And be sure to look both ways

Yes, well, easier said than done. I caught myself cheating this morning and this was just as I was backing out of my parking spot. This is the way it happens with me, for good or ill. I catch a happening and then before I have a chance to process it fully, I see it as an instance of a class of happenings. “Oh,” I said to myself, “I do this all the time. I just happened to notice this time.”

In this post, I would like to explore what “this” is. I am hoping it sounds familiar. My highest hope is that you will say, “Oh…I do that all the time.”

By “this,” I mean to refer to a suite of behaviors. [1] “Suite” means that they happen together. Cuing one behavior very often cues the whole suite. And that’s really why this matters at all. As I was backing out of my parking slot this morning, some part of me was aware that I should “look both ways.” So I leaned forward—that’s what you have to do to look both ways in a Prius—and turned my head to the right and then to the left. I didn’t actually see anything because I wasn’t looking.

I was performing the suite of behaviors that is, somewhere in my brain, titled “looking both ways,” but I was busy thinking about other things and didn’t pay the slightest attention to what was there to see. Having looked both ways, I looked down at the dashboard where the rear view camera’s image is displayed. I didn’t pay any attention to that either.

I did some other things, though, which I assume are part of the suite. I frowned the sort of frown that we associate with concentration. I noticed that, too. I increased my general muscle tension, which, I suppose, is consistent with readying myself to react physically to whatever I might have seen, had I been actually looking.

It is that collection of behaviors I had in mind when I said “I do this all the time.” Then, in that immediate second thought, I was persuaded of two things. First, the “look both ways” thought cues all the behaviors I named. It cues the ones that are directly associated with my goal of not running into anyone and it cues all the others which have come to be associated with it. So I don’t really think the frowning helps; it’s just part of the suite.

I also suspect that there is a performance dimension to it. That thought is hard for anyone to escape who has read a lot of Irving Goffman, [2] and I often catch myself doing things that I suspect have the goal of reassuring others. You play “the totally focused shopper” or the “looking carefully both ways” especially if there is someone you want to look at and don’t want to get caught looking at them. Then there is, “I’m so engaged in this book that I didn’t notice you come in,” and a host of other things we learn to “perform” so that they scarcely seem to be other-oriented at all. They are a suite.

But what caught my attention this morning is that while I was performing this suite of behaviors, I noticed that I was paying no attention at all to what I was pretending to be looking at. I would have seen a person standing there, I suppose, but I wasn’t gauging how close I was to the back wall. I wasn’t looking to see if some item that is usually in “storage” against the east wall had drifted out into my path. I wasn’t looking. I was pretending to look. I was performing the suite.

And then, on the way to Starbucks, I got to thinking how much like the model of evolutionary traits this is. Evolution chooses the structures and behaviors that lead to successful competition for food and for mates. [3] But nothing requires evolution to go back over the suites of changes and rigorously comb out all the elements of the suite that don’t actually make a contribution. So these associated traits or structures just ride along with the ones that are making a contribution to the survival of that species. There is no evolutionary value on going back and removing the ones that actually aren’t helping. If they are associated with the traits that do help, they are “chosen” as well.

So the frown, for instance. I know I do it. I know it doesn’t help, except is the very distant instance of seeming to an onlooker to be “looking intently.” But there is really no reason to go back and make sure I don’t frown; no reason to exert myself to remove it from the suite where it has wound up. Just leave it there.

But remember to look both ways. This message has been brought to you by the god, Janus (see above), who looks both ways better than anyone. And happy new year.

[1] I know there was a time when just how “behavior” was to be defined was crucially important to psychologists. I suspect that time has passed, but in case it is not, I intend a very broad meaning so that it includes gestures and various muscle tonalities.
[2] Certainly
The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Stigma, Asylums, and especially his essay, “On Deference and Demeanor” in The Goffman Reader.
[3] Or, in the case of the Praying Mantis, both
, simultaneously.

 

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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