Sunday, August 13, 2017


Picky is an interesting word.  Allegedly first used in around 1900, it is used to refer to people who are fussy, choosy, demanding... also critical or fault-finding.  The idea is often that someone is focusing on finding fault, rather than being positive or supportive.

Think of animals evolving in a competitive environment, where those best-adapted might survive.  Intelligent animals use internal models of the world, held in their head, to find their way around.  For instance, when you are going for a walk where you live, you rely, in part, on a mini version of your neighbourhood, a kind of map if you like, held in your memory.

If you watch a cat or a bird in your garden, you will notice that they are constantly on the lookout for surprises.  The cat pricks up its ears at all unusual sounds; the bird turns its attention to anything out of the ordinary.  They are being 'picky'.  The function of this kind of attentiveness is to notice, as quickly as possible, parts of the environment that have changed... are not as expected... and make sure that any danger they represent is neutralised, often by running away, sometimes by combat.

Being animals, humans have a similar way of doing things.  We spend a lot of our time constantly checking our surroundings for exceptions to our rules, departures from our internal maps.  While walking the road, we are responsive to anything surprising or unusual, because it may represent a threat.  In our communications, too, we tend to be very attentive to exceptions rather than rules.  For example, we are likely to notice others' rudeness more quickly than we notice their courtesy, because the first alters us to difference and danger, whereas the second is just a confirmation of familiar patterns.

For the above reasons, I would suggest that we should expect other people to be 'picky', to be alert to anything that is different from what they expect.  They are simply doing what their animal nature demands of them - that they operate according to internal rules of what to expect, and become alert and responsive when those rules are broken.   Pickiness is built into us.

Socially, humans seem to have developed the ability to be picky in groups.  In other words, when several people are gathered together in a common culture, they seem to develop, together, a whole raft of common internal rules.  They spend years educating their children into sharing those internal rules; and teaching them how to spot when those internal rules have been broken.  Families develop internal sets of rules, not always immediately apparent to the outside world, that determine what will be picked on and how.  Gangs and clubs are a little more explicit in their enforcement of certain rules, and also more explicit in their reaction to, and punishment of, infringements.  There are all social uses of our internal ability to (a) make an internal map of expectations regarding our environment, and (b) to become alert and responsive when those expectations are not met.

However, different people respond differently when faced with exceptions to their rules.  Young babies have a vested interest in seeking out exceptions to rules for learning purposes.  You will notice that a baby often takes great delight in surprises, and turns the head towards interesting exceptions to what they know so far.  In contrast, old people may often have a rather grumpy response to difference - they perhaps have a vested interest in keeping things as they expect: comfort takes precedence over the need to learn more and more variety.  A general rule might be that we begin our lives with a preference for learning from greater variety (though even babies get scared and like their security!), and end our lives with a preference for being more critical of the new, and more welcoming of stability, expected-ness and comfort.

During their lives, you will also notice that individuals have markedly different responses to surprises and differences.  Some are openly picky with those that break their rules, until the other falls into line, or drifts away.

Others, however, have learned to disguise their pickiness behind a veil of sociability.  Thus, you will find people who initially seem friendly and welcoming of difference and surprise; but, later, they drift away from it.  They don't openly pick fights or criticise - but behind the scenes they take action to retreat into commonality, and protect themselves from it.  An example might be a group of rich people who are very polite in immedite society, but in the medium term build gated estates in which to live together to defend themselves from unfamiliar intrusion.

So, we have a tendency, increasing as we age, to become alert in the presence of the unexpected, and take action to remove surprises from our experience.  We are, naturally, 'picky'!

But what if we want to overcome this tendency?  What if we find that, in a relatively safe society, our animalistic 'pickiness' is making us hypervigilant, over-anxious, almost allergic to change and difference?

We could take a developmental approach.  We could notice our own pickiness, and then try to seek some kind of mastery over it, so that our animal nature governs us less, and we become more masters of our own minds.

The next time you find yourself being 'picky', take time to notice it.  What, in your environment, have you decided is scary, or to be avoided?  Is it a person, whom you and your friends have decided is 'persona non grata', too different to be welcomed?  Is it a colour, or a noise, or a design, or a piece of technology, or an item of clothing, or a sexual preference, or a political view, or a way of behaving?  What have you decided, in your animal being, is some kind of threat to you and your friends?

These 'pickinesses' are very hard to notice in ourselves.  (Though we are great at noticing other people's 'pickinesses'.  In other people, we call them 'prejudices'.  In ourselves, we call them 'standards', or 'tastes'!)  But try.  Then, when you feel you have identified a 'pickiness' that you are inflicting on the world, ask yourself:

(a) Does the object of your pickiness really represent a threat to your survival?
(b) Are you distancing another person from you to try to make yourself safer?
(c) How might you become less of a slave to your own pickiness, and become more tolerant?

I have illustrated how pickiness might be ingrained in us because of our evolutionary past.  But our past was one in which we faced daily threats to our survival.  Constant attentiveness was perhaps more understandable.  These days, many of us do not have such daily personal threats.  Yet we are left, as individuals and groups, with the residue of this defensiveness... we jump at exceptions to our rules; we hide, in our groups, behind group rules, defending ourselves against perceived violations and differences from the norm.  In mental health arenas, terms such as 'disorder' are used to isolate the different.

A more masterful way of conducting ourselves might be to attend to our own tendency to be picky, both as individuals, and as groups.  If we can notice when we are doing it, and attend to our own responses before reacting, we might learn to 'downsize' our own internal models, and 'upgrade' the interests of others.  This might avoid us all constantly alienating those who are different from ourselves.

A certain amount of watchfulness is understandable.  A bird that did not pay attention would get eaten by a cat.  And a cat that did not pay attention would get attacked by other cats too often for comfort.  But a being that knows its own attentiveness, and has mastery over it, can defend against immediate danger, whilst retaining sufficient detachment from its own biases to stay free.  In other words, the biggest benefit of mastery over one's own pickiness, is that we can switch it off when appropriate.  This opens a way to peace; because if enough people learn to switch off their 'pickiness radars', then tolerance becomes the norm, and defensiveness isn''t needed.