Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘human behavior

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

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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