July 29, 2010

They Walk Among Us: Beware the Binaries

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 12:35 pm

I am insatiably curious about human nature and human nurture. My idea of a good time is noticing how people act and react, choose and decline, give and receive. It’s a good pastime for one who has chosen psychology as her field of study.

And it’s also convenient for one who’s employed by a psychologist. I can bring to him my questions about my planet-mates’ behaviors; he’s exceedingly educated and experienced and, in the year I’ve been there, I’ve learned quite a bit. Which brings me to my reason for writing.

Today he and I were discussing the possibility of ‘private parking’ signs for the office lot, and I told him my experience of living so close to the Sonoma Plaza that on holiday or event weekends, some people park in our private driveway, or block it. I launched my favorite question: “Why would someone do that?”

His explanation may seem obvious to some, but for me it opened up an entirely new way of understanding. He explained that there move among us “binary thinkers,” whose sole consideration when it comes to decision-making is “Does this serve my needs?” And if the answer is yes — no matter what the consequences or how it might hurt other people — the binary thinker will choose that self-serving action. Because I and most everyone know are sensitive to the cultural and legal restraints which order our behavior, I am now fascinated by the Binaries, and intend to watch for signs that I am in their presence.

As we finished our conversation, I asked the doctor, “Now, how common is this type of thinking? Because, maybe it’s just me, but it feels rather–” he interrupted me with a smile and asked, “Rampant?” I was quick to reply, “No. But common.” He said it’s primarily the reasoning of narcissists and other self-absorbed individuals. So I guess much depends on how common narcissism is in 2010 America — or at least in my little corner of it.

Thankfully, my day-to-day experience still confirms that most people are thoughtful, giving and kind. And I love to study them as well. When my husband, Neal, was going through the worst of his illness, one of my friends kept supplying us with rolls of quarters to do our laundry. If I hadn’t been so caught up in gratitude and could have put on my psych-student’s hat in that moment, I would have grilled her: What made you think of such a perfect way to help out someone in need? How did you get to be so heart-brilliant?

Answers to these and many other questions about who we are await me in the psychology courses I’ll be starting next month. And, who knows, with enough education and training, I may even come to fully understand the Binaries. And how to keep them from parking in my driveway.

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