Allow me to paraphrase a few lines from the movie The Sixth Sense: “I see clueless people. All the time. They’re everywhere. They don’t even know they’re clueless”.
This is why I’ve been getting grumpier lately, and growing increasingly impatient with a greater percentage of people in society. At first I thought that I must be getting old, and turning – slowly and inexorably – into the proverbial curmudgeonly old man. However, two innocuous things happened that made me re-evaluate my environment, connect some dots, and gain a new perspective on human behaviour.
- I perused a book of etiquette, that was written in the 1950s. It seemed so quaint, with sections on bowing, wearing make-up in public, writing a letter of reference for a servant and bringing home unannounced company for meals. I must admit that I have difficulty imagining a society in which everyone adheres to all of the conventions in this book, but it sounds like a delightful existence.
- I decided to watch the 1988 movie Alien Nation. In the movie, a number of extra-terrestrials, known as Newcomers, land on Earth and are slowly integrated into human society. Mid-way through the movie, one of the Newcomers makes the following (and in my opinion, profound) observation “You humans are very curious to us… so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you’ve set for yourselves”.
That’s when I had my “Aha!” moment and began to connect the dots. Now I understood what was bothering me – we set certain (and what I would consider reasonable) behavioural standards for ourselves, yet so few of us seem capable of achieving them. That etiquette book didn’t describe exemplary behaviour; it outlined normal behaviour that was expected of everyone (at least during the 1950s). This was our baseline – anything less would be considered uncouth. However, when I observed the people around me, very few of them came even close to behaving admirably or even properly.
So why weren’t we meeting the objectives that we set for ourselves? Rather than lament our disappointingly low levels of civility (which wouldn’t have accomplished anything), I decided to do something more pragmatic, and more enjoyable: I decided to observe people and how they behave, try to figure out what motivates them, and then try to determine where each of us stands on the behavioural continuum. After months of observing, cataloguing and analyzing, I finally had my finished product: a rudimentary behavioural chart of my own design that maps what I call The Levels of Behaviour.
It still needs work, and it doesn’t illustrate all of our motivators or properly categorize all behaviour, but it’s a start. I should point out that this chart describes only behaviour, not people. You (or any other person) may exhibit behaviour from more than one level. Let’s start at the bottom and move up.
Level I – The Pleasure Principle, and The Path of Least Resistance.
Although these are two separate motivators, I decided to assign them both the same level, since I don’t think that either is morally superior.
The Pleasure Principle (PP) is a concept in Freudian psychology that describes the tendency of people to seek pleasure and avoid pain, in order to satisfy their basic needs. This philosophy of life can also be stated as “if it feels good, do it”. Within the context of Level I behaviour, this definition also includes the following addition “The pursuit of pleasure is the dominant, if not the solitary criterion for these people. They don’t consider the consequences of their actions”.
The second philosophy is called “The Path Of Least Resistance” (PLR). In this case, the motivation is the avoidance of pain (or responsibility, or work) instead of the pursuit of pleasure. People who adopt this philosophy try to reap the greatest rewards by doing as little work as possible.
While Level I behaviour is the least admirable, criticizing those who engage in it means that I’m also criticizing myself. We all behave at the level from time to time; however, some of us are just take a little longer to graduate than others. Here are some example of each Level I sub-type:
- (PP): Students who decide to watch television, play computer games or go our with their friends instead of doing their homework or studying for an exam.
- (PP): Those who abandon their diet or exercise regime after a short period of time, and revert to their former lifestyle.
- (PLR): Jaywalkers, and pedestrians who cross against the traffic lights.
- (PLR): drivers who run red lights or double-park, and able-bodied drivers who park in handicapped spots.
- (PLR): Anyone who cheats on a test or exam (including athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs).
- (PLR): Singers who use Auto-Tune.
Level II – The Sword of Damocles
According to Greek legend, Damocles, a member of the court of Dionysius II, wanted to experience the privileged, rarefied existence of his leader. Dionysius said that Damocles could sit on his throne and enjoy all of the luxuries that went with it, on one condition: Dionysius would hang a large, heavy sword directly over Damocles’s head, suspended by only a single strand of hair from a horse’s tail. The term Sword of Damocles is sometimes used when describing a person who appears content or privileged, but who also lives in constant fear.
If you think that the Sword of Damocles is merely a quaint Greek legend, think again – you and I are living it right now; so is the vast majority of the population. This legend lies at the core of what I term Level II behaviour: working hard and doing the right thing, but only because you feel threatened. Here are some examples:
- When you were a child, and your parents threatened to punish you or to take away a privilege unless you cleaned your room, then you were practising Level Two behaviour. You were doing the right thing, but only because you feared the consequences.
- I know that you would never park in a handicapped spot, but is that because you are a kind and benevolent soul, or do you actually fear the $450 fine if you get caught? Suppose that your local police department was unhappy with their contract negotiations and decided to stage a protest – during the next month (or until their next bargaining session), no tickets would be issued for anyone parking in handicapped spaces. Would you now be tempted park in a handicapped space, knowing that there would be no repercussions? Be honest…
- Many organized religions are predicated on this concept: be good, and do exactly as we say, or else you’re going to spend an eternity burning in hell while demons prod you with red-hot pitchforks. Based on my own observations, the more outwardly religious you are, the more you are actually living your life in fear. Granted, you are behaving honourably, I’ll give you that, but you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. The overriding motivation is not that you genuinely want to help others, but that you want to save yourself from eternal punishment and earn that ticket to heaven. It’s an ultimately inward-looking philosophy, rather than an outward-looking one; organized religion has likely been supplying your motivations and shaping your behaviour for many years. As Charlie Brooker would say “Don’t say it didn’t… it did”.
- Up until the 1980s, we were happily spraying ourselves with aerosol deodorant and using freon as a refrigerant. We slowly changed our ways, but only after we realized that there was a gaping hole in the ozone layer the size of North America and heard scientists tell us about the dangers of ozone depletion.
- During the past couple of generations, we humans have increased our environmental consciousness significantly. We now have recycling programs everywhere, and blue boxes have become part of our urban landscape. We are now adopting, building or using backyard composters, reusable cloth shopping bags, LEED building codes, CFL and LED lighting, bicycle lanes, hybrid cars, High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and wind farms. Unfortunately, all of these initiatives were brought about only because we were made aware of our destructive behaviour – specifically, the rate at which we are depleting the planet’s natural resources – and of the long-term consequences that were in store for us if we continued.
Level III – Doing The Right Thing, Because It’s The Right Thing To Do
Level III behaviour and the word “character” share the same definition: “doing the right thing even when no one is looking” and “treating someone well – even when that person can be of no use to you”. It’s behaving well, not because we feel threatened, but solely because it’s the right thing to do. It’s doing the right things for the right reasons. Some examples:
- Volunteering for, or making an anonymous donation to a charity.
- Being well-mannered and displaying common courtesy – essentially, following the recommendations in the etiquette book.
- Being a team player, and following the sage advice of Mr. Spock: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.
- Emulating (of all people) Ebenezer Scrooge. In a 2004 edition of A Christmas Carol, Katherine Kroeber Wiley made the following observations about Scrooge in the book’s Introduction: “Scrooge promises alteration of himself without any guarantee of salvation. He promises to change, not to save himself from death or even misery, but because he has come to understand that his alteration is the right thing to do; compassion to others ought to be his course because that is the humane, the truly moral thing to do, not because of what he might get out of it”.
Level III behaviour sounds so simple, especially now that we’re aware of the motivators, so why aren’t more of us behaving this way? As it turns out, we are talking ourselves out of it.
While a book of etiquette is encouraging us to reach for Level III, advertisers are trying to push us back down to Levels I and II. These insidious messages surround us, and while they may not be as blatant as the sales pitches, themselves, their damaging ideologies are still present, and are encouraging us to lower our standards. Here are some examples:
Here’s a magazine advertisement for a radar detector. After spending your teenage years taking Driver’s Education classes and learning all of the rules of the road, this ad is now suggesting that we ignore what we’ve learned and drive over the speed limit. Not merely 10km/h over the limit in order to keep up with the rest of the highway traffic, but fast enough to attract the attention of the police. Even the corporate slogan baffles me: “Drive Smarter”.
We exist in a super-sized culture of fast food, sugary drinks, and large portions of both. During the Great Depression, a bottle of Coca-Cola held six ounces. Today, 7-11 offers the following sizes in its Big Gulp line-up: Gulp – 20oz, Big Gulp – 30oz, Super Big Gulps: 40oz, Double Gulps: 50oz (reduced from 64oz, because customers found them too difficult to carry).
Prescription drug advertisements seem to be everywhere, on television and in magazines. What were once minor problems that could be lessened or even eliminated by additional exercise or a more disciplined diet are now being treated with pills. Why make an effort to change your lifestyle when you can simply take a pill?
Instant gratification is always popular in advertising. Why exercise fiscal discipline and save for a major purchase, when you can simply buy something without having the money for it, and worry about making the payments later? Apparently our “I want it, and I want it now!” attitude doesn’t always fade away after we emerge from our childhood – or if it does, then advertisers are doing their best to resurrect it.
Lottery television ads seem to have an annoying sameness to them. They are usually of people enjoying an endless vacation – sailing, scuba diving, dining at fine restaurants, and spending money without a care in the world. The Cash For Life commercial will also throw in the following line of dialogue “What an amazing week we just had – I can’t wait to enjoy next week!”. Why spend your life working hard and saving for your goals, when dreams of an effortless early retirement are dangling in front of your face?
I can’t believe that cigarettes are still advertised. This is such a tremendous deal – you get to experience the pleasure of setting a bunch a dried leaves on fire and then inhaling their poisonous smoke, and the only thing you have to give in return is your health, and a decade or two of your life.
We live in a truly bizarre and paradoxical society. I feel as if our entire populace is walking up a “down” escalator, and are wondering why they’re not making much progress elevating themselves. We set what seem to be reasonable behavioural expectations for ourselves, but at the same time, we are urging ourselves, through our various media outlets, not to be so ambitious. We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us, and until we learn how to give our collective heads a shake and raise ourselves up by our bootstraps, let’s hope that no aliens visit our planet – we wouldn’t want them to return home disappointed.