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Collective Behaviour

October 6, 2015

I have always been interested in how humans behave collectively.  I’m not entirely sure that everyone notices these things, but humans very frequently behave as a group … like wasps … or ants.  It can be a positive thing, but it is often just weird or nonsensical.  Perhaps I am aware of it because collective behaviour has always horrified me … I have some kind of weird phobia of people behaving as though there is a hive mind. and apparently there is one.

The recent examples have revolved around driving, which seems to often be the place where one sees this type of behaviour.  Now, I swear that my recollection is accurate, and things have changed recently in how people drive.  I am quite positive that as recently as five years ago, when I drove down a street with cars parked on one side, two cars would pass each other going opposite directions, one sticking close to parked cars, and the other staying close to curb. Required a bit of skill, but I swear this was totally normal.

At some point relatively recently, this no longer happened.  Now, people are unwilling to stick close to parked cars or curb and thus it is impossible for two cars coming from opposite directions to pass each other.  Now, one car must pull over to the side while the other passes, and then the first car can go.  The cars drive pretty much down the middle of the space between parked car and curb.  This isn’t a crisis or anything but it does slow things down tremendously, leads to a lot of negotiation, and is entirely unnecessary.  I watched this behaviour spread like a virus.  First, it was just some people, who were simply annoying to the rest of us, but it seemed to spread, and now everyone is doing it.  Oddly, if I behave as I did just a short while ago and drive straight down the road an inch from the curb, people look at me going by as though I’m completely insane. This change in what is considered “normal” is kind of startling to me.  I guess what is even weirder about it is that the change os completely unnecessary.  Two cars can still fit on the road side by side, and people do not need to pull over to let others go by, but they certainly seem to think that this action is entirely normal and necessary.

The second example is probably more familiar to everyone.  People have decided that the best way to manage traffic is for everyone to wave at each other as a form of negotiating the right-of-way.  This also has gone from being completely non-existent a relatively short time ago, to being completely normal, and in fact expected, at this point.  The really weird thing about this is that it is completely unnecessary, and often dangerous. People are negotiating something that has already been completely worked out in great detail, and a system developed to make traffic flow just fine without any waving at all. if two vehicles pull up to a four-way stop simultaneously, there are rules already in place to determine how things will progress from there.  The person to the right (assuming both are going straight) gets to go first … the end.  However, now, a great deal of the time, the two people pulling up quite frequently decide to look at each and start negotiating who will go first.  A bunch of waving ensues, and eventually someone actually goes.  Of course, if the person who doesn’t actually have the legal right-of-way and the other slams into them, all of that waving won’t matter a bit.  If the police come, and you say “he waved at me!”, the cops will completely ignore you.  There are traffic rules, and there is no point at which the rules get thrown out the window and everything comes down to negotiation.  That situation does not exist in the law.

I guess what confuses me most about this, is that people seem to enjoy the waving part.  There are many theories about how this could possible be considered satisfying.  One is simply that people like interacting with one another, so they enjoy the waving and other behaviours that allow them to interact.  The other thing though is that this may be more about control. I think that some people like to say “I am granting you the ability to continue … I am waving my hand and controlling this situation”.  On my more cynical days, I’m quite sure that this is what is happening.

Personally. I have just stopped making eye contact with drivers.  Thus, when they decide it’s time for the super-fun waving, I’m not engaging.  I do this when I’m walking now as well, since people also wave at pedestrians and “grant them the right-of-way” … I can’t stand  this business when I’m walking since I refuse to start improvising the traffic rules and don’t trust the crazed waver to not then pull out and find me in their way, as instructed. I suspect that my failure to engage in waving at other drivers is considered some type of horrible social faux pas.  I think that at least a certain portion of the population now consider waving at intersections to be polite social interaction … I’m not going to start playing along.

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