Blog: Hidden in the Headlines
We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. But does one right cancel out one wrong?
There’s a good chance you believe that it does. Research suggests that our brains are wired to think of a good deed as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card.
Psychologists call it licensing. It works like this:
You come home from a hard workout at the gym and immediately sit down to a double-helping of ice cream with chocolate syrup and whipped cream. The virtuous behavior of exercising makes you feel better about yourself, which then gives you license to indulge the less virtuous behavior of overdosing on sugar. The responsible act of taking care of yourself makes it easier to rationalize letting yourself go.
But Aaron Garvey and Lisa Bolton of the University of Kentucky have discovered that it goes even further than that.
WE ARE WHAT WE THINK
In their research, they took two groups of volunteers and gave them cookies to eat. The cookies were identical for each group, but in one group they were labeled “healthy.” After finishing their cookies, the subjects were given candy.
As the psychology of licensing would suggest, subjects who had eaten the “healthy” cookies ate more candy than the other group. But not for the reason we might have thought.
Garvey and Bolton measured not only the amount of candy eaten but also the amount of pleasure experienced from the candy. They found that the candy actually tasted better to the people who believed they had eaten healthy cookies.
Professor Garvey identified two implications from his research. First, if we do something virtuous before indulging in pleasure, we can actually make the experience of pleasure more pleasurable.
Second, if we reframe our attitude toward responsibilties and acts of virtue by thinking of them as commitments that we want to do rather than obligations that we have to do, we can make vices less attractive and protect ourselves from the damaging fallout of licensing.
THE MOST ENDURING PLEASURE
These two implications teach us an electrifying lesson in human free will. Through disciplined thinking, I can choose whether to make my self-indulgence more or less pleasurable. And that discipline takes the form of how motivated I am to choose virtue over vice.
In other words, do I want to trick my brain into getting more pleasure from healthy acts or from unhealthy acts? And if getting more psychological pleasure from virtue means that I’ll become less interested in the physical pleasure of vice, why would I ever want to choose vice over virtue?
We know from experience that physical pleasure is nothing more than psychological junk food. Enjoyments of the flesh feel good in the heat of the moment, but they leave a pleasure vacuum the instant they’re over. In contrast, emotional pleasures linger, and profound emotional satisfaction endures long after the source of pleasure has passed.
Most of all, the warm feelings we can get from family, community, and the sense of contribution to a higher purpose stay with us constantly. The less we distract ourselves with empty physical gratification, the more intense and continuous those emotional pleasures become.
King Solomon says, One who loves pleasure will be a man of want, and one who loves wine and oil will never become rich.
In a society that has increasingly debased the nobility of human emotion, people say that they love their cars, they love to sleep, they love to go to the beach, they love steak and wine. But if these are the objects of our love, what emotion is left for us to feel for our husbands and our wives, for our parents and our children, for the sources of inspiration that beckon us to moderate our lust and pursue loftier, more satisfying ideals?
The comics page can give us a chuckle, but it doesn’t enrich our minds like a good story. A jingle on the radio might get stuck in our head, but it doesn’t move the heart like a symphony. A passing flirtation may set us briefly a-tingle, but it is a sorry substitute for a lifetime of commitment.
Anything worthwhile requires investment and effort. Life is too short to squander it on fleeting pleasures when there is so much real joy for us to find.
Who doesn’t like a good story?
After spending my prodigal youth hitchhiking cross country and circling the globe, living abroad for a decade, and teaching high school for over 20 years, I have a few stories to tell.
But it still happens that friends and neighbors occasionally respond to my recollections by asking: “Did that really happen?”
Are my tales so truly unbelievable? I never claimed to have helped Edison invent the light bulb or to have masterminded the Normandy invasion.
I’ve merely looked for the story within the story, plucking insights from slightly quirky encounters and offering a bit wisdom from my observations on the human condition.
“I loved your article,” someone will say. And then, predictably: “Did that really happen?”
I even get it from my mother.
To be honest, it should come as no surprise. After all, honesty has seen its market value tumble over the years with countless reports of plagiarism, factual carelessness, and blatant fabrication.
But as troubling as such prevarication may be from the media, it’s far more disheartening when it becomes the norm among our political leaders.
The sad truth is that we expect our politicians to lie. But the brazenness with which they conjure up easily verifiable falsehoods grows ever more astonishing.
Once integrity disappears, the only motive not to lie is fear of not getting away with it — and in a society that has grown indifferent to lying, there are rarely consequences for even the most brazen lies.
And that has consequences for all of us.
But there is something we can do.
What can we learn from ravens? Everything we need to know.
If you’re fed up with the politics of tweeting, maybe it’s time to trade in your Twitterfeed for raven song.
New research shows that corvids — a variety of raven — are more adept than chimpanzees at solving puzzles, recognizing symbols, using tools, and preparing for the future. Most significantly, corvids are able to delay gratification, forgoing immediate pleasure now for bigger rewards later.
If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. The now-famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment that began in the 1960s demonstrated that higher levels of self-control in nursery-school-age children foretell a lifetime of dramatically greater success in academic achievement, professional success, and psychological well-being.
So we should be asking ourselves: if ravens can learn from experience and plan for their future, why aren’t humans doing a better job of it?
LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW
Massive deficits to fund blossoming entitlement programs might feel good now, but what’s going to happen when the birds come home to roost and the bills come due? Partisan posturing and government gridlock might provide talking points for the next campaign cycle, but how does it serve the national interest to point fingers instead of finding solutions for our problems? Watered-down and politically-correct school curricula may buoy self-esteem and promote social agendas, but what will happen to the next generation when they have to compete in a world that won’t cater to their feelings?
As the culture of short-sightedness grows ever more entrenched, it becomes more urgent for us to start changing our thinking now. As Robert Redford quips to his secretary in Spy Game: “When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain, before the rain.”
Speaking of Noah and the ark… perhaps we can find a new lesson in that very old story.
After the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, Noah released the raven, and then released the dove. However, a careful reading of the verses reveals something curious: where Noah sent forth the dove to see if the waters had abated, scripture gives no reason at all for why he sent out the raven.
What’s more, although Noah waited seven days to send out the dove the second time, there is no indication that he waited to send out the dove the first time after he sent out the raven. And whereas the dove returned to Noah because it found no place to rest its foot, the raven continued circling the ark until the earth became dry.
FAR AS HUMAN EYE CAN SEE
The classical commentaries offer a variety of explanations to resolve these contradictions. But let’s engage in a bit of creative interpretation for the sake of political allegory.
What if Noah had a different reason for sending forth the raven? What if he recognized that the raven possessed a more profound faculty of insight, not merely to report on the present status of the earth but to extrapolate beyond the superficial conditions of the moment? Might the raven symbolize mankind’s obligation to project its inner eye forward? Might the moral of the story be that we must hold ourselves accountable so that we never again to sink to a level of corruption that brings about global devastation?
The sages of the Talmud teach that everything follows the beginning. If we start with the end in mind, then the road to success carries us where we want to go. But if we set off in pursuit of our own gratification, then we are likely to wander into oblivion.
The greatest accomplishments of human history were set in motion by visionaries who imagined futures no one else considered possible. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison rather than renouncing his convictions, eventually breaking the hold of apartheid on his country. Mohandas Gandhi devoted his life, and ultimately gave his life, for the ideal of human rights and non-violent revolution. The Framers of the Constitution envisioned a society of freedom and equality, risking their lives and their fortunes to bring democracy into the world.
Greatness requires vision and self-sacrifice, both of which are in short supply. But if we’re wise enough to learn from ravens, then we’ll soon find ourselves soaring like eagles.
Many years ago, when my eldest son was about six years old, I introduced him to Chutes and Ladders, the next board game up from Candyland on the sophistication scale. Nothing but luck, the game nevertheless contains an engaging element of the unpredictable, as any roll of the die can rocket you up a ladder to the top or send you plummeting down a slide to the bottom.
My son took to the game immediately, and we bonded while moving our respective pieces up and down the board. And then, with fatherly foresight, I waited for the moment of supreme joy and excitement as my son counted his piece onto the 100 mark at the top of the playing grid.
“You won!” I cried out, expecting him to respond with elation.
Instead, my son looked at the board, looked at me, and burst into tears.
“What’s wrong?” I exclaimed, genuinely flummoxed.
“I don’t want the game to be over!” he bawled.
Oh, if only they could stay six years old forever.
It’s worth examining what happens as we grow older that makes us lose the joy of the game in our headlong pursuit of victory. Maybe it’s that we’re not paying attention. Maybe it’s that we’re paying too much attention.
Or maybe it’s both.