Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Relationships, Art Fairs, Coercion and Compromise: A View From The Bus

These observations are the result of a bit of street-level social observation by an interested non-professional social scientist (or "people-watching" to normal people). My observations, flawed as they doubtless are, led me to some broader considerations. See what you think...

This past weekend, Madison played host to a two-day art fair that took up a good portion of the downtown area around the state capitol building. It was this that led me to begin my observations as the busses were diverted and took forever to get anywhere. So, in the midst of traffic and interminable waiting, I began to watch the people.

What struck me, and it seemed so obvious as to be embarassing that I had not noticed before, was that most of the attendees were couples, male-female couples. Some had children with them, but most did not. When I noticed the prevalence of couples, what really hit me was the expressions, body language and snippets of conversation that I saw/heard from these people.

From these observations, I came to some conclusions related to the nature of such public events and the nature of relations between people, however provisional because of my lack of background information.

It seemed to me that all of the women in these couples looked absolutely overjoyed to be there, while the men looked annoyed, angry or looking for the nearest route of escape. Time after time, regardless of age or race, the couples involved displayed some or all of these traits. Needless to say, this dynamic caused me to think a great deal about how these people got there and why they were acting in this manner.

It seemed on further reflection, that this is not just an "art fair" phenomenon. If you think about it, men and women act like this at most outdoor events that do not involve sports, music or beer (or all in some combination). So-called "cultural events" in the outdoors in summer are grand displays of this type of behavior. Yes, but why?

I was left with two conflicting notions of these behaviors. One comes from a cynical view of human relationships, one more compromise based.

First, the cynical. These people act and behave this way because, at the root of every human relationship, is a certain level of coercion. People will seek what makes them happy and avoid that which makes them unhappy. This is human nature. When this dynamic is disrupted (i.e. when someone pursues something that seems to make them unhappy or avoids that which is pleasureable), one must consider why.

That is where coercion come into the picture. For someone to not seek pleasure over discomfort, they must be forced to do so. This force can come in the guise of actual threat of physical or mental violence. I doubt that this was the case with the people that I observed. In other words, I think it is rather unlikely that a wife/girlfriend would tell their husband/boyfriend "we are doing this, or I will kill you."

No, this is more of a soft-pedal coercion. More to the point, it delves into the ideas of punishment and reinforcement (behavioral conditioning). It is hard to pin this particular situation down because of lack of background knowledge, but I suspect it can be thought of as a dynamic combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement involves the presentation of a reward that is designed to increase a certain behavior. Negative punishment involves the withholding of reward in order to decrease a certain behavior. These are basic ideas of operant conditioning, developed in its fullest form by B.F. Skinner.

In this situation, the coercion by operant conditioning is apparent. If something that the male likes is presented when he goes along with the female's plan, the "art fair" experience is positively reinforced. On the other side, if something the male does not like is taken away, it negatively punishes and decreases the behavior.

What is the "carrot and stick" in this situation? It could be anything the male enjoys. In particular, think Lysistrata here.

Yes, that is a particularly cynical view of human nature. It assumes that people react reliably to certain things in certain ways and also that coercion is the only method of effecting human behavior.

Now, the more compromise based view. Perhaps it is true that the males do not want to go to these events. Why are they there? Compromise. Both men and women realize that they will not always get along or find the same things enjoyable. What is needed, then, is a trade-off, some creative diplomacy. When a deal is struck, and the two sides (here, a wife/girlfirend or husband/boyfriend) agree and follow through, it builds the depth of the relationship and shows a remarkable level of interpersonal flexibility. If each side agrees to a minimal amount of a negative experience, it will lead to understanding and the promise of better things to come. Both sides get what they want and there are no regrets.

Much more positive, don't you think?

I close with three questions:
  1. Am I making too much of a simple situation?
  2. Which one of these paradigms to I actually believe to be true?
  3. Which do you believe and why?


Lost A Sock said...

1. I tell Kevin all the time, "Go (here) with me or I will kill you." I just might be that crazy.


2. I pick all the best places to go, and my husband always happily joins me.


3. We now have children and most of our activities are centered around their happiness and education. Also, since I have become a SAHM, he gets a free pass on all grocery shopping/clothing shopping/errand running (something about being at work making the money, whatever.) Those two things put together, so he is normally quite happy to attend the art fair, the zoo, and whatever else I throw his way (provided it is never a Saturday afternoon in Old Navy.)

Good thoughts. I liked the way you wrapped it up.


Frema said...

When Luke and I started dating, we had different ideas of fun. He was more of an on-the-go, wanting-to-do-more-than-watch-movies-and-eat-frozen-pizza type of person, and I...wasn't, I guess. Not that I didn't find the *idea* of outdoor activities enjoyable, I'd just never had the motivation to actually make and keep the plans.

But I really liked Luke, and since I wasn't inherently opposed to any of those things, I did them. And eventually, I loved them. We hike at state parks a lot and go camping occasionally and take several overnight trips a year, and I'm so grateful he introduced me to all those things I was missing out on.

But what about Frema's contribution to the relationship? you might be asking. Well, that would be All My Children. And blogs. Gotta love the blogs. And DePaul, since my autobiography class was the reason I discovered them in the first place.

wpsiii said...

34 years of marriage and raising a family has taught me that compromise is always the better of the two options.

Through the years hopefully you grow together while both retaining a healthy amount of "personal space and time"

I guess I started out thinking that "if I took care of her, she would take care of me" .....

So far it has worked pretty well and I try, as best I can every day, never to forget that !!!

One Dad's opinion