I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Moral Judgment of the Sidewalk Pedestrian

I’m going to muddle my genre a little today. And in honor of Peter King, I’ll place it under the heading of "Curious Things That May Interest Only Me" - As if this whole blog didn't fall into that catagory...
I live in a city, and as such, I run in a city. There are excellent parks and paths where I often do my running, but inevitably, I find myself running in a risky and unpredictable locale: The Sidewalk.

Why are sidewalks risky? Why are they unpredictable? Why do they so often drive me to the point that I willfully choose to run in the street where two-ton constructs of plastic and steel come motoring ignorantly toward me? Why? Because on the sidewalk, there are other people.

Your mind may now be casting toward the most famous quote of a particular French existentialist and playwright, but mine has strayed, instead, to an even more esoteric historic figure…

Jean Piaget (pronounced: Pee-ah-jay, with a soft “j”) was a
Swiss philosopher and natural scientist, well known for his work studying children and his theory of cognitive development. In 1932, he published “The Moral Judgment of the Child”, in which he studied the development of a child’s sense of what is “moral”, “just”, and “right”, in large part, by observing children as they played marbles together in a school yard. He considered it a natural environment when he could observe and interview his subjects even though they would not know they were being studied.

So, you see, I don't want to be a whiney-butt. I don't want to rant about the annoying habits of other people. They are, after all, people. And surely they mean well. Their point of view must be considered.

Luckily, it is my opinion that the encounter of Fitness Runner and Walker on a sidewalk provides a neutral environment for study, similar to the one Piaget took advantage of. I believe that the Walker tends to respond to the unexpected presence of a Runner in an honest and unedited way. I am, therefore, inspired by Piaget’s example as I try to briefly evaluate the moral behavior of the Side-Walker in relation to the Everyday Runner. (I may have forgotten a few of the basic rules of proper scientific evaluation – but that’s why I host a blog instead of a laboratory.)

Here goes…

SCENARIO ONE: One Runner, running toward one Walker, moving in opposite directions.

Observed Result: Though the common reaction of the walker is to move to their right, allowing the runner more room to pass, there are also occasion when the walker persists on the same forward trajectory, requiring the runner to swerve around as they pass.

Conclusions Drawn: The dynamics are, perhaps, affected not so much by spatial relationships as by social ones. Not unlike chickens in the hen coop, a pecking order is quickly and instinctively established. A walker who feels equal or inferior to the approaching runner may be likely to give way. Occasionally the walker may determine that they are, in some way, the superior, or perhaps they choose to challenge the runner to establish that superiority. These persons are less likely to give way.

SCENARIO TWO: One Runner, running toward two Walkers, each group moving in opposite directions.

Observed Result: The two Walkers will commonly remain shoulder to shoulder and side by side until the very last moment, even though they have both seen and made eye-contact with the approaching Runner, at which time, the Walker closest to the Runners path will, only briefly, pause and step slightly to the right and behind their walking partner, allowing the Runner to squeeze by. Sometimes neither Walker will give ground at all, forcing the Runner to come to a complete halt or swerve all the way around the duo.

Conclusions Drawn: This scenario is the more interesting to me, personally, because in these cases, the Walkers often seem less involved in the power relationship with the Runner and more so in the one between each other. For one person to slow down and be forced to fall in line behind their fellow is a sign of weakness or subservience. To be forced to be the one of the pair who must give ground to the oncoming Runner places them at the bottom of the three-person power structure, a position to be avoided. If however, each in the pairing holds their ground, it is the Runner who must correct course, leaving the Runner at the bottom of the structure and the walking pair on equal footing (no pun intended). So being rude to the Runner is selected as the most profitable course of action – the rudeness being instinctively seen as a far lesser evil than diminishing oneself in the eyes of a comrade.

SCENARIO THREE: One Runner and one or more Walkers, all moving in the same direction, with the Runner approaching from behind.

Observed Result: If the Runner attempts to be polite and calls ahead to say “excuse me” before he passes by, chaos results. The Walkers come to a full stop, try to turn about to see the source of the voice and spread out on the sidewalk, often forcing the runner to come to a complete stop to avoid running into them and, therefore, producing the opposite effect than he hoped to have by calling out in the first place.

Conclusions Drawn: When the Walkers sense or hear the Runner approaching from behind, the unexpected presence of the Runner will produce unexpected responses from the Walkers. Because it is a stimulus that the Walkers are unaccustomed to and unprepared for, they do not know how to react and their instinct will be to gather more information. Because all of a human’s primary sensory information receptors are on the front of our faces, this means the Walkers must stop and turn around. When a human turns their head while walking, it is also common for the body to drift in the direction of the turned head. And this random change in bodily trajectory often produces the collision which the Runner had hoped to avoid.

Instead, if the Runner approaches silently from behind, the Walkers ahead are far more likely to maintain a predictable forward motion, and the Runner is able to easily navigate around them on the sidewalk. This, occasionally, has the result of startling the Walkers, but only after he has already passed them by. Even though this emotional jolt is unpleasing to some Walkers, it is far gentler than the physical collision frequently caused otherwise. We will simply have to hope that the Universe understands our benevolence and rewards us accordingly.

SCENARIO FOUR: The Runner approaching the Dog Walker, from any direction or angle.

Observed Result: Neither the Dog or its Owner will see or acknowledge the approaching Runner in any way – that is, until the Runner is directly upon them, at which time the Dog will leap at the Runner (in violence or in joy) and the Runner must try not to be tripped or injured by the Dog or its leash. (There are, occasionally, Dog Owners who detect an oncoming Runner and will pull the Dog aside to allow the Runner safe passage. To each of these rare Dog Owners is due a heartfelt “Thank You” from the Runner as he passes.)

Conclusions Drawn: When the Owner takes his or her Dog for a walk, they are, in fact, not taking the Dog for a walk, but rather for a trip out of doors so the Dog may defecate on public property. If necessary, the Owner will then pick up the doggy waste with a plastic bag and carry it around on the sidewalk until they return home. This is an inherently embarrassing activity for the Owner and they do not wish to be seen doing it. Said Owner will therefore try to pretend that they are invisible during this chore and will exercise their invisibility by pretending that they cannot see anyone else who happens to be out on the sidewalk, including the friendly neighborhood Runner.

We may also choose to incorporate the social interaction present in Scenario A, in which case it is clear that anyone who is walking around carrying a bag full of Dog poo, shall feel inherently inferior to a vigorous Runner in the throes of physical exertion. The resentment this breeds may only compound the Dog Owner’s lack of cooperation with the Runner on the sidewalk.

I could go on (you know I could), but I think I’ve made a few worthwhile observations and I’ll quit while I’m ahead. I admit that my sample size is relatively small, being the observational records of one individual (myself) and the anecdotal evidence of a few others, but the anonymity of the interaction and the astonishing consistency of the behavior displayed in each scenario give me confidence that my otherwise pompous assessments are grounded in some fact.

I assure you, I intend to conduct many, many more fact finding excursions and add to the previously gathered evidence. I’ll keep you posted…

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