Movies Operate in Patterns Humans Don’t


“Henry, I don’t think we’re going to catch this guy!” a policeman says as he and his partner chase a motorcyclist down a winding road through some scenic mountains at a dangerously rapid rate, during the opening credits of our movie.

“I think he might be the best we ever saw,” Henry replies. Even if the policemen could get close enough to see the motorcyclist, she is wearing a helmet with a heavily tinted visor that covers every inch of her face. “We’re not going to catch him,” Henry concedes. “He’s too good.” Chance intervenes, and they somehow manage to pull this woman over. When they remove her helmet, they discover that the alleged culprit is a woman. “It’s a woman?” the males whisper in awe.

“And I would’ve gotten away with it too,” she whispers between bared teeth, “if it weren’t for you meddling males.”

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

Two grizzled, burly men play darts. The pinpoint accuracy of the men impresses us, but it does not impress the main character of our production, a woman. Some clever wordplay ensues in which the woman, while downing shots of a highly alcoholic drink, subtly and confidently implies that she can beat both of them. “You? But, you’re just a woman,” the men say. They laugh. They laugh harder when she downs that alcoholic drink without so much as a grimace, as she prepares to stand. They’re near hysterics when she takes a dart, and she looks at the laughing men while throwing the dart. She doesn’t even look at the dartboard. The dart hits the center of the target so hard that it blasts through the center, and the wall behind it, where it hits an oxygen tank in a neighboring medical supplies store. The explosive blast sends the two men, now locked in silent awe, through the wall of the saloon and out into the highway. The blast only musses the dart-throwing female’s gorgeous locks of hair a little. She calmly walks toward the men with other blasts, from other oxygen tanks, exploding in her background as she nonchalantly steps on the highway. The 110lb woman then picks one of the 250lb men up with her index finger, as he whimpers, begging for mercy. She ignores his pleas and pulls him in closer, whispering, “And you, you’re just a man.” She then pulls out her sawed off shotgun and blows the man’s head clean off.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

*“There are three things,” according to author Scott Adams, “to know about human beings in order to understand why we do the things we do.

  • Humans use pattern recognition to understand their world.
  • Humans are very bad at pattern recognition
  • And they don’t know it.”

We see patterns in movies, because most of them follow patterns. As Roger Ebert once said, “The motto in Hollywood is if something works, try, try and try it again.” Movies also fall into patterns because movie makers are lazy, they’re not as creative as we think, they to try to affect social change, and they know how much we love patterns. We find patterns pleasing, and they make us feel smart when we figure them out. We find those artistic enterprises that don’t follow our patterns “confusing,” “weird,” and “hard to follow.” They usually end up in “art house” bargain bins. 

We want movies to follow patterns, because we want life to follow patterns. We want to be able to figure people, places and things out. We want to be smart and being smart means spotting outcomes before they occur. We use pattern recognition to predict how others will act and react on a situational basis. We’re wrong on occasion, but we don’t expect to be right all of the time, and we focus on the times when we were right. We’re wrong in life as often as we are when we watch Jeopardy! Yet, how many of us knew the answer soon after the Jeopardy! contestant provided it? We clinch our fists in frustration, because we were so close to getting the answer before they did. How many of us accumulate so many of those almost-got it, should’ve-known, and after-the-fact answers that we actually believe we knew the answer, and we knew so many of those answers that we now consider ourselves trivia masters?

How many after-the-fact, should’ve-known trivia masters, who know a little something something about human nature, can tell us what we’re going to do next, after we do it? “I knew you were going to do that,” they say.

“Wait a second,” we say when they do this to us one too many times. “I already did it. You’re brilliant at predicting what I’m going to do next, after I do it, but if you want any credit for predicting what I’m about to do, you have to say something before I do it.”

“But if I tell you,” they say, “you’ll do something else to prove me wrong.”    

“Fine,” we say. “Tell someone else. Whisper it to them. If that person verifies that you were right, we can start putting together your scorecard.” 

They might have a brilliant response for us, regarding how they knew what we were going to do. They might be able to provide interesting details regarding their meticulous study of human nature, their knowledge of us, and their observational skills in general, but they didn’t put that knowledge on the line when it counted. They might know the patterns and routines of humans, and they might say they can use that knowledge to predict what we’re going to do next, but most of us aren’t as great as recognizing patterns as we think. 

***

The last emotional, irrational cerebral crush I had on someone was a man named John Douglas, a man many credit with being the first to use the art of profiling to capture serial killers. Douglas used extensive interviews with serial killers to gain insight into the mind of men who do such things. His book influenced the creation of the movie Silence of the Lambs, and Netflix later used Douglas’ book Mindhunter for a series of the same name. Silence of the Lambs wasn’t the first movie to focus on the magic of criminal profiling, but it launched the idea of it into the zeitgeist. The idea that certain people exhibit certain patterned behavior can predict future crimes seemed so obvious that we couldn’t believe no one ever thought of it before. If you’re looking for a serial killer, these profiles suggested, look for a single, white man who has military experience and mother issues, and is between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Look for a guy who visits the scene of the crime. Look for the guy who pulled the wings off grasshoppers and tortured other small animals in his youth. Of course, we think, he’s just like my cousin Kirk. I always knew he’d grow up to be a serial killer.   

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

The cerebral crush I developed involved far too many emotions, as I fell in love with what I considered Douglas’ rational deductions and persuasive prose. I ignored the idea that Douglas’ study of patterns in human behavior often led to after-the-fact, educated guesses that could help law enforcement officials gain convictions. This earns the “Wait a second …” question all authors dread. Wait a second, I thought your book implied that following the patterns of behavior could lead to the apprehension of suspects that were on the loose. It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, but in my opinion Douglas is not the creative genius he purported to be in this regard. I believed that this veteran FBI expert had enough experience in his field to spot patterns beyond otherwise trivial coincidences. I’ve since heard that veteran law enforcement officials groan when their superiors call profilers in on a case, in the same manner they groan when psychics are called upon. 

John Douglas was correct on occasion, and he trumpeted his success in his book, but how often was his attempts to use patterns of human characteristics and behavior to pinpoint the serial killer wrong? Douglas did not provide a scorecard for his “creative thinking” in his book, but he did confess that there could be a psychic component to it. “If there is a psychic component to this, I won’t run away from it, though I regard it more in the realm of creative thinking.” This line led to some of us to run away from him. 

The “creative thinking” that some credit Douglas for starting is so ubiquitous in movies and TV shows now that we all know the bullet points, and the procedures that profilers use. We know them so well that we can spot the serial killer twenty minutes into any production. We know, for example, that when the head strong, female FBI agent creates a profile on an Episcopalian from Newark, New Jersey that she’s hot on the trail. None of the other FBI agents can see the correlation between the Episcopalian religion and someone wanting to tear the head off buxom young collegiate blondes, but she has a gut instinct based on years of experience, and we know she’s right. We don’t understand why the other male FBI agents don’t see how the trail she carefully lays out that will lead to the correct suspect. They begrudgingly see the errors of their ways before the credits roll, but they don’t want to give her the credit she deserves. That would shake up their whole world.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.  

If we know the pattern, we can spot the climax of a movie far before it arrives, a punchline of a joke before the joke teller gets there, and the return to the refrain of a song, after the bridge, before the band starts in on it. The idea that we can detect patterns and predict outcomes pleases us, and it makes us feel more intelligent for spotting it. We then employ that confidence in our ability to figure out patterns and see coincidences in our everyday interactions to know the people, places, and things around us a little better. The question we rarely ask ourselves, because we rarely remember when we guessed incorrectly, is how often are we wrong? The complicated algorithm can be broken down to a line the Coen Brothers wrote for the actor who played The Dude in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just, like, your opinion man.”

***

I never personally encountered one of those “supercomputers” from the sci-fi movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Those supercomputers were the size of a large room, and the moviemakers depicted them as having knowledge beyond human capacity. The supercomputers in these movies are usually entities in their own right with some ominous one-to-two syllable name, and the movies rarely mention a human programmer. The humans in the movie feed these allegedly autonomous computers data for a problem they want to solve and the “supercomputers” spit out an answer on a tiny, yellow slip of paper (it’s always yellow for some reason). The autonomous computers has data on the patterns of human behavior, and it spits out an answer allegedly not subject to human opinions and biases. If that were the case, one would think that the yellow slip of paper would say, “not much will change in the next fifty years.” That would not move the plot of the movie well, nor would a prediction that suggested, “There will be nothing but good times ahead for the human race.” The prediction on that yellow slip of paper is almost always dreadfully negative, and it’s often something we can’t handle. The only suitable answer, for the characters of the movie is to destroy the supercomputer before it infects the world with its brand of unbiased truth.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.  

Hindsight now allows us to view these scary, sci-fi movies as silly. The fear of computers, robots, or any artificial intelligence progressing past human intelligence is evergreen, but the idea that those archaic, room-length 1950’s machines could act independent of a programmer’s influence, or the movie maker’s influence, seems so silly now. We know those yellow slips of paper displayed a prediction based the mover maker’s opinion based upon an “expert’s” opinion, dressed up as a fact from a computer that allegedly escaped the bounds of human opinion and bias. If we could find one of those room length supercomputers from the 50’s to recreate the situation, we’d ask, “Okay, great, now who programmed this computer?” Computers are still not autonomous at this point, and they are still programmed with an opinion, based on an opinion, dressed up as a fact.

When we bite into a bland piece of chicken, loaded with preservatives, one of the first questions we ask is how many generations ago was this piece of meat actually attached to a chicken? We could ask the same questions of facts we receive from our modern, yellow slips of paper from a computer or device, in the form of search engine results, “Who wrote this?” Who provided the data for that modern, yellow slips of paper, and how many generations ago was this answer a primary source fact? 

The response writers of search engine results might have is that their answers are based on agreed upon historical facts, but how much of human history is based on some form of propaganda? How do other countries view our historical facts? Are there any discrepancies? The old saying is that winners write the history books. If that’s the case, how much of our history is based on propaganda, and an opinion based on an opinion of that propaganda that leads to an agreed upon fact? How many generations ago was that fact, upon which we all base our opinions, a fact? How many different incarnations has this grapevine truth gone through before it reached us?

We’ve all heard the George Santayana quote, “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” I’ll confess that I’ve probably used this quote as often as anyone else has without vetting it thoroughly. I also never read a contrarian, like author Scott Adams, dissect the quote and question its greater value. I heard so many brilliant minds drop this quote whenever people, or their leaders, were on the precipice of disaster that I did not question it enough. My prior interpretation of this quote was that if we study the patterns from the past, it will help us know more about our present, and it might help us in future endeavors. If human history is based upon an opinion, based on an opinion from some propaganda, based on a perceived pattern that led to some fact that we now all consider true, how often do we know what’s going happen in the future, how often will we be wrong, and how often will we have to repeat if necessary?

If we follow the patterns of history, will we learn that they are always going to be some human beings who are inherently violent, corrupt, and deceptive? Do we need to study patterns in history to know that? Can we use the map of past human behavior to dictate how we should act and react to others in the future, maybe, when it comes to specific individuals, but how does studying the interactions between ancient Athens and Rome help a country in their current relations with Uruguay? Adams alluded to the idea that the Santayana quote might help naïve leaders who believe that specific leaders of generally corrupt countries will somehow act less than corrupt when the naïve leader proposes laying a path for a new relationship. If that leader and his people fail to study the patterned history of this country, and its leader, they will be doomed to repeat the failures of other leaders who believed they could achieve a different result.

Humans are inherently routine, some might argue, and if we study their general patterns and the trends in history and society today, we can understand how humans will react on a situational basis. We know that residents of South Dakota will react different from residents of Uruguay, but if we gain a general sense of human nature and interaction, we might be able to determine human behavior through patterns. Maybe, to a certain degree, on a case-by-case basis, and depending on situation or issue involved, but how many qualifiers do we need to add to reach a desired conclusion that supports our thesis, opinion, and our biased worldview? If we dig deep enough, in our study of patterns, we (like my friend who could correctly guess what I was going to do after I did it) might find data that supports our opinion and makes us feel like a genius student of human behavior. Our best bet, according to Scott Adams, is stop searching for patterns, trends, and coincidences when trying to figure human nature out, because we’re wrong more often than we’re right. Our best bet is to remove our desire, our need need to be right, and the ego it feeds and admit that we are flawed prognosticators who can predict what will happen in the future.  

How many times have we had someone or something all figured out, only to discover that we were wrong? How many times do we rely on patterns, trends, and the overwhelming, “how could you miss it”, coincidences to figure something or someone out? How many of times have we realized that we were so wrong that we’ve been all wrong, all along? Here’s a line some of us love, “I’m more right than they know.” Some of us love that line so much that we live it. Some of us smile a conspiratorial smile in the face of a correction, believing that they do not know now how right we are, but they will … eventually. They will eventually see the light. They consult their experts, we consult ours, but how often are experts wrong? It depends on who you ask and which experts we consult. We passionately believe our informed beliefs system, and they passionately believe theirs. Who wins, who loses, who cares? Our best bet might be to avoid using other’s opinions to inform our opinion on patterns in human behavior, and while we’re at it, we might want to delete our opinions when trying to form an opinion too. Our best bet is if one way doesn’t work, try another. 

*Adams, Scott, Loserthink, 2019, New York, Penguin, page 66

Patterns and Routines


Why do certain chores feel more time consuming when we do them a different way? If we mow the lawn in a different pattern, chances are it will still take around 45 minutes if everything else remains constant. We thought if we mowed in a different direction, it might shave a couple minutes here and there, but it doesn’t. The perimeter equation of a rectangle remains constant regardless how we do it. Our primary goal was not to shave minutes. It was to do this tedious chore different. We don’t get too far into the mow before it dawns on us that this tedious chore appears to be taking longer. It isn’t, and some part of us knows it isn’t, but we can’t shake the perception. On those occasions when we mowed in our typical pattern, it flew by because we were probably sleepwalking through it. How many typical patterns and routines do we sleepwalk through in this manner? How many times do we wake up with the realization that it’s July, and we forgot to appreciate the beautiful month of June for what it was. How many times do we realize that we’re almost fifty, and we forgot to appreciate our forties for what they were? How much time do we lose following typical patterns and routines?

I saw a bunch of bright yellow bananas in a supermarket bin on Monday, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into its brand-new solidity. I thought about that first bite a couple times in the store, and on the short drive home, but by the time Tuesday rolled around, I realized I slipped Monday’s banana into the routine of eating breakfast that Monday. I normally eat two eggs, toast, and I drink a glass of orange juice for breakfast. Then I top it off with a banana. I absently ate that banana as part of my breakfast routine, and I totally missed its freshness. When I bit into Tuesday’s banana, it was delicious, and I tried to appreciate it, but I couldn’t help but think about how much more fresh and delicious that recently purchased banana might’ve been if I remembered to appreciate it.

Most of us hate to admit that our lives have fallen into patterns and routines, but to those who might argue that they’re an exception, I say add a dog to your life. Dogs spend so much of their lives studying our patterns that when they peg them, they can often tell us what we’re about to do before we decide. On that note, my primary takeaway from the movie My Dinner with Andre was that we should try to break routines and patterns whenever we can. If we can break a couple of rituals one on day, we might feel more aware of one Monday before we turn fifty. In that movie, one of characters talked about opening the door with his left hand for a day or two just to break that routine in a way that might lead to other breaks. The gist of that exchange was that we have so many patterns and routines that some of the times we accidentally sleep walk through life.

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid falling too deep into routine is a grueling workout. I’m not talking about a simple workout, because some of the times we workout so often that working out becomes nothing more than a part of our routine. I’m talking about a grueling workout that leaves the buns and thighs burning, and when the buns are burning, the brain cells are burning just as bright. This idea led me to believe that a grueling work out might provide a brief, temporary cure to what ails us.

When too many Mondays melt into Tuesdays without notice, the best way to break the routine is to push our body beyond our otherwise lazy boundaries. If we’re feeling excessive fatigue, we can burn our brain and body bright with a long and grueling workout. I’ve expressed variations of this cure so often that some people say it before I do, to mock me for routinely advising that this is the ideal way to break up routines. The footnote I now add to that routine advice is before we put our mind and bodies through a rigorous workout, we need to make sure we’re happy first. It doesn’t happen after one grueling workout, of course, and it might take a regular routine of three workouts a week, with at least one grueling workout mixed in, but after a while, we might start to become more aware of the choices we’ve made in life. We need to make sure we’ve attended to life’s matters, because the acute awareness grueling workouts provide can make us happier than we’ve ever been, but they can also make us angrier and more depressed. If we have dotted our I’s and crossed out T’s, a grueling workout can cause us to appreciate life a little more than we did yesterday, but it can also lead to some painful critiques.

I’ve snapped at people on a Tuesday for something that didn’t bother me that Monday, and the only difference was I had a grueling workout the night before. My various computer chairs were comfortable for years before I decided to discipline myself to working my buns rock hard. I’ve always liked Peanut M&M’s, but after a couple of grueling sessions, I considered the candy so delicious that I thought of eating them by the pound. I also realized how unproductive my job was in the grand scheme, how fraudulent my bosses were, and how I had little to no home life to look forward to once my excruciatingly slow workday ended. The grueling workouts made me more aware of the little things life has to offer, and some of them made me happier, but others made me so angry and depressed that I realized one of the reasons that people drink so much and smoke so often is to dull their brain to a point that they don’t question the choices they’ve made in life.

The mantra of patterns is, “If at first you don’t succeed try, try, and try again.” An addendum to this quote, that some attribute to W.C. Fields, suggests, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try—and then quit! No use being a fool about it.” A quote by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917, suggests that, “If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.” My addendum to this line of thought is, “if one thing doesn’t work try another.” If you can’t jam a square into a round hole, there’s no sense in making a fool out of yourself by continuing to jam it home. Try something else, or look at the thing and realize that it’s never going home. How many people make fools out of themselves by screaming at the manufacturer of the shapes? We scream to gain distance from our personal failing, “It ain’t me. Don’t look at me. The instructions say do this and that should fix it.” We throw a fiery temper tantrum to distract from the fact that we’re incompetent. We just fixed something just last week with wonderful aplomb. There’s nothing different about us with this particular project. It’s the manufacturer. “That’s fine, but have you tried a way other than just jamming it home? Try another way.” We then paraphrase Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is trying one thing one way, over and over, and expecting different results.”

We’ve all heard the phrase life is short, enjoy every minute you’re alive, because before you know it you’ll be on the other side of fifty thinking about how much life you’ve missed. “I agree with that in principle,” a person in pain told me, “but, at times, life seems to take forever.” No one wants to be in pain, and when the conversation switches to that topic, most people say, “Pull the plug.” I don’t want to face that scenario, but if I do, I believe I might think that I want another 45 minutes of being alive in an otherwise pattern life of too many routines.  Mowing the lawn might be a poor example for this scenario, for no matter how one mows a lawn, the results will always be the same. Unless we push a mower faster, it’s always going to take the same amount of time, and unless we change the levels, it’s always going to mow the same length. Nothing will change in other words, unless we realize that we’re not sleepwalking through it in the manner we normally do. On this particular mow, I thought about how much time we lose by adhering to the routines we develop. I was thinking about writing this piece too, and while writing this piece might not add much to my life, it’s different from anything I’ve written before.

You say What I Think, not what you May Randomly Do


universeSome of the times our world, our universe, makes no sense at all.  It’s too random, and the random is impossible to grasp.  It can be overwhelming when an astronomer welcomes us to their understanding of the universe, but if we take out all the anecdotal information the well-informed astronomer details for us, it can all make sense.  There are patterns out there, everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.  The universe is built on mathematical equations.  It is built on gravitational pulls and weight and near absolute order.  Our political system is also built in much the same manner, save for the order, but if we pull out the random thoughts and words of individual politicians, we can understand our political system a little better, if we understand the political platforms and political action committees that drive these individual politicians.  Everyone we speak with has motivations and tendencies, and if we study human psychology long enough we can use our past experience to understand future behaviors of people from a specific race, a specific region of the world, and a religious affiliation.  If we study these psychological patterns long enough, and hard enough, we may be able to read each other’s minds.  We can know what we we’re all thinking and we can assign that mode of thought to the future actions of any speaker.  We can figure the world out better if we can just assign it the proper mathematical/psychological equation and pattern.  Or can we?

“I think we have cockroaches,” a friend of mine said to a black person in regard to their workplace.

“Why are you telling me this?” the black person asks. “Is it because I’m black?  You think I know something more about cockroaches because I’m black?  Or do you think that, based on the fact that I’m black, that I should be the one to clean it up?”

“Did I tell her that, because I’m a racist?” this friend asked me.  She told me that she hadn’t told anyone else in the firehouse about the cockroaches, and she had no idea why she singled the black woman out about it.  My friend was worried.  She and the black woman had been good friends prior to the comment, but her comment put a strain on their relationship.  My friend worried that they would never be good friends again based on her “racist” comments.

We all think we know what’s going on in another person’s head.  We think that past experience dictates what current motivations are.  We can know what everyone is thinking based upon our random sampling of the world.  Is there a margin of error in our thinking, of course, but margins of error usually rank no higher than five percent in any political poll taken, so studying human behavior in our daily lives can’t be much different.  What if we are wrong though?  What if we have no idea what other people are thinking?  Would we rather make changes in the way we approach people, or does the satisfaction we gain from our understanding of our random sampling provide us such a degree of control over the random that we need it to remain sane?

In his book You are Not so Smart, Gerald McRaney cites a psychology experiment in which one person taps out a song on a desktop, and the listener tries to figure out the song they’re tapping.  The tapper is not allowed to hum or signal the listener in anyway.  They are to pick out a song that everyone involved is familiar with, say The National Anthem, and they are to tap it over and over, until the listener gets it.  In the course of this experiment, some tappers got frustrated with their listeners, and they tapped slower and slower, until their listeners got so frustrated with the process they quit.  Were the listeners just plain stupid the tappers being to wonder.  How could they not get The National fricking Anthem?  Are they unpatriotic, do they simply not know The National Anthem when they hear it, or are they just not paying enough attention?  The truth was that these listeners simply didn’t know what the tappers were thinking.  We all attempt to communicate to one another in a way that is crystal clear to us, but our listeners don’t get it.  It’s frustrating, but it clues us into the fact that most people don’t know what we’re thinking.

Have you ever tried giving directions to a person that is totally unfamiliar with your town?  As a hotel front desk clerk, I learned very quickly how difficult it can be to give someone directions.  I was born and raised in this town I describe, and I know it like the back of my hand, but I learned very quickly that this was more of a disadvantage than an advantage when giving directions to a person who has never been to my town.  After a few unsuccessful and very frustrating trial runs, I learned to try to put myself in their frame of mind and give directions from that point.  You don’t know how often you give instructions and directions from your point of view, until you’ve done it hundreds of times, and prepared yourself for incoming calls or questions from people totally unfamiliar with it.  What helped me progress to this point, more than anything else, was the refrain these people would give when asking for directions: “Now, you have to treat me like a total idiot here.”  These were usually frequent travelers that said this, and they had presumably been given directions hundreds of times.  They knew the mentality I was going to have to have if I was going to properly guide them to the hotel.  They knew how their mind worked, and they taught me how to deal with them in that context.

A wife tells a husband she knows exactly what he was thinking when he said something that she regarded as a transgression.  The husband knows that it was not what he meant at all, but he relents when he considers that she might know him better than he knows himself.  An online computer company gives their employees sensitivity training on personal emails sent to other employees.  Their primary warning: “Your recipient does not know what’s going on in your head.  Every personal email that you send can be read ten different ways by ten different people based on their individual, life experiences.”

Conservatives mount a defense against hate-crime legislation based on the fact that we can’t know what was going on in the assailant’s mind.  We can know that the assailant killed the victim based on the evidence put forth, but proving that they did it with a specific motivation is almost impossible to prove in most cases.  As much as we intelligent beings hate to admit it, we know very little about what goes on in other human minds, and what we don’t know we make up by assigning them our thoughts.

We see thought patterns and speech patterns everywhere we go and in every person we encounter.  When someone fails to follow our pattern, we give them our pattern and predict what they’re going to say based on that.  It gives us pleasure to know their pattern, and it gives us some semblance of control over the powerlessness we otherwise feel in the face of the random.

We look up into a night-time sky, and in it we initially see what appears to be a random mess of little lights.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s too random.  We shut down.  Why try understanding anything that has no order to it?  When it’s pointed out to us that there is a pattern to the little lights, we find pleasure in spotting the big dipper and a little dipper.  We suddenly feel the power of categorization and organization at our fingertips, and it is no longer so overwhelming.

When we see a child act in a disorderly fashion, we provide them our knowledge of what we consider the orderly system.  One of the reasons we do this is so that their world is not so confusing and random to them.  We remember how miserable we were when the world made no sense to us, so we attempt to lessen their misery by presenting them with some of the facts of we learned.  When our child proceeds to do something random that might cause them harm, we don’t understand this.  “Why would you do that?” we ask genuinely confused by their regression into the random.  “I’ve already taught you this,” we say with exhausted frustration.  We’ve known this child for so long, and we’ve taught them our order so many times that we’re exhausted with effort.  The answer is that it’s not necessarily their progress that we thought we witnessed, it’s ours.  We accidentally assigned them our order and our thought patterns in their presumed progress, and we thought they grasped it.

Why would a child purposefully harm themselves when they know better based on what we’ve taught them?  The answer is that children don’t understand the ramifications of their actions.  They don’t understand our order yet.  They’ve heard it a number of times, but they don’t understand it on the level we do.  Some studies have suggested that humans don’t fully come to grips with the ramifications of their actions, until they’re roughly eighteen years of age.  Impossible, we think.  When we were eighteen, we had a full grasp on the consequences of our actions.  If we think that, we’re usually assigning our current brains to our young brains.  It seems impossible, I know, but science is suggesting that we assign our current brains to our past brains all the time to help us make sense of who we are today.  We usually think, based upon our current mindsets, that we’ve been pretty consistent throughout our lives.  In truth, we’ve made huge leaps of progress in our understanding of the world and our progress in it, but we accidentally expect children to make the same leaps we thought our young brains made when we were their age.  When they go back and do that random thing again, we view them as being purposefully stubborn and rebellious to what we’ve already taught them.

When we see a male penguin have sexual relations with another male penguin, we assign our motivations to them.  That penguin must be gay.  If a human male has sex with another human male, they’re gay, and one plus one always equals two.  We know their motivations, like we know our own motivations.  The question of whether or not the idea of gay exists in the penguin world is a concept that doesn’t compute to us.  The very idea that penguins would have random sex with other penguins just to have sex, regardless of the other party’s gender, is just too foreign a concept for us to deal with.  The order that we require extends downward to our children and outward to the other beings in the animal kingdom.  It all has to make sense to us on a certain level.  There is no random.

We assign characteristics and thought patterns to groups, because it helps us make some sense of the variations in their psychology, and it helps us make sense of our own psychology.  We have an “OH!” moment when we think we spot a pattern.  We have a “That makes sense now!” moment, and we feel better about the order of the universe and our understanding of it, regardless if this pattern truly exists or not.

A person randomly comes up to us and says that there are cockroaches in the firehouse.  Why did they pick us, in such a seemingly random fashion?  If we’re a woman, and they’re a man, it makes sense to us that we should be insulted because past experience with the men of our lives dictates that they want us to clean it up.  We know the patterns of most men, and we use it to claim offense.  Even if they meant no offense, and they didn’t intend for us to clean up anything, they know the patterns of most men too, and they know that they’re a man, so they think that they may have been thinking that on some level they’re not aware of.  If we’re black and they’re white, we’ve been down this road before.  We know that they think blacks are more familiar with cockroaches, based on the stereotype that blacks used to live with cockroaches.  Otherwise, it would make no sense to us that someone would just walk up to us and say such a random thing, so we categorize and organize them in our brain and project our thoughts into theirs.  What doesn’t factor into our equation is that some of the times the world is random, because the random is impossible to grasp.

Are you Superior?


If an individual is strong or gifted in the athletic arena, they already know the feeling of superiority, as most of us regard one with physical traits superior. For the rest of us, the search is not as simple. It’s often difficult, and fruitless, to stare into a mirror and gain true, objective definition, so we use comparative analysis –through our day-to-day interactions– to try to gain information about ourselves and our true identity. The one unfortunate characteristic to this quest is that we gain definition on the backs of others.

Most people we encounter dress us down psychologically, soon after we meet them. Why do they do it? They probably don’t know why. If they did, they likely wouldn’t attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them a lift for the day. These searches may occur in the first few moments we begin speaking to them, and it often begins with our physical appearance. Are we well groomed? Do we brush our teeth? Are all of our nose and ear hairs trimmed? Do we have a socially accepted hairdo? How much did we pay for it? How much did we pay for the clothes we wear? Do we wear fashionable clothes? If clothes make the man, what kind of man are we? Some say it’s all about the shoes. Others say that by creating a pleasing dimple in the tie, by denting that tie with the thumb in the tying process, a person can create quite a first impression. Most people don’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company. Yet, those same people are worried about the first impressions they make. What are impressions, but an attempt to define one’s self among their peers?

Is it all about the clothes, or do we make a better first impression with the way we stand, the way we sit, the manner in which we hold our head when we talk, or whether or not we can look our counterpart in the eye? Do we have a tongue stud? Are we a tattooed individual, or a non-tattooed individual, and who is superior in that dynamic? It’s all relative.

First impressions can be difficult to overcome, but some believe what we say after the first impression has greater import. If we have a fatal flaw –noticeable in the first impression– we can garner sympathy or empathy, through an underdog status, with what we say in the follow up impression we provide.

To further this theory, some believe that if we notify our counterpart of this weakness –say in the form of a self-deprecating joke– it will redound to the benefit of a strong follow up impression. The subtext involves the idea that doing so will end their search for our weakness, and the feeling of superiority they gain will allow them to feel more comfortable with us. This, we hope, will result in them enjoying our company more. 

Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form. Moments after stepping foot on stage, Louie Anderson informs his audience that he’s overweight in the form of a well-rehearsed joke. The first impression we have of Louie is that he is overweight. When he follows that first impression up with a quality, self-deprecating joke it disarms us. We thought we were superior to him, based on his physical flaw. By acknowledging that flaw, Louie takes that feeling of superiority away from us, and he gives it back to us with his definition of it. That re-definition of our superiority allows him to go ahead and manipulate us in all the ways a comedian needs to manipulate a crowd. The distraction of our physical superiority is gone, and we’re now free to enjoy the comedic stylings of Louie Anderson.

The problem with such a successful follow up to a first presentation rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it. When our self-deprecating humor works in the second stage of impression, we attempt to move into the more personal third and fourth stages of impression. In these stages, we feel more comfortable with the person on their receiving end, and we let our guard down. The problem we encounter, partially due to our insecurity, is that these people are not as entertained by us as they were in the second, more self-deprecating stage of impression. As a result, we might begin to fall back on the more successful, second impression to lessen the impact of our attempts to be more personal with them. “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” is a qualifier that we insecure types add to an insightful comment we made that they don’t find entertaining. When that proves successful, and our counterparts begin laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we become that weakness in their eyes. They can’t help believing this is who we are, because it’s the impression we’ve given them so often that it becomes part of what they think of us. One way to test if we’ve fallen prey to this progression is to remove that successful, qualifier that we have been adding to the tail end of our jokes and stories to gain favor with them. If we have been adding it too often, the recipient of the qualifier might add, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” to the tail end of our story for us.

Some of the times, we commit to these additions to complete the rhythm of a joke, or story, but most of the times we do it to insert some element of superiority or inferiority. Thanks to certain situation comedies, and the effect they’ve had on the zeitgeist, some jokes, stories, and thoughts feel incomplete without some element of superiority or inferiority attached to it. I used to be a qualifier, until I realized that too many people were exploiting my qualifiers for their own sense of superiority. It was so bad, at one point, that I couldn’t say anything halfway intelligent without someone adding, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” at the tail end of it.

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It’s my contention that most of us are in a constant search of indicators of superiority or inferiority. If our counterpart is religious, we may feel superior to them because we’re not. If we are religious, we may want to know what religion they are, and we may base our feelings of superiority on that.

“They’re all going to hell,” a friend of mine commented when we passed a group of Muslims. When I asked why she thought this, she said, “They don’t accept the Lord, Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” 

I’ve heard Christians use that condemnation many times, but I rarely heard someone use it as a weapon of superiority. I realized some time later that this was all this woman had. She hated her job, her kids hated her, and she was far from attractive, or in good shape. She needed this nugget of superiority to help her get through the day, and to assist her in believing that she was, at least, superior to someone in some manner.

On the flip side of the coin, a Muslim friend of mine seemed forever curious about the American way of life. She would constantly ask me questions about the motivations I had for doing what I did. It dawned on me later that she was searching for points of superiority. She saw the Muslim religion as a clean religion from which she gained a feeling of purity. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, until she used that as a weapon of superiority against me.

The search for where we stand in this chasm of superiority and inferiority can be a difficult one to traverse, so we often attempt to answer them on the backs of others. It’s a shortcut around introspective examination and self-reflection. Some feel superior to another, based on that other’s religion, their politics, their race, or their education level. Some even gain feelings of superiority based on the manner they brush their teeth. Those who brush their teeth top to bottom are not doing it in the manner advised by the American Dental Association. Others base their comparative analyses on the manner in which a person shaves their pubic hair. If one person leaves a strip and another shaves Brazilian who is superior, and who is inferior, and where does the person that lets it all grow wild stand in that dynamic? We all have some positions of superiority and inferiority, and most of them are relative.

This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for the subtleties and nuance of guerrilla style warfare. The age of standing toe to toe occurred in the days of duels, and The Civil War, but most field generals of the modern age mind would never risk their troops in the type of toe-to-toe battles that former battalion leaders considered the gentleman’s way to fight. On that note, no one, of the modern age, would ever ask their counterpart if they think they’re superior, in other words, for that might involve some sort of equivocation that details the strengths and weaknesses of both parties in which no one is a winner and no one a loser. No, the battle between two modern day, psychological combatants, more often than not, involves a never-ending battle of guerrilla warfare-style pot shots.

For those, like me, who feel guilty about cashing in on those opportunities to nuke another person’s argument for the purpose of gaining superiority, my advice is to refrain judiciously. Some of us will take any opportunity afforded us to make another person look bad. They enjoy it, especially when they consider that other person to be superior in some way. Others don’t enjoy this, as we have intimate knowledge of the embarrassment that can accompany looking bad in front of others. We also feel some empathy for those who say things that can be easily corrected. We hold our fire. In a perfect world, others would value such judiciousness, and they would return it. For various reasons, including the idea that most people do not know when we’re refraining, it is not valued. Some may even consider it a display of weakness on our part.

In a perfect world, our interactions would call for facets of the modern definition of warfare. Most people would wait for enemy fire before firing, to win the battle off the field as well as winning the one on it. The problem with refraining too often, or only firing in self-defense, with those we battle in psychological warfare, is that most enemy combatants do not view refraining as an order to ceasefire. One would think that in the absence of pot shots, the other party would recognize the cease and desist order. In my experience, they don’t. They sense weakness, and they open fire. Something about the human condition suggests that even the most empathetic and sympathetic souls stay vigilant, and fire off a few rounds every once in a while just to keep our enemy combatants hunkered down behind shields. Even if it is just to keep them level with us, the individual with their mind’s eye open to the psychological games we all play must keep firing, if for no other reason than to remind all of our opponents of the arsenal we have at our disposal.