T came home one day, very pleased with herself. She had attended one of those day-long seminars that sweep through organizations, both private and public, at regular intervals in order to leach some of the spare cash out of the system. She was particularly chuffed about a game they had played. In the exercise, members of a team collectively negotiated a response to a situation of some kind, and then individually passed on their response. No one in the team knew the individual decisions until they had all been made. The catch was that the points garnered to each member of the team varied with the number who chose a particular response. If all members chose response A, each received, say 40 points. If, however, one person chose response B, while everyone else chose A, that person gained 100 points, while everyone else gained only 10. If everyone chose B, however, each person got only 5 points. As T explained it, the aim of the exercise was for individual members to maximise their points. It was more elaborate than that, with points schedules for every possible result, but you get the picture, I hope.

This may sound very trite, but I had never encountered it before, and neither had T. She immediately realized that by convincing everyone else to do the right thing by the group, then betraying them, she could score heavily. This she did. That, you might think, was the end of the co-operation.

Ok, ok. It was a momentary lapse of reason. I’m sorry. But the logic of the game is still with Response A. Second round, same result. 200 points to T, everybody else, 20. So I’m ahead. But let’s get serious now. There’s no point everyone going for B, because the result is even worse. Only by sticking together can any of you expect to get any worthwhile points now. As I recall the story, only one of the victims broke ranks on the third round, which still left the two of them with a handsome advantage. I was, as usual, awe-struck by T’s skill in this kind of manipulation. This was the least of the examples I had seen, and a click of the fingers compared to the ones of which I was then unaware.

Some while later, I found myself in a time management seminar, playing the same game with a team of people from my company, none of whom I had worked with before. Having been wised up by T, I played her game, with some success. People are very trusting, fortunately for the world we live in. It was only at the end of the game that I realized what I had done. No-one who had played that game with me would trust me in future. I had given them a disturbing glimpse of my character. Gallingly though, it wasn’t my character. I wouldn’t dream of behaving that way in any actual situation; had I not been presented with the successful strategy by T, it would not have occurred to me to play in such a way, irrespective of the way the aim of the game was presented. I had only myself to blame, of course, in my lack of perception and discrimination.

It was an example of the power of bad company. Like the most impressionable school-kid, I accepted uncritically the self-assessment, and self-aggrandisement, of someone who loomed large on my horizon. Mimicry, the engine of our linguistic habits, drives so much else that is occurring below the radar in the formation of our attitudes and and patterns of behaviour. Here’s an example of a different order.

On the way to lunch at The Three Monkeys so time ago, I selected, more or less at random, a bottle of Mojo 2004 shiraz. It was a wonderful drop. It was the sort of wine that you take a first sip of in the middle of an animated conversation, which you are then obliged to interrupt to exclaim, What a beautiful wine; take another few mouthfuls, and have everyone around the table agree. There’s no better review. The next year’s, which was the only vintage we were able to get subsequently, was not a bad wine, but nowhere near as good.

Last Friday I went with Peter to 1st Choice at Oxley to get something for Friday night. Amongst the shiraz I found the 2005 Mojo, alongside the 2005 Rockbare and a third from the same winery. It featured a pink foil, and the Rockbare label background motif of thin vertical bars, but in pale pink on white, and it rejoiced in the name Barossa Babe. It even featured a Barossa babe in pink. It’s an unusual way to present a wine, but it was a 2003, and the same price as the Mojo, $16.99. When we got the the checkout with our assorted glassware, the price was $37.99. Oh no, it’s not that much. How much? $16 something. So we went to the rack, she popped out the ticket, took it back to the register and called the manager.

I’ve worked in a bottle shop, and have sold booze to customers at the (incorrect) marked price, so I knew the routine. Peter didn’t. In those circumstances, he said, he would be inclined to refuse the bottle at the incorrect price, and get something else. That opinion troubled me a bit, then, but I overcame those qualms. Later that night, I was talking about visiting other 1st Choice bottle shops, looking for Barossa Babe with the wrong price tag. Just to get one, mind you, not a half a dozen. Then they’d pull the price tag. Oh, so you’d be doing them a favour? Precisely. He can be so unbearably superior.

At any rate, sometime the next day I rang Owen and asked him to nip up to his local and buy a couple if they were there at the lower price. They were not in stock. By this time, I have to say, I felt relieved that they weren’t. Next time I saw Peter, he told me BB was correctly priced at Toowong. I was so glad he had checked. Nonetheless, I was feeling a sting of shame.

Funny stuff, shame. Funny as in strange, elusive, allusive, mysterious. It is potent state of mind. It is an emotion in that it has immediate and ongoing physical manifestation, but it is more importantly the interaction between an idea and a perception; the idea of the way the self should be, and the perception of the way the self is; the ideal and the actual.

We can argue for a long time about the source of this idea or set of ideas – this model of how we should be. What’s most interesting, though, is the power of an idea, and the fact that the idea can lie dormant, to be aroused to its full power by a word heard or behaviour observed, either by its contrast or its felicity to that idea. When it does arise, the self-perceptions by which it has been lulled to sleep have as much chance of maintaining their coherence as a newspaper in a gale.

In case you think I know something about wine, I’ll tell you the rest of the Barossa Babe story. We bought another couple of bottles of wine that night, and Peter wanted to try something a little more spiritual as well. We settled on a bottle of Pernod, after skirting around a Czech absinthe, made according to the original wormwood recipe. Neither of us had ever tasted Pernod, so when we got home a round was poured. Jen couldn’t stand it, and didn’t finish her glass. I wasn’t any more impressed, but persevered, and found that fresh orange juice disguised the taste enough for me to drink it. Peter quite liked it., and finished Jen’s glass.

With dinner we opened the Babe. Funny if it’s corked, Peter said after sniffing the cork. I thought he was joking. When we started to drink it, Jen loved it, but I was a bit put off. After a while, I complained. Peter had the same problem, which was what motivated the comment about the cork. So after I finished the glass, we opened another wine we had bought. Same problem! The penny should have dropped, but didn’t. Jen quietly continued to drink the Babe, thinking What’s wrong with me. I like it.

It wasn’t until I poured myself some coke and got a sniff of that that I realised. The coke smelled off in the same way. It was all down to the Pernod, which had colonised my palate, and Peter’s. So much for our bargain bottle. At least Jen enjoyed it, but I have still to taste it.

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