I went on a riverboat trip once.
It was a lovely trip, meandering along the Thames with information technology bods who were there to party, and my easy-going boyfriend of the time for company.
But there was this oik who threatened to spoil everything.
He was loud and brash, with a Bee Gees haircut. Everything was a huge joke; he didn’t take anything seriously. One arm was slung around a platinum blonde who appeared every bit as vacuous as he was, the other kept hold of a pint of Stella. He was good at one-liners, though, and those around him seemed entertained.
Once you are on a river boat gliding on the Thames, there is no way out. I looked around wildly for some miraculous other room, somewhere I could escape to be away from this man and the aura of unfettered laddishness around him.
There was not a bolthole in sight.
We talked for a while and then I and my boyfriend drifted to another group. I rolled my eyes . “Who in heavens name was that?” I asked incredulously.
Whereupon every preconception I had was blown out of the water. “That,” said my partner, “is the company’s financial director. Don’t believe what you see. He’s a mathematical genius with a Cambridge degree.”
I had him taped, I had thought. Some hanger on, I reasoned, who has blagged his way onto the boat by way of being related to one of the programmers. Apprearances, I have thought ever since, can be so very deceptive.
It is human nature to look for patterns, and to fit what we see into them.
Neuroscientists at the University of Texas did a series of experiments which fed sets of information to people. It was published in the Journal Science in October 2008.
Sometimes the information they tendered might be mock-stock market data.
With it came performance statements which would set the expectations of the subjects: for example, “Rough seas ahead for investors.” The subjects showed that unfailingly, when they felt less control over the situation, they would invent patterns – relationships between the information – which weren’t there: patterns in the stock market.
And then the scientists taught the subjects calming, self affirming exercises.
Astonishingly, their propensity to see things that weren’t there showed a marked decrease. Their minds were clear enough to see reality. Authors Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky wrote: “We suggest that a lack of control provokes seeing and seeking patterns, because pattern perception is a compensatory mechanism designed to restore feelings of control.”
Standing on the boat on the Thames, on a sunny day, I had classified the erudite financial director of a successful company according to my own knowledge of patterns. To me he fitted the ‘oik’ schema; I could not see the reality for my need to find control and order.
Which brings me to Yuppies. Dinkies. Bobos. And so forth.
In the eighties a seemingly new pattern of human behaviour found its way into public consciousness: young upwardly mobile professionals.
We didn’t like them very much. In the UK they had sharp suits and loud voices and spent their evenings braying in wine bars. They made their money by playing the markets in the heady days of the late eighties, before that crash which changed everything in 1997.
I lived with one in a student shared house: he funded his university education by buying stocks and shares at one end of the term and selling at the other at a huge profit. It made me look at my own funding and feel, well, inadequate. Covetous, even. Looking back, while some of these folks behaved brashly I wonder if we didn’t all feel a teensy bit envious.
So we invented a pattern.
These guys were labelled: Yuppies. The moment the schema was out, we all felt better. They had become ‘them’. The kind of hate figures we could live with.
Their kind disappeared quickly, what with crash and recession. But we had discovered a comfort mechanism: a set of initials which put people neatly in pigeonholes where we could manage them.
I was a Dinkie: double income no kids- for a while. And it’s just possible I might have shades of the BoBo – the bourgeois bohemian.
We all do it, effortlessly: we try to fit everyone we meet into a pattern, and when they don’t fit, we create a pattern of our own. Occasionally, we do it en masse.
The fact we all do it, at some time though: the fact it is in our nature: I wonder if that makes it right?
Written in response to Side View’s Theme: Yuppie. You can find her challenge here