Dr. Leary at Duke decided to study people’s overreactions to inconsequential events several years ago, after he witnessed the Pickle Incident.
He was at a fast-food restaurant and saw a man in a business suit march up to the counter, throw his hamburger down and yell: “Why is there a pickle on my sandwich?” Loudly, he said he would have the counter clerk fired because she was “too stupid” to work there. The clerk looked as if she would cry. Another employee handed the customer a new hamburger, and he left.
The scene made Dr. Leary think there must be something critically important about unwritten social rules if we feel so deeply violated that we need to let the world know when someone breaks one. “It’s not the pickle,” says Dr. Leary. “It’s that you are doing something that makes me not trust you, that you may harm or disadvantage me because you are not playing by the rules.”
Last week I was in line at the supermarket buying a bottle of water. The guy in front of me was buying a whole cart full of stuff, and didn’t offer to let me go ahead of him. I fumed, bleep-by-bleep, as the checker rang up all 275,000 of his items. When his total came up and he started digging in his pockets for exact change, I stared at the ceiling and let out a deep, audible sigh.
How useless and childish my reaction was! In all, this guy probably wasted two minutes of my time—tops!—and it’s not like I was late for something or in a hurry. I huffed and grumbled throughout this entire episode like a princess in a children’s story, then, as soon as it was over, biked home and wasted time on my laptop til bedtime.
This episode was utterly inconsequential. So why didn’t it feel like that at the time?
Researchers at Duke University, in a yet-to-be-published study, looked for explanations of why people melt down over small things. Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It’s the old, childhood wail: “It’s not fair!”
Researchers call these unwritten laws of behavior “social exchange rules.” We’re not supposed to be rude or inconsiderate; we are supposed to be polite, fair, honest and caring. Don’t cut in line. Drive safely. Clean up after yourself.
“We can’t have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules,” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and lead author of the study. “And we can’t have a beneficial society if we can’t trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being.”
I constantly struggle not to turn violations of social exchange rules into internal tantrums. It’s hard work to tell myself He probably just doesn’t see you behind him in line. If he did, he’d obviously let you go ahead. It’s so much easier to just think this fucking asshole and stand there rolling my eyes.
I think the best advice I ever got was ‘Don’t argue anything on principle alone.’ As the article points out, these episodes escalate from minor infraction to major altercation because people perceive them in terms of principles like fairness and equality—this guy thinks his time is more valuable than mine!—rather than concrete impacts—I’m gonna get home from work 120 seconds later than I planned!
On the bus to the airport last Friday, a woman had her bag on the seat next to her as the bus filled, then nearly overflowed, with people. This gremlin, I thought, thinks her bag is more important than all these people.
‘Excuse me,’ someone finally said. ‘Did you know your bag is taking up this seat?’
‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ the woman said. ‘I was reading my book and totally forgot. Please sit down, forgive me.’
‘Not at all,’ the other traveller said. ‘These things happen.’
I think that’s a good way to put it: These things happen. Distracted, forgetful, short-termy, oblivious, that’s what makes us human. By doing the hard thing when we relate to each other, we have the opportunity to be a little bit more.