Living with relativity

Imagine you go to an opera, and you sit down into the theater and on the stage, a woman appears who starts to talk about black holes. That would be weird. Imagine you talk with your friend about your relationship status and he suddenly says: “The main ingredient for cake is flour”. That would be weird. Imagine you step into a bus, and it flies away once you step in. That would be weird. However, if we step in an airplane and it would fly away things would seem to be normal. With every situation we are in, we expect some things about that situation. Almost automatically, we make assumptions somewhere in the back of our minds about the things we see around us. When we step into a bus, we expect a bus-like driver, we expect to sit down on a bus-like seat, where the bus will drive in a bus-like manner, with a bus-like speed. We usually don’t take notice of the things which are normal but we notice the deviations from the normal. When the bus driver is suddenly a crocodile, you would certainly notice it, but when the bus driver is a 40-year-old man with a mustache, you would probably just walk past him without any conscious thought.

This thought is the basis for my theory of something I would call “living with relativity”. We will dive into an area of behavior that not many people pay attention to. First, we’ll talk about the framework of our mind and how the environment plays a role within it. Then we move on to some different parts of relativity, and then go on to the crazy implications. I hope you enjoy the read!

The framework of our mind
In each situation, like when walking into a bus, we have certain assumptions. These assumptions might be implicitly or explicitly, but I call these assumptions “the reference frame”, the reference frame that contains all your assumptions in that current situation. For the bus driver, this might be the 40-year-old man with a mustache. The “focus” is the actual situation you are focusing on, like the bus driver. In a situation, you compare the reference frame with the actual thing you focus on. If these align, your assumptions were correct and the two sides are relatively close to each other or even overlapping (like when the bus driver turns out to be a 40-year-old man). But if there is large deviance between the reference frame and the reality, your conscious brain becomes activated (like when the bus driver turned out to be the crocodile). The larger the deviance, the more you are surprised by the reality. For example, if someone approaches you in a dark alley with a mask but gives you a lovely hug, the deviance will probably be very high. However, I cannot say with certainty how high your deviance will be, because everyone has their own unique reference frame which has been mounting over their own life. I don’t know about your assumptions when seeing people with a mask in an alley. You might have friends who hang out in alleys with masks, but you also might be deeply frightened with the idea of it.

Behaving appropriately in our environment
As your reference frame is very personal, it is also quite moldable. If you see someone in an alley with a mask but you manage to read the words “Police” on his jacket, your reference frame changes instantly, the mask suddenly makes more sense; he wears that mask for catching criminals. This change in the environment gave us more information which changed our reference frame of assumptions directly, making us less frightened and act appropriately. However, if you didn’t make the connection between the mask and the words on his jacket, you might respond quite inappropriately. The trick is to align all the factors you perceive in the environment and act appropriately to it. This word “appropriately” actually catches everything I am saying here, but with more context.  Behaving appropriately is the right alignment between our behavior (that emerges from our reference frame) in relation to the environment around us. Like showing the right manners which are expected of you at a fancy party, is behaving appropriately. Behavior is then actually the outcome of our environment and the reference frame we have of that particular environment. When we are in a place that we feel is right for dancing, we might dance. When we are in a place that we feel is right to be silent, we might be silent. The ability to show the right coupling is actually very important for most of our success; behaving appropriately. But behaving appropriately is not only behaving according to the social norms. We also behave appropriately with our physical environment. For example, when you slam a door, you usually don’t slam it with all the force you have. But you also don’t slam it too soft because then it wouldn’t close. You close it appropriately relative to the size, weight, and many other factors; like the presence of a window in the door, the impression you want to make, the noise in the environment, the strength of the door, etcetera. I think we are quite magnificent in behaving appropriately to our environment. If you think about the connection between the environment and our reference frame, it is quite conceivable that our behavior is often directly guided by our environment. When we feel a fragile door, we almost directly handle it with more care, we might give it a conscious thought because it influences our reference frame. In this way, our body is more in control over our “appropriate” behavior than our actual mind is. We can make separate two parts of a spectrum here, from environment guided behavior to self-guided behavior, where one the one side, the environment guides our behavior (almost unconsciously), and on the other side, we (our self) guide our behavior (consciously) towards our environment. But as the interaction between ourselves and our environment is continuous, this is a feedback loop that goes on until we find the appropriate (our sufficient) behavior between the self and the environment.

I hope the title of this article “living with relativity” starts to make sense now. Our lives are about behaving relative to our environment. We need to attune to each environmental context and behave accordingly to be successful. Our reference frame needs to be relative to our environment to show the appropriate behavior. This is also known as behavioral coupling and has been shown to be relevant in many scientific studies.

Relativity across spatial scales
Showing relative behavior towards the environment might not be as easy as it seems. That is basically because we have to make a lot of assumptions at different scales that require constant attunement. Imagine, you are going to sell a product at a company and you are hoping to sell the product expensively. As you enter the building, you see a beautiful building, you meet a guy who wears an expensive suit, you receive good coffee, and sit down in an expensive seat. All these scales in space give you information about your environment. Together, you need to align all the information across scales and weigh each of them, to configure how you should behave and with which price you can sell your product. It is quite probable that the line across all these scales will be the outcome of your (perceived) appropriate behavior. In this situation, you will probably try to sell it quite expensively. In this situation, the scales of information of the company were quite aligned, but with “mixed signals”, your behavior might become more difficult. Then, it might be smart to get more information first before selling your product. Nevertheless, I think its more often the case that these scales are quite nicely aligned.

Relativity across time scales
Another thing that makes appropriate behavior difficult is the scale of interaction. When a girl slips and falls into the water, in some situations it might be appropriate to laugh and in others, it wouldn’t. The small event might be funny, but when you have a long relationship with this girl and know that she has an impairment, you might not want to laugh. The length of the relationship and the expected length of your relationship influence your behavior at that very second. For the same reason, older people respond differently to news about world leaders than young people do, coming from past experiences and future perspectives. In all our behavior we take account of our past experiences and our future expectations. We don’t just respond to everything that happens at the exact same second. Read more about that in this blog.

What does it all mean?
I think it is an interesting thing that we all know to behave appropriately using the guidelines of relativity without being aware of what we are actually doing. There is hardly any conscious attention to this topic, maybe because it is so ingrained into our automatic pilot. Another reason could be our desired distance from the environment. Our relative behavior shows to be heavily attuned to the environment, almost to an extent that much of behavior is actually guided by the environment. As such, we might not like the environmental guidance of our behavior when it comes to our ego. “Who am I, if the environment is determining most of my behavior?” is a quite existential thought that might require some ego depletion to accept. Nevertheless, I believe the spectrum of self- versus environmental guided behavior differs across people and could be trained (read more about that here).

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