How to tell good behavior from bad

What distinguishes bad behavior from good? Or acceptable from unacceptable? The two extremes are more alike than we care to admit, differing by a ‘scale factor’ that sets the magnitude of the transgression. Fortunately, there are quantifiable metrics to help distinguish how much is too much.

We all (or at least most of us) know the difference between good and bad. Admittedly, there can be gray areas, but for most of us goodness is like pornography: we think we know it when we see it. On closer examination, though, good and bad can look a lot alike, making it hard to know how to navigate the gray areas between the two.

How can good behavior be similar to bad? Consider these examples.

Driving

Example 1. While driving to work, you close on slower traffic ahead. They are going about 5 mph slower than you, not a big issue, but you prefer to run at your current speed. After checking that the adjacent lane is clear, you change lanes and pass the slower traffic, coming back into your original lane after clearing the slower car by several car lengths.

Example 2. You look in your mirror and see a car driving at least 20 mph faster than the rest of the flow, tailgating and weaving through traffic with abrupt and unsignaled lane changes, missing the other cars by feet if not inches.

Scale factor. The behavior in both examples is the same (overtaking slower cars, changing lanes, etc.) except for the speed involved, the distance between cars, and perhaps the use of turn signals to alert other drivers. The difference may appear to be subjective. It’s possible the second driver thinks he is driving in a safe manner. It’s also possible he’s a sub-human, drunk-as-a-skunk fool. Regardless, a more objective measure of appropriate driving is needed.

Health and Fitness

Example 1. While on a visit home, you go with your kid brother to the State Fair. You indulge in some childhood treats (deep fried Twinkie, anyone?), drink a bit too much and don’t bother going for your morning run. It’s okay, you tell yourself, because it’s only this one time.

Example 2. Your kid brother moves in with you and the two of you develop the habit of binge drinking and living on pizza. Your running shoes gather dust in the back of your closet, unused.

Scale factor. You do the same in each example, i.e. make poor dietary choices and skip exercise. The difference is the frequency of your transgressions. The ‘good’ example has you falling off the wagon only once while the ‘bad’ example is recurring and frequent behavior. When is too much too much?

Character

Example 1. “I’d love to come to your party, but I promised my sister I’d help her paint her apartment that weekend. Have a great time without me.” As long as your would-be host doesn’t talk to your sister you are home free telling this white lie to avoid going to what is sure to be a boring event of monumental proportions.

Example 2. “John said he’d be here.” “You know how John is. You can’t count on him.” “I know it now.” Say goodbye to your character

Scale factor. One ‘innocent’ lie is okay. Many lies or lies with serious consequences are not. How do you navigate the territory in between?

As these examples show, in a way we are all the same under the skin. What makes something acceptable to one of us and not to another is often a matter of degree. While knowing this helps to build empathy, it shouldn’t excuse unacceptable behavior.

So what makes behavior unacceptable? Can there be some objective line in the sand we all agree should not be crossed?

As we turn the knob of our personal behavioral scale factor selector, moving through the gray area between good and bad, there comes a point beyond which the behavior is unacceptable to most reasonable people. This transition point can be tied to quantifiable, observable metrics rather than our subjective interpretations. These metrics can thus be used to help us control ourselves.

Let’s look back at the examples above and see if we can find quantifiable limits to where good behavior turns to bad.

Driving

In many ways, this one is the easiest to evaluate. How close is too close when following another car? Too close is when you are within less than a normal reaction time, meaning that you have not allowed enough time to stop suddenly if necessary. (Recall the two-second rule. Do they still teach that in driving school?) This is a solid quantifiable metric.

Driving in a manner that scares and distracts other drivers to the point that they may make mistakes is another example of ‘bad’ driving behavior. Note that if you are driving significantly faster than the nominal traffic flow, other drivers may not know to look for you and react to you. (Fast objects on the road are essentially invisible.) Even with no other cars on the road, speeding enough that the consequences of a mistake are increased can also be considered ‘bad’ driving. Remember, the energy in a crash goes as the square of the speed you are driving. (Ask your favorite physicist for confirmation.)

Health and Fitness

For behavior that is bad as a function of how often we do it, like eating pizza daily, it is harder to come up with appropriate metrics. Fortunately (unfortunately?) your body has a way of letting you know when you’ve gone too far. When you develop life-altering complications like diabetes or heart attack you can be sure you have crossed the line. Unfortunately, crossing such lines is usually a one-way traversal. By the time you get unmistakable warning signs, it is usually much too late to change your behavior.

It is possible, though, to look for smaller symptoms. Like all of us, I occasionally overindulge. I’m relieved when I begin to suffer ‘digestive issues’. It means my body is working as it should, punishing me for being a damned fool. Think how much harder it would be to make healthy choices if you got no feedback on the appropriateness of those choices. When you are given the gift of a tummy-ache, or hangover, your body is telling you you’ve made bad choices. Use that as a sign to reassess your behavior.

Character

The metric here is the degree of harm flows from your lie. It’s one thing to tell a white lie to avoid being one of many at a party. It is another to leave someone stranded at the airport waiting for you to pick them up.

One of the key pillars of character is how well you do what you say you will do. Being dependable builds trust in your word. Tell enough lies and that trust erodes. It is difficult to judge your character on your own. But careful observation of others can help discern their opinions of you. Be alert to evidence that others no longer believe you. Do they avoid asking you for help? Do they act surprised when you show up on time? These can all be signs that your dalliances with truth are getting out of hand.

Much as we may think otherwise, we are not a civilization of angels and devils. There are not always clear black and white distinctions to guide proper behavior. We are, indeed, very much alike under the skin. Be careful when criticizing others since we all exhibit similar behaviors. But know that there are limits. Know what these limits are and stay on the safe side.

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