“Why’d ya do it?”

Ant colonies in temperate regions will close off all the entrances to the colony at night to prevent the interior temperature from dropping to fatal levels. In order to properly seal the entrances, a small number of ants have to push material into the entrance and pack it down from outside. Trapped outside, they die when the temperature drops. Their sacrifice contributes to the ongoing survival of the colony, so from a genetics and evolutionary viewpoint, the death of a few members of the colony is a good thing.

Not that the ant actually thinks of that. They aren’t nobly volunteering to make this sacrifice for the rest of the colony. The species has evolved a series of behaviors in response to various stimuli, and they just do it when it’s time.

When a person like me—a very analytical guy prone to introspection, and who watches everything amd everyone looking for patterns and drawing conclusions—talks about the behavior of other people, the reasons I ascribe for their behavior are an awful lot like our academic analysis of the ants. We understand the benefit which the colony as a whole gains from the sacrifice of a few ants, but the ant doesn’t.

Most of people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about why we do the things we do. Even someone as notoriously over-analytical as me doesn’t spend much time thinking about why I’m doing something while I’m doing it. A person on the street asks me a question, and I answer. How I answer, from my tone of voice, to my body posture and facial expressions, are the result of a complicated process going on mostly unconsciously.

If I saw the person before they asked the question, likely part of my brain did an assessment of them based on how they looked and acted. I may be in a slightly defensive mode if my brain has seen similarities between them and people who have harassed me on the street in the past, for instance. I will be very defensive if my subconscious assessment has tagged them as a certain kind of prostelytizing jerk (lately more likely to be some sort of teabaggy political sort, but I’ve also been harassed by nuts of a religious variety).

I may feel quite friendly and welcoming if I recognize them—even if it is only as a stranger who has nodded and said, “good morning” when we’ve passed on that street before.

Similarly, how they behave toward me is going to be influenced by their own subconscious assessment of me based on the same sort of superficial features. I’m a short, overweight, grey-bearded white guy. Depending on the other person’s past experiences, that might mean I look harmless, or annoying, or potentially a source of unwanted attention.

So they might frown at me because I seem likely to cause them some annoyance or inconvenience. Or they may only appear to be frowning at me, but they are actually just trying to figure out what is written on the t-shirt of a person walking behind me. Or maybe they’re just squinting because of a blinding reflection from the windows on a building across the street.

So, if when they ask me a question, my tone of voice might sound annoyed or even angry, while inside I’m only aware that I’m worried that this person is going to make me late. And because I sound angry, they may give me a less than enthusiastic thank you after I give them directions to the place they can’t find.

And we both walk away thinking the other person was rude.

I try to remind myself of that when I rant about someone like the guy on the bus last week. I remember the experience from my perspective. Which has its own biases. Maybe I was the one giving off attitude and expecting other people to respect my wish to listen to my music and read my book.

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