Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Behavioral Observations

It is well known that power corrupts; we see that almost daily in our news media.

It is also well known that human beings sometimes practice deception for personal advantage. I find it interesting that intentional deception is not limited to humans. If deception confers advantages then it might well also confer an evolutionary advantage, in which case we might find examples of it in other species. Of course, we know that a mother bird might employ the old "broken wing" trick to lead a predator away from her chicks but I cannot rule out the possibility that such behavior is innate to birds.

One example of deception in a dog is almost certainly not innate. I was visiting a home that had two resident dogs, one male and one female. They ate out of two separate dishes on the floor. One day, I observed the male finish his food more quickly than the female and then run to the front door, barking loudly. I assumed that he had heard someone at the door. So did the female and she left the remains of her food to join him at the door, also barking. At that point, the male ran back to the kitchen and quickly ate her food.

There are also mean spirited behaviors that confer no tangible advantages but which are somehow rooted in human psychology. I'll offer three examples from my childhood and adolescence.

1) At age approximately 6 my father gave me a new air rifle which used compressed air to fire pellets. (I can't imagine why he did that.) I was standing out of doors with it when another boy of about the same age came over to admire it. He then asked me to let him hold it, which I did. Then he asked me to stand about ten feet away "so I don't shoot you." When I moved to the indicated spot, he shot me. I can only guess what went through his mind. Perhaps, while holding a gun, he just wanted the new experience of shooting someone.

2) At age about 11, I was playing in an empty lot with an occasional companion. We had just finished a one-on-one game which I had won handily. Then he pointed to a wooden fence with a wood rail at the top and asked me to put some empty cans on it so we could try to knock them off by throwing rocks. I did that and then stood far enough aside that he could not possibly hit me when aiming at a can. The first rock he threw hit me just above my right eye. I believe that was a mean spirited payback.

3) At age about 16, a frequent companion invited me into his home after school. We were just talking amicably in the kitchen when he suddenly grabbed the hair at the back of my head, pulling my head back, and held the sharp edge of a very large kitchen knife to my throat. After a few very tense seconds, he released me and laughed aloud at the good joke he had just played on me. He added that he had believed that the back of the blade was at my throat and had contemplated carrying out a sawing motion but decided against it. More chuckling. Naturally, I did not see much of him after that. In retrospect, I explained to myself that he really wanted to kill his father and he had been acting it out on me.

Aside from indicating my incredible naivte' these episodes also illustrate the erosion of trust that can result from common childhood experiences. Since the productivity of civilized society is very dependent upon trust we would be much better off in a culture which made such deceptions and betrayals very rare.

Absent such a culture, it is necessary to be very discriminating about new acquaintances. I remember a refrain from a country song I heard many decades ago.


Although individual behavior is circumscribed to some extent by law and custom, mob behavior is a more free form phenomenon.



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