30. Declining to be swept along

“I was window shopping online, just having a look around at the time of year when the temperature outside was getting cooler, so I was cruising some sites for something to put a warmer layer between me and the weather when I came across a sort of orangey-dark tan showerproof jacket, which was nicely longer than usual. They called the colour ‘tobacco’. Anyway, I clicked the ‘add to cart’ button so I could go back to it if I wanted, and then moved on to cruising around again. But it wasn’t long before I had second thoughts (it wasn’t that much of a bargain) so I shut the computer and dropped the idea for now.

“Later when I went back to check up on something else, I noticed that a new window was opened behind the main one — like a pop-up ad, but I’ve heard these called ‘pop-under’ — asking if I’d like to continue and ‘complete your purchase’. That kind of annoyed me, as I’d more or less moved on from the idea by then, and obviously the clothing website had this sort of reminder tool built in for people just like me — shown some interest but hadn’t followed up. I know I shouldn’t have been annoyed… I mean they wanted to make a sale and this pop-under reminder to go ahead and spend the money was just part of that. I think the annoyance came more from being lumped in with everyone else who didn’t buy their stuff, and that their view seemed to be that people were so programmed and predictable that this would be all it took to seal the deal.

“And it made me wonder just how programmed we all are, and how consistent are people’s reactions… do we really keep doing the same thing under the same circumstances, time and again? I mean it’s okay to have some consistency, in the way that can be viewed as making you ‘reliable’, but there’s got to be room to at least consider that there’s an alternative, rather than just to keep repeating what’s been done before. Maybe that’s how dumb predictability comes about, and this just makes manipulation easier.

“It reminded me of that famous experiment with little kids, where they were given a marshmallow or chocolate or something and left in a room and were told that they could eat it now, and that would be that, but if they didn’t eat it straight away and waited until the guy came back into the room they’d be given another one. As was probably expected, a lot of them ate it as soon as the door closed, but some didn’t. And I think the conclusion from follow-up studies was that the kids who could delay the reward so they got a better deal later grew up to have better outcomes.

“Anyway, my point is that there’s probably nothing to lose from interrupting our usual way of latching on to a viewpoint, and to at least make space for not-so-automatic reactions. Taking a different approach can work, and I’ve seen it before. Even taking a different way to get home from the bus stop can open another sort of experience that wouldn’t have happened with the tried and usual — like the time I saw that owl in the park. I remember there was a time when I tried threading my belt the other way — you know, starting from the right side belt loop instead of the left — because I’d read the idea in a book or somewhere that this sort of action can help take your thinking away from the boring usual. It sounds like a really minor thing, but the truth is just this little re-adjustment can wake you up a little bit more, like maybe in the dull-minded mornings, but anytime really… if you remember to do it.”

Benny had forgotten about a time when he had ‘changed lanes’, as far as an expected reaction would be concerned, while working a summer job when he was a student. It was an early sign of having a basic intuition about what he was just now ambling through. That time it concerned someone else at the workplace who was just giving him a hard time, being very critical and outwardly antagonistic. But Benny didn’t take the bait. He just kept his cool and took an even-handed approach. He knew, in a vague and subtle sort of way (yes), that it was a temporary situation — but it wasn’t just that, or that he couldn’t be bothered. That time rather, Benny’s reaction was one instigated through his taking a contrary attitude to what would have been expected under those circumstances. He stopped, stepped back a little, and just declined to get swept along.

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