Behavior: on the border between the self and the environment

Imagine you wait a traffic light at a red light, when the light turns green you press the gas and start to drive, who was then the one who caused you to drive? We like to say that is was ourselves who decided to press the gas, but our environment also played a fundamental role in you pressing the gas. In everything we do there is an interesting interplay between the environment and ourselves. On the one side there is self, the person you are inside, and on the other side there is the environment, that is everything around you. Between that there is your physical body which you use as a communication tool. You use your body 24/7 as you are continuously interacting with the environment. Working, eating, talking, sleeping, are all acts in the environment which are motivated by the environment and/or by the inner you. The environment steers you to certain directions and gives you limitations, while the internal self compromises to these limitations and coheres with the environment if needed. Our environment forces us (usually) to obey the law, to walk past walls, but also just to obey the laws of physics. But on the other side, the internal self can also have intrinsic thoughts that could be realized in the environment. We can build, influence and create things within our environment. Because we have our own internal self, we don’t cohere with everything in our environment, we are more advanced than a rock, we are complex adaptive systems. Either way, there is a continuous loop between ourselves and the environment, where there is a stream inwards, from the environment to the self, and a stream outward, from the self to the environment. Between these streams there is the border which could be formulated as our actions; the things we do in the environment. This article will be focused on the interaction between the self and the environment and will explore how both sides influence each other, giving rise to the thing we call “the self”.

The bilateral flow of influences from the self and the environment, where behavior is on the edge between them

From the environment to the self
Before you where born, there was no self, you didn’t exist and there was only “the environment”. Since you’ve been born, a self has developed that distinguishes himself from the environment. You started crying as a baby and had your own desires. Nevertheless, the environment is still a very strong actor that manipulates a lot of your behavior and mind. The food you eat and the clothes you wear are all factors from the environment which influence who you are. Your physical self does even take a place in the environment and the physical position you take, limits your freedom because you are surrounded by this particular physical environment. Almost each environment limits your behavioral freedom with laws, regulations, and social norms. The environment molds your behavior and who you are, without it the person who you are right now couldn’t exist. In our daily lives our physical environment constantly limits our freedom through buildings, walls, physical objects, and ways of transportation. Not a lot of people try to take down walls when they want to get from A to B, it is way easier to just walk around them and adapt your behavior. Socially, we are born in a family, and in a village or city that gave us a social environment which guided our development as a person and as a social creature. It is not crazy that we are so compliant with our environment. The energy we consume to sustain ourselves, comes from our environment. The shelters we search comes from our environment. And the objects we own come from our environment. Without food, buildings, possessions, and social interactions it is impossible to survive in this world. We can only sustain ourselves if we comply with the environment, we are dependent upon it.

From the self to the environment
As a baby, we were completely depended on our environment in almost every aspect. Our parents guided our behavior, and we didn’t had the freedom to move freely across space. Through our development, we began to separate ourselves from our environment and develop a stronger self. We started to get the means to individual transportation, and we could decide more things for ourselves. Choice becomes a larger part of our life when becoming older: the environment provides us with options, and the self can pick one of these options. If we were lucky, we could pick our favorite candy, the school we go to, the studies we prefer, and eventually even the environment we want to live in. With every decision the self becomes larger, because with every decision, the environment change differently what leaves traces of ourselves within the environment. From the selection of the candy, the place you filled at school, the place you took on the job market, to the place in the house live, each decision changes the environment forever. Together, the things that we’ve done in our lives make the person we are today. Some people are better than others in changing the environment towards their need, and might even manage to get their environment to support them. While others have a hard time to develop themselves without being restricted by social or physical limitations. You could argue that the way you are able to manipulate the environment towards your needs is a measure to the development of the self. For example, a wardrobe is mean that could be seen as an extension of the self. Most people have a wardrobe that is often coherent with the way someone likes to be. But there are also other form of self-expression, many people express themselves through physical outings of their thoughts and feelings through interior design, clothing, art and dance. While there are also others, who express their clever mind in their environment by playing with the competition and performing economically well. Many of us desire to have a large (large as possible?) self-expression/environmental impact through the channels we prefer, we like being famous and/or respected for the things we like to do. However, your desire towards the environment depends a bit on your current development of the self.

A constant interplay
While the environment influences us, we influence it. It is a constant interplay where we need to pick our battles and stand strong for the things we really desire. Sometimes it takes a long run of compliance to get the things we need. And sometimes the environment gives us things that we didn’t know we need until we got them, changing our own self forever. It is a game of pushing and pulling and separating and merging. This game will go on as long as we live but will change all the time. When we change our environment changes, and when the environment changes, we change.  This process often requires constant mutual adaptation. We need to perform actions to adapt to our environment, while our environment adapts to us when we change it. However, when you fully adapts toward your environment, you could question whether a self remains. The physical self wouldn’t survive if it coheres completely towards the environmental influences (just think of temperature, pressure, and heart rate), we are far from equilibrium with our environment. If the self would just cohere with all the environmental needs, a person develops who is not intrinsically formed but might feel like he an individual person nonetheless. A person who’s intrinsic motivated behavior is accepted and even stimulated within the environment will feel a lot of coherency and sense of agency across his environment. I believe that a lack of coherency between the environment and the mental self, causes discomfort and requires a change of the self or the environment. Either way, coherency between the self and the environment is a goal where one could feel a pleasurable feeling of agency or a pleasurable feeling of flowing along (letting go of agency) when being guided across its environment. But it is constant interplay between the self and the environment where the desired agency is a variable that is ever changing, but coherency is always desired.

Adaptive coherency
But what is this coherency exactly? Everything that moves has a certain pattern over time. Imagine you walk through a city with a certain pattern, your friend is walking along, so you can imagine that his movement pattern is similar to yours. Synchrony would then be the physical similar patterns, while coherency would be the similarities in the patterns you expect. When your friend suddenly takes an unexpected turn, you lose the synchrony and the coherency, but only the loss of coherency makes you feel discomfort. However, when he tells you that he is making a turn because he needs to get something, his path is still coherent to your expectations (but in-synchronous). In our daily life we interact continuously with our environment so we learn what we can expect from the behavior of the objects and the people around us. Nevertheless, behavior from our environment is always difficult to predict, especially when we talk to people. So, we often test and try to get feedback from our environment to understand the behavior of our environment. When your friends makes an unexpected turn, you will probably ask: “why do you make that turn?”. This is an obvious and adaptive act to sustain the coherency with our environment. When we don’t understand things that matter to us, we will explore and be adaptive towards it, to sustain a coherent relationship with our environment. Being adaptive within your environment is also called resilience, but then the focus is on the way how an environment “enters” the domain of the self.

Environmental versus self-guided living
The way you interact with your environment is guided by a combination of your environment and your internal motivation. Between people there is a difference between the extent you show environment guided behavior or self-guided behavior.  I believe that this proportion influences a lot of how we navigate through the world. “Environmental guided people” could, for example, be more willing to follow the nudges of our environment and use the affordances of its environment relatively mindlessly. “Self-guided people” on the other hand, might try to adapt the environment to their needs. Self-guided people might pick clothes that fit to them, instead of wearing the usual clothes which are easily provided by the environment. Environmental guided people might be more willing to cook recipes from cookbooks while self-guided people rather experiment auto didactically, and so forth. The extension between the both extremes might be determined by the need for self-expression and environmental dependency. Nevertheless, there are many different dimensions of behavior, and it is unlikely that we could harshly distinct two types of people. A scientist might care less about his clothes, like a model cares less about his cognitive influences on the world. I guess that the degree of self-guidance is mostly directed by the “vacuums” that were left open by the environment, which each self filled.

Moreover, the degree of self-guidance living might extent the more one finds coherency with its environment. When one makes it that far that the environment becomes depended on ones’ self, like with celebrities, or influential leaders, the limits of self-expression could be beyond the usual limits, just take the extravagant clothing styles of celebrities or the hobbies of millionaires for example.

Environment is personal
One last thing to discuss is that one should notice that the environment is individual dependent. Each one of us lives in a different environment influencing our self-expression. One living in a cult might only perceive a small environment, while a internet connected teenager might be constantly reminded of the large size of the earth, giving them different perceptions of the environment. The scale of the environment one perceives to live in, might therefore influence the scale of self-expression that one desires. Secondly, local social norms might guide someone towards directions of self-expression and thus limits the freedom of self-expression in other dimensions. It is more likely that a lawyer child grows up to be a lawyer, as a farmers child grows up to be a farmer. In fact, I believe that none of us ever contacted all the environments there are. Making certain area’s unknown-unknowns to us. Furthermore, people move through different environments across the day (like work, friends and family) where some environmental norms might be conflicting, requiring different behavior and self-expression. Furthermore, people also become in contact with different environments across scales. One might need to take account for norms on different scales, ranging from local, regional, to global rules. A Muslim family in a Christian neighborhood, in a Hindu country might come across many dilemma’s and challenges when it comes to self-expression and adaptation.

Conclusions
In this article we discussed the relation between the self and the environment. Both sides influence each other, but the extension of influence might differ between people and across dimensions.  Between it all, we search for coherency and show behavior that could both sustain the self and the environment, with an overall desire for self-expression. Until not long ago, the form of self-expression was just limited to our physical and social environment within our eyesight. The emergence of the internet diffuses our connection with the world around us, making us feel different about ourselves, twisting our expectations of ourselves, influencing our behavior.

Either way, the self is still always in control of picking a path towards environments one desires. No one over ever has to do anything(one of my other blogs). But as each self and environment is dynamic and evolving, most desired environments entail an interaction of positive feedback loops flowing both ways, looping between the self and the environment, benefiting both sides. This idea corresponds to the many symbiotic relationships we see in nature, organizational structures, and social interactions. Altogether, from a perspective of the self, one’s desire might be finding the infinity in life, elaborated further in this article I wrote.    


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