One time, a long time ago, I was in an inconsolable state. Someone I liked must have done or said something mean, and my rational mind couldn’t grasp why. After patiently trying out some theories as explanations, my friend, in resigned exasperation, said, “People are messy, Archana.”
I looked at him, blankly at first. And then the penny dropped. Yes, people were messy. They didn’t stay within the lines. Instead, they meandered all over the page. Sometimes this meant delight, as a friend unexpectedly wrote a heartfelt letter about how much he cherished me. Other times, it induced upset, as a thoughtless, unanticipated comment was thrown my way.
This was a profound insight into people. People didn’t behave predictably. They said and did things out of character, things you would not expect. And further, even more confusing, they thought they were being perfectly reasonable in what they were saying or doing.
I’ve tried to read up about it – there’s a whole bunch of people out there fascinated by this, and they’ve dedicated their lives to understand such essential questions as, Why do we say stupid things? Why do we behave in clearly childish ways? And, why do we feel okay about this?
I’ve learned the following:
1) We decide by how we feel, not how we think.
That’s because our emotions have a head start on reason, when it comes to evolution. Our rational brain developed a long, long time after the emotional brain, like millions and millions of years later. That’s why it’s 8 times slower – our gut responds first, then the reason comes out much later.
2) that’s the second lesson: we love to rationalize.
We make up reasons for our behaviour. We will go to the ends of the earth to explain just how sensible we were being when we punched you in a pub brawl. It’s really important to us to come across as rational. Apparently, there’s an evolutionary psychology story there (I’m reading about it in The Moral Animal – why we are the way we are by Robert Wright.)
As a child, I loved, LOVED, colouring within the lines. In fact, I would etch the border again with a black crayon to reinforce the lines. When I looked over, I would be aghast at my younger cousins who dragged the crayon from the princess to the dragon. How could they both be in the same colour? And just how was one to explain the connecting lines, crossing the boundaries of the figures? When I challenged them, like good human beings, they would gape at me for about 8 seconds, and then come up with a good story to justify why their colouring was superior to mine.