Anyone seduced by the temptation to waste a night on wikipedia can testify to how easily this can happen. In this diverse landscape, pop-culture nonsense and dissertations on quantum mechanics co-exist, living only three clicks apart. Wading into the website’s infinite wisdom at this former end of the spectrum, I was quickly lured out of my cognitive depth towards the latter. While efforts to comprehend subjects such as quantum superposition quickly became futile, it was here that I discovered the thought experiment meant to help scientists comprehend this subject, referred to as “Schroedinger’s Cats”.
Thinking about this experiment, while failing to transform me into a physicist, did provide me with a valuable insight into the inner-workings of select processes involved in human socialization. To explain these insights, I’ve devised a strikingly similar, albeit highly simplified, thought experiment of my own. Instead of Schroedinger’s cats, I have somewhat cynically named this experiment ‘Unfortunate’s Creatures.’ (Because who thinks about locking a cat in a box anyway? C’mon.)
Let’s suppose that some creature, pick something fun if you wish, is placed in a soundproof, inescapable trunk, and the lid is then firmly closed. At some indeterminable point in the future, this creature is certainly going to die, yet we have no way of knowing precisely when this will happen. The creature’s existence is suddenly engulfed in a paradox, a concept most of us are familiar with. A living creature can only exist in one of two static states- living or dead. In the moments immediately proceeding the lid closing on this unfortunate creature, however, in a sense the creature exists in two states simultaneously. Lack of oxygen and sustenance has not yet become a considerable problem for the creature, yet we know its ultimate fate is sealed. Therefore, in our minds, at any given moment, the creature occupies the states of both living and dead concurrently.
The perceptions we hold about other people, which radically influence our behaviors toward them, and the perceptions that others hold regarding us, exist in the same state as ‘Unfortunate’s Creature.’ Our fundamental inability to experience the mental states of another human being directly make it impossible to know what is occurring in the trunk of their psyche. This results in a situation where we are constantly trying to infer other’s feelings towards us from their behavior, which is far too imprecise an experiment to yield any dependable results.
An unfathomable amount of pressures are exerting themselves upon even the most blessed among us at any given time. Poor behavior aimed in our direction is no guarantee that we were the stimulus to provoke this acrimony. As humans we rely heavily on preconceptions to inform our evaluations, but when it comes to social interaction, we tend to underestimate the subjectivity of our preconceptions. Considerable character flaws can often be overlooked in an individual who we believe to hold us in high esteem, and noble traits can likewise be discredited in someone who names us the subject of derision.
This phenomena is much the product of an ego that insists reciprocated action is the best way to safeguard our self-esteem from unrequited affection. Like many practices prompted by the ego, this one grossly overestimates our own importance in shaping other’s thought processes. We meet so many different people over the course of a lifetime, we quickly give up on evaluating them on a case by case basis, and instead begin lumping individuals into categories. In practice, another’s treatment of us is determined primarily by how prior life experiences have conditioned them to deal with ‘people like us.’ The ego can’t stand being degraded by such impersonal evaluations, but in reality it’s quite silly to treat someone poorly on the basis of symptoms suggesting such a tragically narrow view of the world.
Even if we possess the wisdom to realize the injustice inherent in generalization, our determinations are still bound to suffer from such fallacious thinking. Life is simply too overwhelming to allow the luxury of giving each person the respect they likely deserve. While another party is subject to the internal machinations of the ego that whirl about in any social situation, we are too, and each party is responding to the other’s outward behavior as influenced by these processes. Customarily the origin of strained relationships leads to the displacement of blame– “They didn’t like us first.” Objective thinking, however, allows us to ascertain the truth that this cycle may have been initiated by either party’s response to a lifetime of prior conditioning, or an infinite variety of other factors presently weighing on either party’s mind.
Escaping this cycle in contingent upon acknowledging this paradox, and choosing to believe ‘Unfortunate’s’ Creature’ is still alive in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, this thought experiment suggests that if we want someone to like us, and don’t be fooled- even the most anthropic among us desire affection and adoration- then we must operate on the assumption that they already do. If we deviate from this assumption, our pesky ego will insist that our behavior towards the other party deviate accordingly. This makes it impossible for us to discern whether their dislike of us is predicated upon some external factor, or simply being perpetuated by our own reaction to a perceived distaste for our character.
Granting respect to an individual who sees us in a negative light inevitably gives rise to uncomfortable feelings. Engrained within human nature is a morality lying somewhere between ‘The Golden Rule’ and ‘Hammurabi’s code’. Life’s trials generally draw our behavior towards the latter, which results in limited comprehension of the paradoxical nature of socialization. As a result, we are only capable of imagining ‘Unfortunate’s Creature’ to be alive or dead, when these states simultaneously manifest as soon as the lid is closed (a metaphor for first becoming a member of another person’s narrative, and vice versa.)
The decision must be made to eliminate cynicism from our social interactions, and either assume we are liked by all, or refuse to allow our treatment of others to be affected by perceived irreverence. If, in fact, our idealism proves ineffectual, at least we can take solace in the fact that if ‘Unfortunate’s Creature’ is dead, we weren’t the bastard that locked the trunk.