From assumptions to behaviours

There’s not much I like about cities. And there’s not much I enjoy about travelling on buses and trains. But there is one activity that makes both of these things bearable, worthwhile even: people watching. I could ride on public transport for days just to watch how people respond to other people.

Some people shrink themselves. They find a seat and make themselves as small as possible, hoping that, by doing this, they won’t invade anyone else’s space, and that no one will enter theirs.

Some people open up. Instead of shrinking, they expand themselves. They spread their feet and let their arms hang to their side, gunslinger style. Or they use both hands to grab the supporting rails above them. Their hope is that by expanding, by displaying an assertiveness, people will keep away and respect the sanctity of there space. 

There are those who fidget, who react to every tiny change in the spatial dynamics of the carriage. When a person walks past, they adjust their feet. When a person sits opposite them they angle their torso slightly out of alignment. When someone sits next to them, they adjust the spread of their arms and pull their bags closer. When someone shuffles towards them because of the swaying of the carriage, they twist away.

Others, once they’ve established a position, don’t move at all. They get their seat and then they stay there, in their chosen position, like a paused film, reacting to no stimulus except the announcement of their station approaching. 

All this is interesting. And it becomes more interesting when you’re on a train or bus long enough to establish what a person’s baseline behaviour is. 

Say you choose to watch a particular person. If, at every stop, they display a subtle reaction to the changes in the environment initiated by people getting on and off the train, you can reasonably assume that they’re a baseline fidgeter. Then, the more interesting thing becomes either imagining or watching for what makes them deviate from this baseline. What makes them freeze? What makes them fidget faster than normal? What do they fidget to achieve or avoid? Do they try to minimise eye contact or shield certain areas of their body? Do they try to preserve particular distances to or from something or someone?

If you spend enough time on public transport, you start to notice more and more of these baseline behaviours. But what causes these behavioural standards? Simple. Baseline behaviours originate from baseline assumptions. 

If I’m not comfortable with strangers being a certain distance away from me, it’s because I have a hang up about the possibilities or threat that the average stranger represents. So maybe I’ll fidget to maintain that separation from the threats I see all around me. 

If I’m comfortable and confident around others, I might completely drop my spatial expectations. Because I assume that people are mostly harmless and that I’m in a public, safe area, I might allow people to knock in to me, to stand really close, to put there arm on my arm rest, to let their bag rest against my leg.

Do you see what I mean? Assumptions inform behaviours.

If we move away from body language and people watching we can extend this idea to other domains. Let’s consider another baseline assumption: “people are good, or at least have good intentions.” Now, how does that assumption manifest itself in reality?

I go out for dinner. The waiter is semi-attentive. He gets me and my friend a drink pretty quickly. But we wait a little too long for our order to be taken. But no matter, our food comes surprisingly quickly. The only problem is that I didn’t get what I wanted. I ordered the hake, not the haddock. 

If my baseline assumption is that “people are good”, I’m more likely to have a cordial reaction to the waiter’s error. I might just say “don’t worry” and eat the wrong thing anyway. I might ask for what I ordered to be brought out and reassure the waiter that I don’t mind, that I know he’s busy and it was a mistake.

But in the same scenario, if my baseline assumption is different—say I think that most people are lazy and dumb—my reaction will be very different. I’d be more likely to complain or demand a discount. I’d be more likely to go home and write a bad review on TripAdvisor. I’d be more likely to not leave a tip, not wanting to reinforce the waiter’s un-attentiveness and lack of skill. 

The foundation of Western philosophy, and of the discipline of self-improvement, is to know thyself. To assess your own skills and abilities and behaviours. After all, as the idea goes, you can’t get to B if you don’t have an accurate understanding of A. You can’t get where you’re going if you don’t know where you are. And usually, when we go about finding what our A is, figuring out where we are, we look at behaviours. We watch what we do. We establish a behavioural baseline in a variety of arenas and domains. 

But as I’ve shown, behaviours arise from assumptions. So in the quest for development, wouldn’t it be more effective to analyse and adapt our assumptions, instead of our behaviours? Rather than monitoring how I use my time, wouldn’t it be better to examine what the concept of time means to me in different areas of my life? Rather than logging my exercise and nutritional habits, wouldn’t it be better to explore what I actually think about the importance of exercise and nutrition in my life?

Behaviours are a consequence of assumptions. So to make long-lasting, significant change, shouldn’t we watch and test assumptions, rather than the behaviours that derive from them?