Human Behavior As A Fractal

How we behave is self-similar on many scales.

Just the other day, I had the opportunity to watch the movie, “Peppermint”, featuring Jennifer Garner. I was interested in the film because I had seen Garner in the television series Alias and I really enjoyed it. So this movie has a typical revenge plot where someone is wronged, then the victim spends years planning for and exacting revenge on everyone she thought had wronged her. I kind of knew what to expect, but I figured that Garner would have found a good script and cast.

The movie was underwhelming, but I decided to continue watching it for another reason. As the movie unfolded, I began to notice a sort of self-similar pattern that repeats in the movie in the culture I live in. Here is the movie plot according to the Internet Movie Database:

“Five years after her husband and daughter are killed in a senseless act of violence, a woman comes back from self-imposed exile to seek revenge against those responsible and the system that let them go free.”

To avenge the murder of her husband and her daughter, the protagonist Riley North, goes after members of the drug cartel who pulled the trigger. She also goes after the people working in the drug shop where they package the product. Then she goes after the judge who set the shooters free in order to save his own skin from the drug cartel. I think she did some more, too, but I can’t remember all of it. That is a lot of effort to avenge two deaths. I thought it was interesting that she did not pursue all the people who bought the drugs that made the drug trade possible.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw a self-similar, repeating pattern in the behavior of the characters in the movie. Fractals are like that. Fractals are self-similar patterns of information. Below, you can see an example of a fractal that I created years ago. With a computer program like Fractal Explorer, we can run an algorithm to color each pixel in the frame. We can use the computer to “zoom in” to any area on the image to find that those patterns repeat down to the limits of the resolution of the program at work.

I see human behavior in this way. Our behavior is self-similar and repeats itself on many scales. This is one reason why I talk about human behavior on an individual scale. I’m planting seeds of peace and self-actualization in the hopes that as more people see that they only need to change themselves, their changes will be reflected by everyone else. These changes are effected on many scales of our culture, some discrete, some not so discrete.

Could Riley North have made other choices? Yes, but that might not sell movie tickets. Peppermint has grossed $53 million worldwide, more than double the estimated budget of $25 million. Violence and revenge sell.

So here we have a woman who could not get justice for the death of her husband and daughter. The police failed her. The courts failed her. Life failed her except for that part where she is still filtering air and water.

The implication of the movie is that by murdering or injuring something like 30 “evil” people associated with the murder of two innocent people, justice is served. After a rout like that, the drug cartels will change their behavior, right? Riley North’s retribution is supposed to be a just dessert for the drug lords in the movie. Punishment will modify the behavior of others, regardless of the skills or capacity of the recipients to respond.

The movie, like the culture it reflects, makes the drug dealer evil without noticing the demand for the product sold by the drug dealer. The demand for drugs is generated by people who choose to medicate themselves with drugs because they cannot accept themselves the way they are and they don’t believe they can change their lives. So they get high. Where do people get the idea that they need relief from drugs just to feel better?

They get that idea from a child-rearing process called, behavior modification. Behavior modification is a polite word for abuse. When unwanted behavior arises in children, parents will turn to behavior modification to modify the behavior of their kids. They deploy a wide range of punishments to deter unwanted behavior, often without paying any mind to the skills or capacities that their kids might have. Historically, parents have delivered punishment that has ranged from a denial of attention to loss of privileges and property, all the way up to death.

On the flip side, parents will entice their kids with a wide range of rewards to encourage desirable behavior. $5 for every A. An ice cream for good behavior. A new toy for good behavior. Lots of attention for good behavior. All of these rewards have been bestowed upon kids without regard to the skills or capacities that kids might have to meet the standards of behavior required to “deserve” the reward.

Behavior modification continues through adulthood, often without us even knowing it. We lose our job due to poor performance and we lose income. We get a job and we have income. We reward ourselves for achievement. We treat ourselves to a new dress, a new video game console, a new car, or a vacation. We may even celebrate an event with alcohol, a joint, or sex. We frame these things as a reward for our achievements, regardless of the luck or skill involved, or unacknowledged assistance we’ve received.

After a steady diet of punishment and reward, we may even feel deserving of punishment or entitled to reward. When we fail, we criticize ourselves and deprive ourselves of what we need. When we succeed, we reward ourselves by going to Disneyland, splurging on something we wanted, and we may even self-medicate as if the joy of success wasn’t enough.

Unfortunately, none of these things we feel entitled to actually make us happy. We could get everything we want and still make a choice not to be happy. Even if we punish someone for unwanted behavior, there is no guarantee of happiness. Giving someone a reward for good behavior is still no guarantee that good behavior will continue.

As I watched that movie, I could see a chain of behavior. People who were abused as kids are more prone to drug abuse — it’s not a hard and fast rule, but the connection is very much in evidence. People who use drugs create a demand for drugs, and someone within or without the law will step up to meet that demand. Drug dealers feel entitled to the rewards of the business of dealing drugs, high-profit margins with low efforts. When their business is interrupted, they feel entitled to retribution against the people who interrupt their business, and their retribution is swift, with little to no introspection about alternative courses of action. That retribution is painful, and the people involved or adversely affected, may themselves turn to drugs for relief.

Set in this culture, I can see why people might enjoy the movie Peppermint. The violence, the suspense, the anticipation of the violence, all give rise to strong emotions, and that’s often why we see a movie. It’s pure fantasy. We watch movies to alter our moods, to forget our own lives, to take a break from it all. I have done that in movie theaters myself. With the pandemic, my little cubby hole in my basement has become my theater.

I understand the entertainment that movies provide, but I also think it’s important to note the ideas that are reinforced in the entertainment we watch. Peppermint reinforces the idea that punishment and reward will change behavior. The movie objectifies the villains in the movie, having almost no regard for the people who were manufacturing and dealing drugs. It’s not until nearly the end of the movie that we see the drug kingpin moving to get his daughter to safety. In this movie, as in our culture, there is very little narrative about the humanity of the antagonists. Evil is assumed to come from nowhere as if people are just magically motivated to engage in anything we might call sin.

In humans, the behavior is self-similar because we learn by imitation. We see someone smile, we smile. We see someone exercise, we exercise. We see someone walk, we learn to walk, and so on. Behavior is passed on and learned this way, all over our culture. This is why I avoid talking about behavior I don’t want others to do. Instead, I do what I want them to do. Imitation isn’t just the most sincere form of flattery, it is humanity, repeated, and reflected on every scale.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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