When I was in elementary school I remember an incident where a bunch of boys approached me demanding to know whether I had stolen some girls ring. Supposedly some kid have give a girl a ring fashioned out of mud I guess and someone had taken it. So these kids where going around demanding to know about that ring.
The kids were immensely serious about the whole thing. And I just looked at it as ridiculous. In my head at the time I realized that the kids were pretending to give out rings, pretending to protect their girls honor…it was obviously all a lie. The rings were worthless, the girl wasn’t someone they had strong feelings for. It was all one big act. But I was still a little shocked at how intensely seriously the kids seemed to take the whole thing.
I remember another incident where a kid was saying how hot he found this girl Sandy. Sandy was fat and not particularly attractive. He was performing to fit in and to show he understood the game. But all the feelings were fake. It was completely obvious to me. He found Sandy hot because according to our little society at the time she was hot. She had to be hot because all cool people were hot and Sandy was cool.
Human psychology is complicated. People think its just about actions and rationality. Or at least this his how we commonly think of humans. But there is also this complicated kind of act that human beings continuously put on to signal things to other people. People are constantly imaging what other people would think if they were observing them and they moderate their behaviour accordingly. This can get very complicated.
I think the best example I can think of come from Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov:
I need only tell you that she sent for me a month ago, gave me three thousand roubles to send off to her sister and another relation in Moscow…When I’d just come to love another, her, she’s sitting down below now, Grushenka. I carried her off here to Mokroe then, and wasted here in two days half that damned three thousand, but the other half I kept on me. Well, I’ve kept that other half, that fifteen hundred, like a locket round my neck, but yesterday I undid it, and spent it. …
It’s not the fifteen hundred that’s the disgrace, but that I put it apart from the rest of the three thousand,’ said Mitya firmly. ‘
Why?’ smiled the prosecutor irritably. ‘What is there disgraceful, to your thinking, in your having set aside half of the three thousand you had discreditably, if you prefer, ‘disgracefully,’ appropriated? Your taking the three thousand is more important than what you did with it.
‘I wonder at you. But I’ll make it clearer. Perhaps it really is incomprehensible. You see, attend to what I say. I appropriate three thousand entrusted to my honour; I spend it on a spree, say I spend it all, and next morning I go to her and say, ‘Katya, I’ve done wrong, I’ve squandered your three thousand’; well, is that right? No, it’s not right — it’s dishonest and cowardly; I’m a beast, with no more self-control than a beast, that’s so, isn’t it? But still I’m not a thief? Not a downright thief, you’ll admit! I squandered it, but I didn’t steal it.
He was always pestering Agrafena and I was jealous; I thought then that she was hesitating between me and him. So I kept thinking everyday, suppose she were to make up her mind all of a sudden, suppose she were to leave off tormenting me, and were suddenly to say to me, ‘I love you, not him; take me to the other end of the world.’ And I’d only forty copecks; how could I take her away, what could I do? Why, I’d be lost. You see, I didn’t know her then, I didn’t understand her, I thought she wanted money, and that she wouldn’t forgive my poverty. And so I fiendishly counted out the half of that three thousand, sewed it up, calculating on it, sewed it up before I was drunk, and after I had sewn it up, I went off to get drunk on the rest. Yes, that was base.
Why, that I stole it, that’s what it amounts to! Oh, God, you horrify me by not understanding! Every day that I had that fifteen hundred sewn up round my neck, every day and every hour I said to myself, ‘You’re a thief! you’re a thief!’…But, do you know, while I carried it I said to myself at the same time every hour ‘No, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, you may yet not be a thief.’ Why? Because I might go next day and pay back that fifteen hundred to Katya. And only yesterday I made up my mind to tear my amulet off my neck, on my way from Fenya’s to Perhotin. I hadn’t been able till that moment to bring myself to it. And it was only when I tore it off that I became a downright thief, a thief and a dishonest man for the rest of my life. Why? Because, with that I destroyed, too, my dream of going to Katya and saying, ‘I’m a scoundrel, but not a thief! Do you understand now? Do you understand?’
The funny part about this is that Dmitri Fyodorovitch worried about being a thief because he didn’t spend the 3000 right away. If he had spent it recklessly he could consider himself just an animal with no self-control. But because he was calculated and kept 1500 away for later use in seducing Agrafena…he was no longer an animal…he was a thief. The motivation of his actions, the reasons made all the difference. And to his mind how other people would judge those motivations mattered. All this tremendously effected his state of mind. This sort of thing makes no sense if you think of humans as rational, self-interested actors.
Human being constantly act to signal to others who they are. And feel things like guilt or shame about their behaviour based on thinking about how others would judge them if they were being observed.
This makes human psychology complicated. Spending 3000…reckless but you are not a thief. Saving 1500 of the 3000 for later use is calculating and turns you from a reckless animal into a thief. You truly understand human psychology until you first understand this type of reasoning.