Monday, February 01, 2010

Relying On Cues From The Environment

image by brokenarts, sxc.hu

Cues From The Environment Direct Our Life

In the restaurant, the waiter hovering over the head, you staring at the menu card spread out on the table, how do you make that decision to place the order? Do you take a look at what the other diners are having on their plate, and choose the one that appears the most palatable and also the one eating which is giving the eater's countenance that look of special satiation? It is a split-second decision that you take, and having taken the decision, you heave a sigh of relief and move on. Your decision in this case was based on a cue you picked from the environment.

image by bigevil600, sxc.hu

When you walk into one of those social gatherings where everyone is a stranger to everyone else, then, given a choice between the stranger standing a few feet to your left and a stranger standing a few feet to your right, who do you gravitate to, first? What parameters does your brain evaluate in those fleeting few moments, which motivates you to reject one person in favor of the other? Do you look for social affinity? Or gender? Are you mesmerized by that inviting smile or that warm demeanor? Or are you taken in by the rich, powerful aura exuded by their persona? It's a decision you make, and you make it real fast, standing on your own two feet, and never mind that ultimately you end up chatting the rest of the evening with the person you had rejected earlier. Ever wondered how naturally fast the brain works in such circumstances!

image by mzacha, sxc.hu

Imagine that you are visiting a doctor X for some serious ailment. The doctor examines you thoroughly, asks you all the right questions, and then in the end prescribes you certain therapeutic intervention. You are on the way to administer yourself the intervention when along comes this friend who has been experiencing the same ailment, but has been consulting another doctor Y. This friend highly recommends the other doctor, and you feel motivated to go visit doctor Y. Now the good physician that this doctor Y is, they too examine you equally thoroughly, they too ask you all the right questions, and then in the end, they too prescribe you... a different therapeutic intervention altogether! Now what do you do? How do you decide which amongst these two healers to reject and which to trust? Do you compare the feeling of comfort you had in either doctor's company? Do you give higher weightage to their soft voice, or to the way they nodded their head in understanding when you were venting your complaints? Or do you discuss the ailment and the two interventions with other patients and see what the majority have to say? Do whatever you want, but decide you have to, and it is okay to cloak it under the label of "informed, intelligent decision".

image by wolak, sxc.hu

Any social interaction is dynamic in nature, even the most cursory, peremptory ones. We rely on cues from the environment to make decisions, and our decision-making process when we are alone is different from when we are part of a social group, because the latter is richer in terms of the variety and diversity of cues. When alone, we spend a lot of time agonizing over which direction to take. But there's a herd of people rushing in one direction, and "duh!", "doh!", without much ado, we find ourselves rushing after and along with them, matching them step with step. And I speak here both physically as well as metaphorically. Of course, there are situations when there are different herds rushing in different directions, so we are left scratching our head picking up cues from this complex environment to decide which herd to be in step with.

image by ffaabbii, sxc.hu

What I have presented here are a few examples of our brain following different sets of heuristics in order to arrive at decisions in different situations and context. Like a Swiss knife that has multiple tools. You can build a long list of similar situations in your life where you use this Swiss knife yourself. It's a marvel how the brain "knows" which tool from this knife to yank out from the set and apply in a given situation. One major tool that guides our life on quite a few occasions is the heuristic of "imitate-the-majority". Another tool that is equally helpful is the "imitate-the-best" policy. So if somebody who in our eyes is successful wears their tie pin a certain way or waves goodbye in a certain style, before long, we find ourselves unconsciously aping them. It is this policy on which the advertisement and celebrity-endorsement industry is founded! Imitation and conformity go hand in hand.

image by cdwaldi, sxc.hu

The "problem" of selecting a mate too is based on certain heuristics. This problem has an added flavor of challenge because the process - barring a few cultures - requires mutual acceptance. While the once-over is in progress, we search for cues to build a general profile in the mind, of the individual's overall quality as a potential mate. We also keep at the back of the mind a list of other candidates whom we perhaps consider equally likely to be our mate, and so there is this compare-and-contrast that keeps happening, which sometimes takes days, weeks or months, and sometimes takes a flash to resolve. When we are looking for a casual sexual relationship - a one-night stand, may be -, we will have different heuristics than when we are looking for a long-haul partner with whom children can be birthed. It is again the Swiss knife in action.

image by biewoef, sxc.hu

The key point for us self-developers is that the brain has these sets of heuristics ingrained into it through the value systems of the family and the larger culture we are embedded in. These intricate psychological mechanisms are so deeply hard-wired in the unconscious that our actions and reactions are invariably performed without any conscious thought - we simply perform them. Like a pre-programmed automaton. At the end of the day, retiring to bed, while worrying about the next day's tensions and issues, we might also consider spending some time on quiet self-reflection of the incidents in the day when we acted "unthinkingly", relying on cues from the environment, going with the majority, or imitating the best, or following such similar heuristic. It is marvelous, this process of discovering what we do like an automaton. So that the next time when we are in the process of performing an unthinking act, we will be more self-aware.

image by ilco, sxc.hu

[There is another dimension to social interaction in this new era. And that is the forging of relationships in ether, on the web. Like any other facet of human psyche, this new dimension has its own interesting challenges and charming characteristics. The mask of anonymity afforded by online relationships doesn't really camouflage one's true personality from influencing the direction the online interactions take. Here is an article that focuses on this issue: "Don't Cry, Shopgirl".]

image by arte_ram, sxc.hu

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