Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Micro-snapshots of personal agency

One of my minor hobbies is noticing small correlations in how people speak that reveal things about them. Some examples herehere and here.

I was reminded of one from a conversation I overheard in an elevator today:
Girl: I forgot to bring a pen. 
Guy: Oh well, we can go back up and get one. 
Girl: I used to have a nice one that I'd carry with me. 
Guy: For some reason, the crummy pens stick around, while the good pens always disappear.
Girl: Yeah, that's because people always end up taking them.

Which reminded me of something I noticed way back in the third grade.

Like all small children, our pencils would often go missing. And when they did, people immediately fell into one of two narratives

a) I lost it.

b) Someone stole it.

I was always in the first category. I assume that I'm just forgetful and careless, which I am.

But some kids were always certain, without any proof, that the world was full of malicious people out to get them, stealing all their pens and pencils.

And if the girl's conversation is anything to go by, I suspect this difference persists later in life.

I may simply be naive about this, and extrapolating from my own mental state. But I can't quite believe that there's that many pen thieves out there in the offices and classrooms of the world. Who are all these people apparently swiping pens? Even the guy's point, which is the better one, seems more obviously explained by the fact that you only notice when a good pen goes missing, and the crummy pens go missing too, but you didn't pay attention because you didn't care.

The first sign that there isn't a pen conspiracy is that pens seem to go missing at approximately the same rate as individual socks go missing in the washing process. And I don't think anyone actually believes that the underpants gnomes are taking them. Things get dropped randomly, or forgotten, or misplaced. That's just life.

But when these kinds of annoying things happen, do you accept that as just part of the random bad luck of life? Do you blame yourself? Or do you blame a conspiracy of others?

I would wager that people who think pens frequently go missing because they get stolen are less likely to accept responsibility for their own screwups in life. I would wager they these people are probably somewhat less self-aware.

That seems like a strong conclusion to draw. It's only a hunch, presented as such. But it's how I'd bet.

Off such small pieces of information are efficient estimates of personality made.

Given enough enough data about the world, nobody is really a mystery.

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