeemably evil” and “the end justifies the means” thinking that is so common on the Left, as with e.g. the Antifa. (I would not be surprised if the Left remains the dominant source of political violence in today’s Germany, but it is hard to tell, because Leftist violence is given far less attention in media and public debate. Indeed, there is an absurd hypocrisy among many, who consider Leftist violence justifiable and condemn “Rightist” violence where ever it occurs.) Similarly, much of the pre-WWII Leftist violence took place between Leftist factions, who deemed each other heretics, just as different Christian factions did at even earlier times: there seems to be some mechanism by which some consider those with almost the right opinions the worst enemies.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 8, 2019 at 11:19 pm

A few thoughts on the display of emotions (and similar topics)

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There is a lot of prejudice around the display (and presence) of emotions, boring behavior, and similar against e.g. the introverted. Below I discuss some issues relating to these topics from my own point of view and with a partial eye at the Tall Dancer Phenomenon from my earliest writings.

When it comes to “emoting” (in a very wide sense and for lack of a better word), there are many things that I do not do, simply because they are too affected and/or manipulative in my eyes. For instance, I talk relatively monotonously and have toyed with the idea, notably after watching Laurence Olivier in “Rebecca”, of going for a radical change in order to have a better effect on the people around me. However, doing so would be a major affectation and it would be solely for manipulative reasons—even if I stopped well short of Olivier.* Indeed, similar affectations in others have often struck me negatively and reduced their success in interactions with me. For instance, some women looking for a favor go at it with such exaggerated smiles, voices, and gestures that it makes me unwilling to perform that favor… They would be much better off just making a neutral request, accompanied with a factual explanation and, for a bigger request, an offer of a something-for-something. Similarly, a woman who starts with five minutes of flirting** as ground-work before a request is unlikely to do better with me than if she had jumped straight to the point. Smiling politicians, executives, sales people, …, leave me cold, because the smile will almost always be calculated and not reflect something worth-while—and I am naturally*** loathe to smile at others as a (deliberate) sign of friendliness, because it seems an affectation even when I am friendly towards them.

*Which I almost certainly would have to: Olivier had many years of training behind him, is highly unlikely to have spoken in that manner without the extensive training, and I suspect that even he spoke differently in private. (If in doubt, because he speaks differently in some other films.)

**If I even recognized it as flirting: Today, I almost certainly would, but in my younger years I could be quite oblivious to flirting, romantic hints and probes, and similar.

***My thoughts (but, so far, not behavior) have changed compared to my natural state over time: Originally, I saw a smile as something that should just happen, making any “deliberate” smile an affectation. Today, I also see a smile as a legitimate means of deliberate communication, just as a hand-shake or a “hello”, while reserving my disdain for more manipulative uses.

However, even spontaneous and non-manipulative emoting can be off-putting to me, when too exaggerated or too undisciplined*. I am not saying that we should all walk around with poker faces; however, some degree of self-control can benefit those around us and deliberate exaggerations (as seen with some women and many children) are really unbecoming. Such negatives in others have also influenced my relative reluctance.

*Notwithstanding the partial hypocrisy: I have on some occasions emoted so strongly while working with e.g. WebSphere that near-by colleagues complained. (WebSphere is one of the most infuriating and frustrating software products I have ever encountered. While the colleagues complained, they also sympathized—having to work with it themselves on a daily basis.)

Looking at the other direction, reading emotions, the situation is similarly often a matter of differing preferences and norms. For instance, if a low and a high emoter do not catch each others feelings, it might well be that the high emoter over-looks the more subtle* reactions of the low emoter, while the low emoter does not catch a true emotion from the high emoter due to all the “noise”** surrounding it. Similarly, interpretation is hard without knowing the baseline of the counter-part, which is necessary to judge how much noise is usually present and how strong reactions tend to be—without it, we can have problems like a low emoter interpreting something in the counter-part as an emotion that is not, or over-estimating the strength of an emotion that is there.

*The difference is not necessarily one of emoting vs not emoting. When actual emotions are present (not just faked), the difference is more likely to be one of strong emoting vs. weak emoting.

**If someone “cries wolf” when no wolf is there, the alarm for an actual wolf might be misinterpreted. From another angle, I have often found the “logical” members of the “Star Trek” universe to be more expressive than the regular ones. Data, e.g., has a baseline that involves very few and small facial expressions—which makes the expressions that do occur the easier to recognize and the more significant. His colleagues move their faces (raise their voices, whatnot) at the drop of a hat—and how are we to know when it was a hat that dropped, and when a bomb?

Then again, if a low emoter does not react (or appear to react) to the emotions of a high emoter, it is not a given that he has missed them. It could also be that he deliberately ignores them (e.g. out of diplomacy, because he sees them as unwarranted or none of his business, awaiting an explicit verbal clarification*, etc.) or that he has reacted while the counter-part failed to notice…

*E.g. whether the counter-part is looking for some particular reaction or to establish whether he is just venting, looking for sympathy, or wants advice.

Of course, some people (including yours truly) have or have had more genuine problems with reading emotions.* By now, I am probably better than most, courtesy of the implicit training from watching so many movies and TV series,** but I trailed my age bracket until at least my late twenties and was disastrously behind during my school years. The effect of training is not to be underestimated and the introverted (even outside sub-groups with complications like autism) are at a disadvantage, because they, unsurprisingly, tend to spend less time socializing.

*More generally, the great degree of arbitrariness in human behavior and the way that most people ignore reason in favor of emotion often left me stumped in interactions. Women (in general) and women in connection with romance (in particular) were especially problematic. Cf. an earlier footnote.

**Starting with a growing awareness through cartoons, where the emotions are usually portrayed very strongly and have an obvious connection to events. As awareness coupled with a more grown-up mind, these emotions became easier to detect, increasingly subtle signs could be read and increasingly nuanced emotions differentiated. (Of course, other sources of awareness than cartoons featured later in life, including own experiences and verbal descriptions.) That actors tend to exaggerate expressions is an advantage during the early learning stages, but can be a disadvantage later on. Combined with the fact that they are acting, this implies that real life observations are necessary too.

Excursion on smiles and changing times:
An interesting development is that people on photographs (and paintings) were a lot less likely to smile in the past than today. In the case of politicians, statesmen, whatnot, the difference is particularly large—many past depictions of politicians show someone (almost certainly deliberately) grim or fierce looking, while bright, artificial smiles are par for the course today. Presumably, a modern politician wants to send a message of friendliness, while those of yore went for e.g. strength, domination, and the ability to face an assault by a foreign power.

Excursion on emotions vs. emoting:
A common misunderstanding is that people with low emoting are also low on emotion. In actuality, emotions appear to be more-or-less evenly divided between high and low emoters, with the groups simply displaying these emotions differently. I suspect that I, myself, am a fair bit above the male average when it comes to emotional intensity, e.g. in that I tend to feel more intense happiness, grow angrier at injustices, be likelier* to cry during a movie, whatnot. I would even speculate that many emotional people deliberately suppress their emotiveness, somewhat like the Vulcans of “Star Trek”, who do not have an in-born emotional control—on the contrary, they are naturally highly emotional and have developed techniques to keep their emotions under control.** Similarly, it is allegedly common for functioning alcoholics to have a facade that leaves other people believing that they have an under-average interest in alcohol.

*Note that “likelier” does not imply “likely”: Most movies with scenes that are intended to have this effect, and often have it on women, are simply too poorly made to actually hit home (e.g. because the scene is too cheesy/exaggerated or because sufficient emotional investment in the characters has not been created).

**However, the Vulcans attempt to control the actual emotions, not just their expression.

Excursion on “mirror neurons”:
A partial explanation for some of the above could lie in “mirror neurons” (or an equivalent mechanism) that trigger some degree of emotional or behavioral “mirroring”, e.g. in that many people reflexively smile back when smiled at. I only very rarely have such an impulse, and tend to just note that “someone is smiling at me”—often with such absentmindedness or (with strangers) such lack of interest that the question of whether I should smile back only occurs to me after the fact… I can even recall a few cases of extremely shy and insecure appearing* girls/women slowly start to smile at me, stop halfway through, and then sadly fade back to not smiling, when I did not reciprocate. Using smiles as an indicator of e.g. friendliness, potential romantic interest, whatnot, is very prone to error when we do not know how the other party tends to behave.**

*Based on e.g. posture, downwards turned eyes, and similar. To some degree the reasoning could be circular, however, since the type of failed smile is a part of the reason for the classification—confident women tend to jump straight to a full smile without “interactively” checking for feedback.

**Also for reasons like the many fake smiles made by manipulators and the artificially friendly.

Excursion on affectation and manipulation:
There are some things that I actually do that could be considered affectations or manipulations. For instance, I do not let my facial hair grow wild and I do so for reasons of aesthetics*. The differentiation towards the above is not entirely objective and I do not rule out that I will change my mind about e.g. altering my speech patterns—the above is not a discussion of why something would be morally** wrong to do but of why I (and likely many others) have not done it. However, there are at least three differences between the facial-hair and speaking-like-Olivier examples: I groom my facial hair at least partially for my direct own benefit (I have to look at that face in the mirror), not just for the indirect benefit through others. The type of grooming I make is sufficiently common that there is nothing remarkable about it (in fact, people who do not groom at all are more likely to be seen as following an affectation, even be it unjustly). There has been no major conscious decision to change anything, but a gradual change of habits until I found something that required little effort while still pleasing me.

*As opposed to practical reasons, which would have neutralized the accusation. (Chances are that if I did not groom, I would eventually be caught by practical reasons, e.g. when my beard landed in my soup; however, such concerns have not explicitly featured in my decision making so far.)

**However, some of the above examples arguably are, e.g. trying to flirt oneself to office favors.

Note that it is conceivable that similar factors played in with Olivier, himself, and it is not a given that his speech seemed remarkably affected to him or his peers (at least while performing)—much unlike a software developer who makes a conscious decision to emulate him in the office. He might simple have started with regular stage English and continually improved himself with an eye on practical stage effect. (Note that while software developers often have cause to speak, is not the core part of the job and what is said should* be far more important than the delivery.)

*Unfortunately, this is not always the case; however, the impact is still far smaller than for an actor, even when the ideal is not reached.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 12, 2018 at 3:39 am

A few observations around an open fly

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This Saturday, I spent close to an hour walking around Wuppertal with my fly accidentally open. A few observations:

  1. This is a good example of how much of what we do in daily life is run on autopilot: This would normally never happen, because I have an ingrained, unconscious, unthinking routine that takes care of the steps involved in putting on a pair of trousers. That day, however, I had just switched to a pair of newly washed and dried trousers, which implied several extra steps to fill my pockets with keys and whatnots, and to put on my belt. This brought me out of my routine, and I must unwittingly have skipped the important step of zipping the fly.

    Another good example is making coffee: My normal (ingrained, unconscious, unthinking) routine is to put water into the machine, add the coffee grounds, start the machine.* On very rare occasions, I put the grounds in first—and almost invariably forget to put in the water at all before starting the machine. The ingrained sequence is that the start follows the grounds, and this appears to take precedence over even a conscious thought or decision from twenty seconds earlier.

    *For simplicity, a number of detail steps, like “open the lid”, “find a filter”, are left out.

    There is a famous experiment or experiment family with insects, where an insect is fooled into again and again performing the same set of steps by the researcher’s repeated restoration of an initial condition—even when this restoration did not necessitate a repetition by the insect. Humans are possibly not that different: They, unlike the insect, would be able to discover that they were being strung along after one or two iterations, but, given the right constellation, most of us might be fooled into at least one unnecessary repetition of such an “autopilot task”.*

    *Generally, I suspect that many examples of “stupid” animal behavior give too much credit to humans, at least if the abstraction level is increased a little. For instance, documentaries about bees sometimes point out that bee “security” is only active at the entrances to a hive, and that hostiles/strangers/… that have already entered the hive are usually left alone (and “ha, ha, stupid bees”)—but how does that differ from security in most office buildings? Or take an intelligence test to differ between bright and dumb dogs: Will the dog keep standing next to a steak (or whatnot) with a pesky fence between the two—or will it run away from the steak, through the gate twenty feet away, and back to the steak on the other side of the fence? Few humans would fail this test with a literal fence, but how about a more metaphorical one? What if the best way to solve a problem is to retreat from one promising-but-ultimately-futile road and try something else? What if the best way to make a certain career advancement is to leave the current employer? Etc.

  2. There was a surprising lack of reaction: Except a few odd looks that only carried significance after I had learned of my faux-pas, there was no indication that something was amiss until about an hour into my walk, when a passer-by made a brief, barely audible comment: No friendly caution, no pointing and laughing children, no old lady who tried to beat me up with her cane, …

    This lack of reaction included a teenage girl who struck up a short, apparently random conversation—and who failed to even hint at something being wrong.

  3. Women are weird: Here we have a teenage girl striking up a random conversation with a man old enough to be her father, who is severely behind on his shaving, who is sweating from the hot weather and brisk tempo—and who has his fly open.


    *Even someone very outgoing and friendly, who would normally engage strangers in conversation for no actual reason (in it self a strange behavior to me), really should think twice about such an approach. I would certainly have advised my (hypothetical) teenage daughter against it. It is obviously possible that she started the conversation because she wanted to bring the problem to my attention, and that she then found it too embarrassing. On the other hand, through her not mentioning it, she ran the risk of coming across like a complete weirdo/pervert/freak/… to her near-by friends—which seems much more embarrassing to me.

    Even in my forties, I sometimes find the behavior of women incomprehensible. For instance, during another walk a few weeks ago, a woman asked me the German equivalent of “Can you call?”—not “Can you call X for me?”, not “Can you call me to check whether my phone is working?”, not “Do you have reception?”, not “Why haven’t you called me yet?”*, or any other somewhat reasonable question. When I asked what she meant, the answer amounted to something along the lines of “Like, you know, call?”—both times with a too “native” pronunciation to allow “German as a second language” as an explanation, both times with not the slightest hint of e.g. being drunk. (Because I had no phone on me, making her intents academic, I did not inquire further.)

    *Assuming a mistaken identity: I have no recollection of ever even meeting her before.

  4. Thank God for underwear…

Written by michaeleriksson

May 28, 2018 at 6:48 am

A few thoughts around childhood recollections

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Through a somewhat random chain of association, I find myself thinking about one of my childhood’s favorite objects: Skåpsängen*.

*I am not aware of an English translation. Literally, “säng” is “bed”, “-en” is “the”, and “skåp” can, depending on context, translate as e.g. “cupboard” or “closet”. Below, I will speak of “box” for the “skåp” part, because this matches the internal structure best, even if it was larger and more finely worked than what I picture when I hear “wooden box”. I keep the word with a capital “S” because it always came over as a proper name to me—not a mere noun or a mere description. (This was often the case with me. Cf. “mormorsfranska” below.)

This was a foldable bed-in-a-box, that I used to sleep in when visiting my maternal grand-parents as a young child. As a result of the construction, I lied down with my head well within the box, which was something of a world of its own. Not only did the walls and roof shelter* me, but I often found myself just staring at the walls for minutes at a time, following the grain of the wood, especially the brown patterns formed by wood knots, or admiring one or two little pencil drawings (possibly drawn by my mother in her youth)—almost as good as TV. My positive associations are strengthened by how grand-parents spoil their grand-children and the “exotic” overall environment, with its new smells, different and older furniture**, different food***, toys that once belonged to my mother and her brother …—and, obviously, the grand-parents themselves.

*In my subjective impression. There was, of course, no actual danger or discomfort to shelter against.

**Including some actual antiques that had been handed down from an even older generation than my grand-parents’.

***Including what I thought was named “mormorsfranska”, but was actually just a descriptive “mormors franska”—“[my specific] grand-mother’s [style of] bread rolls”, often given to me while tucked into the bed.

While a trip down memory lane is all fine and dandy*, it is not something that I often write about. However, there are a few thought-worthy things and my mind kept wandering back to other childhood memories and potential lessons, a few of which I will discuss below.

*Or not: By now, I am actually feeling quite sad, seeing that the grand-parents (and mother) are all dead, the house was torn down decades ago, Skåpsängen probably does not exist anymore, most of the other things likely have gone the same way, the innocence of childhood has long passed, …, One of the risks with looking back at happy times gone by, instead of forward to happy times to come or at the happy times of the now, is that the element of loss can ruin the experience—and the happier the memory, the greater the loss.

The most notable is how my child’s mind could be so fascinated with the walls of the box, where I today might have had a look around and then immersed myself in a book or my computer. This is largely because a child is easier to amuse and stimulate than an adult, who (often) needs something more challenging, and whose curiosity has moved on to other areas. Not only are such contrasts between the child and the adult important in order to understand children and (e.g. in my case) developing a greater tolerance for them, but when similar variations are present in the adult population they can become a tool to understand humanity as a whole better. Consider e.g. how a difference in intelligence levels can cause one person to view a certain activity as too easy to bother with, while another might be challenged and stimulated, and the activity that challenges and stimulates the former might simply be too hard for the latter; or how some might be more interested in stimulation through thinking and some more* through perception, and/or the two having different preferences for channels of perception.

*At least here the “more” is of importance: There seems to be quite a few people who really do not like to think, but few or none who are entirely cold towards sensory perceptions. More often, it is a question of prioritizing them, or some forms of them, lower than other things.

However, another partial explanation is likely the modern tendencies to crave more active forms of stimulation and not appreciating the little things in life: There can be a benefit found in, for a few minutes a day, just relaxing, cutting out stronger sources of stimulation (e.g. blogging or TV), and just focusing on and enjoying something small in the moment. (While I have resolved to deliberately and regularly do so on a few occasions, the resolution has usually been forgotten within a week. It still happens, obviously, but more accidentally and likely not as often as it should.)

Yet another contributing factor, especially for an adult, is today’s intense competition for our attention: There is so much entertainment, so much to learn, so much to see and do, that a dozen life-times would be too little. Back then, for a child, shortly before lights out*? The competition might have been re-reading a comic or just letting my thoughts wander while staring out into the room…

*Possibly more metaphorically than literally, since I was afraid of the dark and usually insisted that the lights be left on—which could, obviously, have prolonged the time available to look at the box…

An event that took place in Skåpsängen during my very early childhood is another good illustration of the difference between more childish and more adult reactions, resp., among adults, more emotional and more rational ones: The most favorite object of my childhood was a toy penguin. At some point after dark, one of its button eyes came off. I raised hell, annoyed my grand-mother (who, understandably, did not see this as a big deal) severely, and ended up being ungrateful when she sew another button on, without locating the original. (My memory of the exact details is a little vague, but I strongly suspect that if I had seen the “injury” as less urgent and waited until the following morning, the original button would have been used.) Apart from the repeated implications on understanding children and, possibly, humans in general, there are at least two lessons: Firstly, that someone who is very upset and/or makes a lot of noise does not necessarily have a legitimate complaint, or a complaint more worthy than that of more reasonable protesters. Secondly, that we should not expect gratitude from these people if we try to satisfy them…

Importantly, however, I did not complain loudly and stubbornly because of any calculation*—I did it because I was very genuinely upset: I was unable to comprehend that this truly was no big deal. Even if we allow that a child can have a very strong emotional connection to a toy penguin**, this was not a damage that was noteworthy, debilitating, or hard to fix—a few minutes with needle, thread, and (preferably the original…) button, and everything would be fine. For I all know, exactly that could have happened to the other eye at some point when I was asleep and unaware of the events, having no way to tell after the fact. This type of inability to make correct assessments is regrettably very common among adults too, if not in such extremely obvious cases.

*In contrast, I suspect that e.g. a large part of the PC crowd is driven by calculation when it comes to their style of protest. I use similar tactics, on occasion, when dealing with e.g. spamming companies-where-I-placed-a-single-order-and-never-consented-to-any-advertising: Reasoning very obviously does not convince them that they are doing something grossly unethical, so let us see whether they pay attention when a customer leaves in (apparent) anger. (To early to tell, but I am not optimistic.)

**Which we certainly should: Even now, I find myself having a surprisingly strong reaction when thinking back, stronger than e.g. when thinking of the real-life people that I later went to school with… Similarly, one of the most enduringly popular songs in Sweden, since before my own birth, is “Teddybjörnen Fredriksson”, dealing with the nostalgic feelings of a grown man towards his childhood teddy bear (named Fredriksson). I suspect that it is better known and more beloved among Swedes that the top hits of ABBA and Roxette.

Children do provide many, with hindsight, ridiculous examples. The proudest moment of my life came when I, about four years old, gave my grand-father a tip on how to repair a broken (probably) 16mm film—and he, an actual adult!, followed my tip. Did I save the day, like I thought? No: As I realized later in life, he would have done the exact same thing anyway. (As implied e.g. by the fact that he already had the right equipment for the repair.) Similarly, the first, and possibly only, time I played croquet, at about the same age, I was very proud at having beaten my grown-up uncle. (He claimed that I did, and who was I too disagree, not even understanding the rules…) Can you say “Dunning–Kruger”?

The pride aspect is yet another case where children could differ from mature adults: I am not necessarily free from pride, but this particular type of pride (as opposed to e.g. contentment) over a specific event or a specific accomplishment is comparatively rare, and it seems pointless and vain to me for anything but the greatest accomplishments (major scientific break-throughs, Olympic medals, …) Then again, I need not be representative for adults. For instance, while I keep my college diplomas somewhere in a stack of paper, many others, including my mother, have theirs framed and hung on the wall.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm

The feeling of being unfairly treated and its consequences

with 3 comments

In my previous post, I stated in a footnote:

I suspect that the extremely negative attitudes that e.g. the Swedish PC crowd displays towards everything non-PC actually serve to worsen problems with e.g. racism and xenophobia: Because even legitimate discussion of topics like immigration or immigration problems are so hard to do in public forums, many who try to start such discussions are driven out and end up in discussions with actual xenophobes instead, where they have every opportunity to be “radicalized” or whatnot. The same danger is present with e.g. the above renaming, being a signal (or, if not, very likely will come across as a signal) of “you are either with us or what you think and feel does not matter”.

Since then, I have pondered a related phenomenon: Feeling* unfairly treated.

*The most common reason for such feelings is actual mistreatment. However, it is important to understand that it is the subjective assessment of the violated or “violated” party that matter in this particular discussion. (See also several below disclaimers.) The assessment of a neutral third party (let alone the subjective assessment of the violators/”violators”) is not of interest—no matter how important it can be in many other discussions.

People who feel that they are unfairly treated often play by different rules. They are more prone to ignore or bend the rules—because they feel that the rules have already been ignored or bent by the other party. They are less likely to respect the wishes, interests, even rights of the other party—because they feel that their own wishes, interests, even rights have already been ignored. They are more likely to take action against the other party—because they feel that action has already been taken against them. Etc. That they will tend to see the other party as the “bad guys” hardly needs mentioning.

A very pertinent example is the rise of Hitler: He benefited very substantially from the sense of unfairness against the Treaty of Versailles and the post-WWI developments in Germany. A significant part of his official program, and a significant contributor to his popularity, was the restoration of what had been taken from Germany by the Treaty* and the removal of the ensuing** problems in the population.

*I have not put in the leg-work to judge the fairness or unfairness myself. However, I note that it is widely considered unusually harsh, making it an understandable target for unusually large feelings of unfairness—even were these feelings subjective. (Some feelings of unfairness are more-or-less unavoidable.) This included not only loss of significant portions of land and rights, but also enormous reparations that negatively affected the post-war economy.

**Note that it is enough for a connect to be perceived for this to happen. Even negative events not or only partially caused by the Treaty and the general treatment of Germany could very easily be blamed on the Treaty.

To take a more trivial example: Some of the readers might be inclined to unofficially take twice as long breaks from work as they do officially, even “without provocation”; some (I hope: most) will handle breaks in a fair manner, respecting the interests of the employer. Now image that there had been “provocation”, say, a promised raise that never materialized, a forced re-location, or just an accumulation of little things. In this situation, the likelihood of artificially prolonged breaks (and other actions to the disadvantage of the employer) increases radically—because many will now feel* that they are just retaliating an unfairness or that the employer no longer deserves their loyalty.

*Depending on the circumstance, they might or might not be correct. My personal advice, however, would be to stick to the rules and to find another employer, if the circumstances allow it—sticking around will quite likely be a source of more grievance than pleasure.

Similar examples, both large and small, are easily found.

To boot, it seems that feelings of unfairness are often stronger and more long lived than many others; especially when combined with frustration and lack of power. For instance, my own strongest memory from pre-school, at possibly six years of age, is an incident starting with one of the other children setting me up to take the fall for something he had done. This was bad enough, but would likely have been forgotten within a week and/or after a brief fight. What filled me with indignation even several years later was the behavior of the teacher*, who was supposed to be a wise adult, a helper, a righter of wrongs, …: Not only did she punish me and refuse to punish the other boy, but she also refused to even hear my side of the story and, here is the clincher, refused to even tell me what I allegedly had done. (To this day, I have absolutely no idea what was up.)

*For want of a better word: I am very uncertain, after so much time, what her exact role and the then terminology was, even barring the possibility that something would be lost in translation.

Of course, this is by no means restricted to children (or I would not be writing this post). I see examples among others again and again, especially (cf. above) in a work place setting, where an employer treats the employees badly and they start to bend the rules more and more, because the feel unfairly treated or that there is no loyalty from the employer (so why should the employees show loyalty back). In situations when people really go on the barricades (mostly on political or consumer issues), Kafkaesque refusals of remedies by incompetent bureaucrats or dishonest businesses are often strongly contributing. In my own case, the curious reader should be able to find plenty of examples in my writings, both with regard to myself (e.g. when a comment has been censored without a legitimate reason, allowing a factual error or outright lie to stand unopposed) and to unfair treatment of others (e.g. some discussions of the Swedish party SD or, partially, the previous post).

To come back full circle:

What happens when group A is e.g. physically attacked by group B, sees its agenda or methods equaled to that of a more extremist group in a blanket manner, or is not even allowed a fair say, not even to correct straw-man portrayals by group B? What if additionally the police, the press, the politicians, fail to act against these behaviors, even participates in them, and then adds insult to injury by blaming group A? (Who are “obviously” in the wrong, because group A is “evil”—according to the propaganda of group B…)

Naturally, its members will feel unfairly treated, will be less likely to try “democratic channels” (if in doubt because they are blocked), more likely to try violence, more prone to associate with more extremist elements, and so on. In a twist, the fifties/sixties “Black rights” movement in the U.S. saw similar (if likely not identical) problems, and it can be safely assumed that this contributed to the flowering of the extremist wing, with e.g. the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, compared to a more cooperative treatment by “the establishment”.

It should be clear that it is highly pragmatically* unwise for someone genuinely looking for a peaceful solution, greater understanding between people, whatnot, to use such tactics. These tactics will do less to destroy the enemy than it will in driving opponents into more and more hostile positions, quite possibly strengthening the enemy in the process.

*Which is not to say that pragmatic concerns should override all others—it is one of the aspects to consider. However, in the situations prompting my previous post, the non-pragmatically “right” thing to do has usually gone in the same direction. For instance, “freedom of speech” that only applies to those who agree with us is not freedom of speech at all—and selectively suppressing our opponents right to speak is truly deplorable and thoroughly anti-democratic.

Disclaimer: As stated in my last post, I have not investigated the Charlottesville situation in detail and do not necessarily say that the “Right” groups have been unfairly treated in this particular case. However, a) if they have not, there are countless of other cases to draw on, b) for the risks discussed here, it is enough that these groups feel unfairly treated.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 20, 2017 at 11:11 pm