(Featured image: pch.vector via Freepik)

Our behavioural fingerprint

Fingerprints have long been associated with our identity, but more than a bit of skin at the tip of a finger, it is our behaviour that is characteristic of who we are

here is a song that, when I first heard it, really struck home. Not, I hasten to say, that I have ever been engaging in a strange drinking game with a bunch of Belgian businessmen; I don’t even have a son, let alone one that played football. But the sentiment it expresses resonated with me — and still does today.

The song — Come Home, Billy Bird by The Divine Comedy — relates the predicament of an international business traveller who the night before drank too much, missed his wakeup call, and now — in the company of a phenomenal hangover — must overcome various obstacles in order to catch his flight home and be there in time to see his son play an important match. It finely sketches the unwise choices one may make, especially when away from home and under peer pressure, to just have another drink, paying scant attention to the potential consequences in a few hours’ time. Then, the emotional rollercoaster of — through no one’s fault but one’s own — being late for a flight, having to grovel, and giving up one’s cultivated, polite and reserved image to become a red, sweaty, ill-mannered guy elbowing his way to the gate. Above all, it sketches the angst of the parent who is torn between work (even if it is socializing in the hotel bar) and family.

Signalling who we are

What kind of person are we? We may like to think that we are a good colleague, and a good parent. And it is not too hard to be a good parent when there are no work obligations in sight, or to be a good employee during a normal working day when there are no family concerns. But it is when the two roles are not compatible, when we have to choose between them, that our behavioural fingerprint becomes clear.

Screenshot from the video of Come Home, Billy Bird, showing football tickets and an abandoned suitcase on the baggage carousel
Screenshot from the video of Come Home, Billy Bird, showing football tickets and an abandoned suitcase on the baggage carousel
Will Billy’s sacrifices have been in vain? (image: youtube)

Choices are inherently trade-offs. By definition, they mean selecting one thing, and rejecting another. Choosing is giving something up, and it is what we choose, and what we give up, that signals to the world (and to ourselves) the kind of personality we have.

These signals matter. We are social beings, and we care about the personality of the people we interact with. We want to know whether we can trust them and whether we could rely on them not to let us down. We want to be able to predict how they might act in the future, and what we might be able expect from them (or not).

There are plenty of instruments that purport to reveal someone’s personality, from the frivolous (Which Harry Potter character or Star Trek captain are you?) and the pseudoscientific (like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and similar) to the somewhat more robust and scientifically valid (the Big Five personality traits). But even the latter are not very practical to evaluate the people with whom we socialize. We rely on what we observe, directly and indirectly, to shape our judgement.

That judgement can be formal, for example in assessment centres, where candidate new employees are placed in controlled real-life conditions, and where their behaviour is observed in team settings and role play. Rumour has it that one manager invited candidates to dinner at a place where he had arranged for the server to screw up when bringing the prospective recruit’s food, to see how they’d react to the error. (I have never seen it confirmed, but it’s an interesting story.) Mostly, though, the judgement is informal.

Either way, it is one aspect in particular of how people choose to behave that we seem to concentrate on in our evaluation: the externalities inherent in people’s choices. Who comes off better, and who comes off worse as a result? Are they focusing on their own advantage, to the detriment of someone else who is not even involved? Or are they sacrificing their own gain in order to ensure someone else does not lose out?

Compelling drama relies almost entirely on the trade-offs the characters make to give us an idea of their personality. Their choices resonate with us and allow us to imagine whether or not we would do the same when faced with the same situation. Often the gains and sacrifices are larger than life, or at least larger than our own life, where thankfully matters of life and death are rare. But that doesn’t prevent them from activating our emotions in sympathy (or antipathy), and shining a light on our own boundaries of the choices we might, and might not, make.

Complex choices

Billy Bird, the hero in the song, made a choice the night before. He could have chosen to go to bed in time to allow him to comfortably make his way to the airport the next morning. But instead, he made a choice that nearly made him miss his plane, and hence his son’s match. The lyrics are silent about the context, but we can readily assume that he had promised his son to be there, which would make that promise the centrepiece of the musical vignette. Failing to keep a promise is the kind of externality we have all experienced, and on the basis of which we have all judged others (and possibly been judged).

But life is complex. How we behave — the choices we make — does not just depend on what kind of person we are, but also on the circumstances. We may be less considerate when we’re stressed, annoyed, or sad, than we are in more normal conditions. In his famous 7 Habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey tells the story of how a peaceful Sunday morning subway ride turns tumultuous when a man and his children enter the carriage. He sits motionless with his eyes closed, oblivious to his offspring yelling, throwing things, and even grabbing other passengers’ newspapers. Eventually, Covey — who, no doubt, has made a judgement of his character — addresses him and asks him to control his children. The man agrees, adding, “ We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.” It is an example of what is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error — the tendency to ascribe behaviour to personality and underemphasize situational factors.

Abandoned trolley
Abandoned trolley
Are you the kind of person who does this? (photo: Stephen Mitchell/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yet, imperfect as they are, we tend to be guided by our observations of others to form a view of the kind of person they are — as they are guided by watching our choices to do the same about us. This is worth bearing in mind, both as the observer of the signals that others transmit, and as the sender of signals ourselves. Actions do speak louder than words, and leave behind our behavioural fingerprint.

We should try not to judge others too quickly: we might be seeing a state (a temporary condition) rather than a trait (a long-term characteristic). But we should also be aware that others are watching us too, and making up their minds on the basis of what they observe. And this is largely not about things like not getting behind the wheel when we have had a pint, or grand gestures at someone’s birthday. It is about whether we are the kind of person who, at the supermarket, parks in a parent and children spot because it’s conveniently wide and close to the entrance, even though we are on our own, or the kind of person who conscientiously returns their trolley; who, at work, systematically arrives late at meetings, or the kind who diligently washes up their coffee mug; who, at home, leaves the hair in the plughole of the bath, or the kind who, like Billy Bird, moves heaven and earth to be able to attend one of the children’s big football match or performance in the school play.

So much of what we do means choosing between us and others. And we are, very much, the sacrifices we make.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on April 9, 2021.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. If so, you can easily share it far and wide — with handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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