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King: Putting on our best face is the natural human default
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Until I heard her speak at a benefit luncheon, I thought Ronda Rich was a bit of an empty-headed lightweight. I was wrong, wrong, wrong, and she has become one of my must-read columnists.

The title of one of her early books, “What Southern Women Know about Flirting,” did not sit well with this transplanted Yankee, but listening to her talk changed everything and turned me into a fan. She is smart, funny and perceptive.

In a recent column, she wrote about a dead man and his obituary. The obit lauded an individual thought by those who knew him to be mean, egoistical and a bully. The obituary, however, painted a very different picture: a generous man who supported his church, and gave to a children’s home and other charities, a man who was noble and selfless.

No one believed it for a moment, and Ronda asked: Did the family hire a professional spin-doctor to clean up the dead man’s image? I’m sure it’s possible, but the facts as they were laid out were probably accurate. So what was the man really like?

Human behavior is my passion. Why do we do the things we do? Who are we? More important, how did we get that way? Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and he has some interesting ideas about human behavior.

His theories are a variation of the old nature vs nurture argument. For a behavioral trait to enter the gene pool, it must have a survival factor. Haidt tries to show that moral behavior is just such a trait. If human survival depends on characteristics that allow those who possess them to become more successful than those who don’t, the precursors to moral behavior can be found in the genes.

To answer my original question — why do we do the things we do? -- we need to find out how these characteristics benefit individuals, and through time enter the gene pool. Haidt has been working on this problem for more than 25 years. He and his colleagues have traveled extensively and done thousands of interviews. He does not come to his conclusions lightly.

Unfortunately, some of them are not comfortable. For instance, he says we are all hypocrites.

We say one thing while doing another. We are driven by our emotions, not our rational minds. Sad to say, we would rather look good than be good because biologically there is more to be gained by appearances than actualities.

This may explain why teenagers are so obsessed by how they look. It’s their genes. The need for peer approval appears at puberty along with the usual teenage hormones as young people struggle to find their place in their culture. When we look at politicians, we see this trait at its most extreme. Good, bad or indifferent, politicians run on appearances, but all too often what you see is not what you get.

In a sense, Ronda’s man was an abrogation. Either he didn’t care what people thought or simply couldn’t contain his sour disposition. Whether his charities were driven by guilt or an attempt to appear other than what he was is not important. It was the people who wrote his obituary who wanted to look good. Maybe it was his family who felt their reputation was at stake. Maybe whoever published the obit was intimidated by power or money.

They probably didn’t lie about the facts. Like politicians who want your vote, they simply arranged things to appear in the best possible light. This is not cynicism; it’s common sense. However, a published obituary will last longer than memories in the man’s community. A politician’s carefully crafted words will travel farther and have greater impact than the man himself.

This is when taking people at face value is not the best policy, and sincerity is not what it seems.

Joan King lives in Sautee.

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