Monday, November 21, 2011

We Adapt To Survive

Cal Lightman: I'm sorry about before. (Ria raises her eyebrows at him) Sometimes I see so much, I don't know how not to tell people.

Ria Torres: Yeah, I get that.

Cal Lightman: You're right; most people don't change. Right? I've been there, waiting for it, hoping for it, and then they just... don't. But there are a few, I think, who can.

Ria Torres: Any other life lessons?

Cal Lightman: (leans forward in his chair) When someone... bashes you around, who's twice your size, just whenever he feels like it, you learn to read emotions pretty fast. We adapt to survive. Your abuse made you a natural. He made you what you are.

Ria Torres: Well, I'll be sure to thank him.

(Cal laughs and sits back in his chair)

Ria Torres: So what about you?

Cal Lightman: Nah, I'm not a natural. I had to learn this.

Ria Torres: Why did you want to learn? What, you all of a sudden became obsessed with facial expressions? (she reads his face) I didn't think so. So who was it? Who made you who you are?

[ Lie to Me, Season 1: Episode 5, "Unchained" ]


Much like the character of Ria Torres in my favorite TV show "Lie to Me", I have a hobby that I did not consciously choose for myself, at least not originally. I am naturally fascinated with human behavior, particularly the art of being able to make reliable observations of the way people tend to act in a given situation. The goal being to predict a person's behavior accurately enough to be able to identify and avoid unwanted confrontation, emotional distress, or even physical danger.

This is not a joke or an exaggeration, I grew up in an emotionally and mentally abusive home. I learned at an early age, that avoiding my Father's unpredictable bursts of anger was very important. If I could see my Dad's mood swings coming soon enough, I could save myself the emotional, mental, and sometimes physical pain that would inevitably follow. I did not fully realize the gravity of those experiences, until becoming a father myself.

Even as a grown man in my thirties, I still live life based on the survival skills I learned as a child. I have a natural inclination to observe human tendencies under a given set of circumstances, mentally plot the relationships between those pieces of data, and then attempt to recognize the onset of those behaviors before they happen again. Given adequate observational data, I have accurately predicted what a person is going to say or do next, more times than I can count. I have "read" people from all walks of life, in many different settings- home, church, school, and even business. And in case you are wondering- no, this skill is not always incredibly useful in personal relationships which you value.

Now you may say: "anyone can make simple predictions if they have enough data", and I would agree that that is a reasonable amount of skepticism. But this begs the question, where does a person get their hands on that information in the first place? Due to the highly subjective nature of this type of information (and most importantly- the intended application of it), the individual would need to gather the majority of this data through first-hand observation and personal experience. You would have to know what kind of data is going to be useful in this application in the first place, and know how to gather it reliably.

Then you must know how to process and organize your observations in meaningful ways, and sift out as many false-positives as possible. And finally, even if a person manages to consistently (and yes I mean consistently) gather and process enough data to facilitate an informed hypothesis, you still need to know what to actually DO with it when the time comes. In other words: all the data in the world would be useless in the hands of an individual who has an insufficient understanding of how to apply that knowledge in a real-life situation. This is where being a "natural" comes in. Being a "natural" means you innately know how to do all of the above, and do it in a useful way.

Human beings are creatures of habit, prone to conditioned responses, and therefore rather predictable. However, we are also prideful, sensitive beings. Nobody likes being told what they are going to do next, even if that prediction is 100% correct. We want to feel like we are in control of our own lives. The mere suggestion that some other entity knows what we are going to do- before we actually do it, offends our sense of free will. The human psyche is rather susceptible to being obstinate and contrary- so telling a person that they are predestined to a certain course of action, will most likely taint the result. People will alter their behavior, just to disprove a prediction.

So anyway, I want to spend some more time on the practical application of these principles in a follow-up article, but for now I wanted to post this much and maybe even spark some interesting discussion on the subject.