All too often we look at another persons actions as a definitive test of their character without considering for a moment how we might have set that person up to fail such a test. I don’t need to appeal to Quantum Indeterminacy to assert that any test, especially a test of another human being, will necessarily change the object under investigation. To test tire pressure, for example, you have to let out a little bit of air, thus changing the tire pressure. This is known as the “observer effect” in physics, but in the case of testing human beings, there are two observers. Testing human beings is therefore exponentially more complicated, because as an observer, the object of investigation is capable of using your test as a test of your character, even further muddling the object under investigation with an observer effect feedback loop. If I punch my friend in the face to see what kind of character he has, I only learn what he will do in response to being punched in the face, but not what kind of character he had before I punched him. Acting as a test of the nature of friendship from his observational perspective, this single act of violence could completely alter my friends worldview, which was once populated with fanciful notions of lifelong friendships that were immune to even the smallest betrayal.
Most tests that we perform on our friends and loved ones, however, are much more subtle and usually grant us some plausible deniability regarding the observer effect. We may have overheard our girlfriend on a phone call with an ex-boyfriend and then simply asked, “hey honey, who was that on the phone?” If she lies, then we say to ourselves, “aha! busted! My girlfriend is a liar and must be hiding something insidious!” However, the slightest hint of incredulity in our question might have communicated to our partner how suspicious and insecure we are in the relationship. Our question serves not only as a test of our partners honesty, but also serves as her test of our faith in the relationship. She could simply be trying to spare a boyfriend some pain, knowing that he is suspicious and plagued by a cruel imagination. This blows our test out of the water and completely nullifies our conclusion that she has something insidious to hide because she lied. However, if we tell this highly suspicious story to any one of our close friends they will likely back up our more paranoid interpretation, not least of all because we usually fail to include in such a story the exact amount of incredulity with which we may have posed the question to our partner.
Sometimes it is just easier to remain ignorant of the self-fulfilling nature of our hypotheses. If we are dissatisfied with a long-time lover but have invested too much in the relationship to just jump ship abruptly, it might be so much easier to set up a test of their unworthy character–after all, we must be dissatisfied for a reason! So we tell them that we need a break or something and then wait to pounce on their intense overreaction as proof of their vile nature. “See, look at all the nasty, immature things that she said and did after I demanded a break! No wonder I wanted a break! I’m not crazy after all.” It is clear, however, that our test will never show us what our girlfriend is “really like;” that is, what she is like if we don’t plunge her into the world of doubt and uncertainty that accompanies an abrupt and unexpected break. This test of what she is “really like” would have been performed naturally and with no need for clever machinations by simply staying with the girl and seeing how she treated you. The test of “what she is really like if I demand a break” serves as more of a test of our own insecurity and fear than of her nasty and spiteful nature.
None of us have the luxury of hiding our true nature in the eroding visage of a portrait hidden in an attic ala Dorian Grey–our good or bad nature will show itself sooner or later. There is really no need for clever tests and we should see these for what they are: posturing and strategic manipulation. When Iran tests a long range ballistic missile, they are posturing and enacting a clever (or retarded) political strategy more than they are testing their military capabilities. Most of the “tests” that we perform in relationships are no different. We will never know what the Russians would have done during the Cold War had we decided to sink the ships that carried Russian missiles to Cuba. However, if Kennedy had done so in order to test how serious the Russians really were, he would have polluted the result of his own tests by upping the stakes and communicating to the Russians that we were more serious than we actually were. Saber rattling has this effect in every human relationship, not least of all in a romantic relationship, and it is usually done only by a person who wants a relational cold war to get a whole lot hotter. Time will usually tell us what we want to know about another person and we usually rattle the saber only to speed this process up, but end up unintentionally setting off a conflict that might never have happened.
But don’t we deserve to know who it is we are dealing with before disaster befalls us? When we start seeing a new lover, don’t we have a right to test their character by having one of our attractive friends come on to them and then report back to us as to whether the bait was taken? The answer is no, but fortunately there are other options available to us. We can still perform tests and learn about another person’s character, but the trick is that we cannot perform any action but observation if we are to avoid polluting the results. This puts us securely back into the regular observer effect, instead of the exponentially more difficult observer effect feedback loop. We can choose not to ignore information that is freely given to us. Subjecting this information to scrutiny is far from manipulative. I cannot help what I notice, but I can stop from altering the experience with incessant meddling. The only way of doing good tests is to “play dumb,” that is to hold certain observations close to one’s chest, project what this might mean about someone’s actions in the future, and then see which scenario actually happens. Playing naive is simply the best and most honest way of getting to really see people, because I am in fact naive and shouldn’t interject with my vague suspicions! Failing to alert someone to vague suspicions you may have about them is not manipulative, but is instead very mature and generous. To go back to the phone call example, I can withhold my knowledge of the phone call and simply see what my girlfriend says about it, if anything. If she nervously concocts a lie on the spot, or weeks later tells me that she hasn’t spoken with that guy for years, then I have good test results without being manipulative or changing the results.
The problem with the observer effect in human relationships is that there are entirely too many uncontrolled variables. Let’s examine the case of testing a potential girlfriend with the planned overtures of an attractive male friend. It would appear to be a simple test where she fails in the case that she accepts the overture and passes if she refuses. However, the situation is far more complicated than this. We don’t know how aware she was of the fact that she was being tested. She may have been vaguely or unconsciously aware of this fact, totally ignorant of it, or totally sure that she was being tested. We don’t know how convincing the overture was. Our male friend could have legitimately tried to hook up with her with every intention of succeeding, he could have made a halfhearted attempt that was far from convincing, or he could have made a convincing attempt with no intention of succeeding. Hell, we don’t even know if our male friend is telling the truth when he reports an outcome! After all, what kind of friend agrees to perform such a test in the first place? Lets assume that she “fails” the test and accepts the overture, at which point our friend leaves. There is really no way that we can draw any sure conclusions from this. We can’t conclude that she is likely to cheat on us if we pursue a romantic relationship with her, for perhaps she would have stopped herself thirty seconds after accepting the overture, or perhaps she would in fact cheat on you but only in the first few weeks of a relationship, before she knew for certain that you were right for her! Moreover, she may have been vaguely aware of being tested and accepted just to confirm whether she was reading the situation properly. She may have known for sure that she was being tested, resented this fact, and accepted the overture with no guilty conscious for having “cheated” on a boyfriend that she no longer respects or trusts. She may have been ignorant of the plot and accepted the overture as a test of your male friend’s loyalty to you, only to be beaten to the punch with your friend reporting back to you before she had a chance to. Your male friend may have made a sad excuse for an overture and your girlfriend accepted just to help him save face in front of other people, but would have turned him down gently as soon as they left the room. Your male friend may have secretly wanted to succeed, was rejected and lied to you out of spite. These are just a few possible angles that would need to be sorted for any kind of certain conclusion to be drawn. Yet, we cavalierly claim to know so much about other people by a cursory analysis of some behavior or other, often concluding exactly what is easiest and most comforting for us to conclude. When it comes to carefully orchestrating a test we are in even more danger of concluding what we want to conclude, or worst still, making our worst fears come true unnecessarily.