“This week, a few people hinted that I can be quite patronizing. At first, I was just insulted, but when I recognized that several people had used the very same word about me, I had to go look it up. ‘Patronizing’ means acting as though I’m more intelligent than they are — which is awfully arrogant. So, rather than just brushing off this feedback, I found myself thinking that this could be my wake-up call. I mean, I can take a hint. I’m not pigheaded. I can face the fact that my tendency to patronize is undermining me. I’d be much more successful if I just cut it out. But then another friend told me I shouldn’t be so affected by what other people think. The fact that they find me patronizing, she said, reflects more on them than on me, which also feels true, and leaves me a bit confused.”

The writer’s confusion is natural, because what’s really at the heart of this matter is a dilemma about give-and-take, or what psychologist Jean Piaget called assimilation and accommodation.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Assimilation refers to imposing your will on the world, not taking its guff, sticking with your existing commitments, giving the world a piece of your mind. Accommodation means taking feedback to heart and changing your commitments. Easy enough, right? But when to employ which strategy is a big, old question with roots as old as life itself.

In other essays, I’ve discussed the personal experience of selective pressure, a core concept in biology. Biologists talk about an environment’s selective pressures, the effect of what Darwin called natural selection.

Natural selection is like a filter that permits the spread of some traits, while blocking the spread of others. For example, an antelope’s environment includes lions. Lions impose selective pressure on antelopes to run fast, which is to say that slow antelopes are less likely to live to make babies, so their traits don’t spread. Fast antelopes get away from lions, and so they tend to live to make babies, thereby spreading their traits — including speed.

Now, three-toed sloths aren’t under pressure to run fast. Nor are redwood trees. They’re under other selective pressures, however. Natural selection imposes a diversity of selective pressures on a diversity of species. If you go looking for the one universal pressure all life is under, the closest you’d find is a pressure to do whatever works. Works to do what? To pass traits on to offspring. This pressure has been with life since the beginning.

Some biologists assume that natural selection is the only pressure we humans are under still, as though everything we do is, one way or the other, in the service of making babies. But that view’s much too simplistic. We humans are under a new, ever growing, and ever changing array of selective pressures. Sure, our instincts have been refined through millennia of natural selection, but we also have pleasure and pain, which are internal selective pressures encouraging behaviors as diverse as helping our neighbors and shooting cocaine and discouraging behaviors as diverse as making fools of ourselves and putting our hands directly into flames. Our thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are also a new kind of selective pressure that encourages or discourages us to finish that project, quit that job, keep that friend, or buy that device.

And then, of course, there are social and cultural selective pressures — the dos and don’ts our fellow humans impose on us. A friend’s frown is a selective pressure discouraging whatever you just did. Her smile is a selective pressure to do more of whatever delighted her. You’re a social animal. A lot of the selective pressure you come under is peer pressure. But you are also the source of such selective pressure. It’s give-and-take. Each of us adapts to other people’s selective pressures while imposing selective pressures on them. The question, then, is when to do which: when to impose your selective pressure, and when to adapt to others.

Selection theory provides a new lens for looking at the give-and-take between us. What does it mean to be patronizing, arrogant, or pigheaded? It means to stick to your guns, imposing your selective pressure on others and expecting them to adapt to them. “Take it or leave it,” we say. “My way or the highway.” What does it mean to take a hint, to heed a wake-up call, to be affected by what other people think? It means adapting to other people’s standards, their selective pressures.

Threading through the centuries of debates over ethics, there is a question about whether we should judge people’s behavior by their intentions or by the consequences of their behavior. Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was a consequentialist. He argued that an ignorant man’s good deed should count for as much as an intellectual’s: The intellectual’s elaborate explanations and intentions should not make a difference; what counts is whether the deed is a good one. Measure people by their performance, not their intentions. Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), on the other hand, although he learned a lot from Hume, disagreed with him on
this point: He believed that intention is what counts, especially because we can’t know the consequences of our deeds in advance.

This debate over whether to measure merit by performance or by intention plays out in our everyday social give-and-take. To measure by performance is as if to say, “The only thing that matters here is whether you fit the selective pressure I have chosen by which to judge you. I’m not interested in your intentions or the variety of other selective pressures you might be under. I’m only interested in whether you meet my selective standards.”

By contrast, to measure merit by intention is as if to say, “I’m going to set aside my selective pressures and pay attention to what’s going on in you. If you don’t meet my standards, maybe there’s a good reason.”

This difference plays out in the ideologies (not necessarily the practices) of conservatives and liberals. Conservatism is performance based: Sink or swim; meet the selective pressure or suffer the consequences. Liberalism, by contrast, is ready to negotiate on standards — even, in the extreme, to assume that if people don’t live up to the standard, it’s not their fault. Rather, there must be something wrong with the standard.

I mentioned earlier that the question of who selects and who adapts is a big, old question going back to the beginning of life: Antelopes impose selective pressure on lions, too. If antelopes, by natural selection, tend to run faster, lions had better adapt as well, or they’ll die.

Antelopes even have an instinctive way to signal to lions that they’re calling the shots. It’s called stotting, which means to bound inefficiently — higher than necessary — when predators pursue them. Stotting sends a message to a predator: “Sure, you’re after me, but I’m not worried. See, I’ve got so much speed, I can afford to be inefficient with it. This is my game, not yours. You’ll have to meet my standard for speed, Mr. Lion.” This behavior, some might argue, is a bit patronizing.