Another Week Ends

1a. It’s been a big week for the social scientists among us. Two of our […]

Bryan J. / 7.17.20

1a. It’s been a big week for the social scientists among us. Two of our favorites, Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, had a hit article over at the Atlantic this week. We’ve been following the duo since 2011, when they published Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). The authors are experts in describing how self-justification is the default human mode, worth your time and attention. They’ve turned their insights on self-justification toward our COVID crisis this week, describing how self-justification and the need to be thought of as “right” are making our pandemic situation significantly more difficult:

The theory [of cognitive dissonance] inspired more than 3,000 experiments that have transformed psychologists’ understanding of how the human mind works. One of Aronson’s most famous experiments showed that people who had to go through an unpleasant, embarrassing process in order to be admitted to a discussion group (designed to consist of boring, pompous participants) later reported liking that group far better than those who were allowed to join after putting in little or no effort. Going through hell and high water to attain something that turns out to be boring, vexatious, or a waste of time creates dissonance: I’m smart, so how did I end up in this stupid group? To reduce that dissonance, participants unconsciously focused on whatever might be good or interesting about the group and blinded themselves to its prominent negatives. The people who did not work hard to get into the group could more easily see the truth — how boring it was. Because they had very little investment in joining, they had very little dissonance to reduce.

Today, as we confront the many unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic, all of us are facing desperately difficult decisions. When is it safe to get back to work? When can I reopen my business? When can I see friends and co-workers, start a new love affair, travel? What level of risk am I prepared to tolerate? The way we answer these questions has momentous implications for our health as individuals and for the health of our communities. Even more important, and far less obvious, is that because of the unconscious motivation to reduce dissonance, the way we answer these questions has repercussions for how we behave after making our initial decision. Will we be flexible, or will we keep reducing dissonance by insisting that our earliest decisions were right?

Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty, make the most informed decisions we can, and modify them when the scientific evidence dictates — as our leading researchers are already doing. Admitting we were wrong requires some self-reflection — which involves living with the dissonance for a while rather than jumping immediately to a self-justification.

In other words, the leap between “I am choosing to wear a mask” and “everyone not wearing a mask is a stain on society” is not just a natural leap, but an easier leap than one might imagine. I mean, wear a mask (please! everybody!) but also, recognize that the impulse to shame and belittle the maskless stranger at the grocery store or the masked stranger at the gas station is more about righteous feelings than public health concern. 

1b. This note on psychology was sent in to us via Twitter (if you see something on the web you think is worth our consideration, don’t hesitate to tweet at us!). It’s a sobering exploration from the American Institute for Economic Research on the psychology of pandemic fear. Jeffrey Tucker writes:

After 2005 when the Internet developed into a serious repository for human knowledge, and it became accessible via smartphones and near-universal access, I too was tempted by the idea that we would enter into a new age of enlightenment in which mass frenzies would be quickly stopped by dawning wisdom.

You can see evidence of my naïveté with my April 5, 2020 article: “With Knowledge Comes Calm, Rationality, and, Possibly, Openness.” My thought then was that the evidence of the extremely discriminatory impact of the virus on plus-70 people with underlying conditions would cause a sudden realization that this virus was behaving like a normal virus. We were not all going to die. We would use rationality and reopen. I recall writing that with a sense of confidence that the media would report the new study and the panic would end.

I was preposterously wrong, along with my four-month-old feeling that all of this stuff would stop on Monday. The psychiatrist I met in New York was correct: the drug of fear had already invaded the public mind. Once there, it takes a very long time to recover. This is made far worse by politics, which has only fed the beast of fear. This is the most politicized disease in history, and doing so has done nothing to help manage it and much to make it all vastly worse.

We’ve learned throughout this ordeal that despite our technology, our knowledge, our history of building prosperity and peace, we are no smarter than our ancestors and, by some measures, not as smart as our parents and grandparents. The experience with COVID has caused a mass reversion to the superstitions and panics that sporadically defined the human experience of ages past.

One of the great traumas of the pandemic is the weight of national waves of fear and anxiety, but we shouldn’t discount the grief that arises as we lose our “chronological snobbery,” as C. S. Lewis memorably put it. We may have ventilators and contact tracing smartphone apps, but that doesn’t mean we are psychologically or spiritually able to weather a pandemic any better than previous generations. It’s as sobering as it is scary.

1c. If the pandemic is not just assaulting the body, but also the psyche, Harvard professor and podcast host Arthur C. Brooks gives two thumbs up to St. John’s epistle. His observation: We are not just in a virus pandemic, but we are also in a fear pandemic. And what is the solution to fear?

One way of dealing with these fears is to strive to eliminate the threats that caused them. But while social and economic progress is important and possible, there will always be threats to face and things to fear. The way to combat fear within ourselves is with its opposite emotion — which is not calmness, or even courage. It’s love.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “Through Love, one has no fear.” More than 500 years later, Saint John the Apostle said the same thing: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” …

Our current fear problem is not due to a proliferation of threats. Despite all the troubles we face, as my Harvard colleague Steven Pinker has shown, the world of the 21st century is safer for the vast majority of us than the world of previous eras (current pandemic aside). The real issue is that we have too little love in our lives to protect us against our fears.

This is a very strong argument: Love neutralizes fear. It took about 2,000 years, but contemporary neurobiological evidence has revealed that Lao Tzu and Saint John were absolutely on the money.

Brooks has practical steps for us, by the way, and they all sound so darn familiar! Confession! Verbal expressions of love! Loving your enemies!

To sum it all up: We are self-justifying creatures flattened by cognitive dissonance, we are not psychologically or spiritually superior than our ancestors, and to survive a time marked by fear of our own imperfection and fear of our neighbor, we need unconditional love. That’s what the (social) science is telling us, anyway.

2. Hat tip to The Galli Report for this striking short film. Love is there even for those of us who make long-lasting mistakes. It’ll all make sense by the end!

3. The conversation has continued this week about the false promises of Instagram influencers, and this next find strikes me as a sobering alternative. In every celebrity and fan relationship, there’s a reciprocity that can go unacknowledged. A celebrity functions as an ideal of sorts, and the followers of an Internet celeb aren’t so much there for the person as they are the ideal. So whether it’s Martha Stewart spending time in jail for insider trading, Harrison Ford loathing his Star Wars admirers, or Rachel Hollis announcing her divorce, it’s not as if their followers are victims, per se, so much as they resent the evidence that their own ideal is unachievable.

Which is why I am struck at the latest offering from Amy Schumer, Expecting Amy, as told through the pen of pregnant-with-twins writer Sophie Gilbert in the Atlantic. Congratulations are in order to Schumer, who gave birth to her first son Gene back in May. Through her totally transparent and unflinching comedy style, Schumer and her husband took the time to document her pregnancy in-full, producing a comedy mini-series that doubles as an exercise in cinematic realism. Here’s Gilbert’s review:

“I don’t resent being pregnant,” Amy Schumer says in the first episode of Expecting Amy, her gorgeous, occasionally gross, and excruciatingly candid HBO Max miniseries documenting the months before she gave birth to her son, Gene. “I resent everyone who hasn’t been honest.” The process of making babies can be, it turns out, strikingly terrible. Not the making them making them part, although that can be terrible too — in my case, it involved several years, surgeries, hormone shots, and daily internal ultrasounds that made me bizarrely intimate with my fertility doctor. (I’m still a little aggrieved that this man got me pregnant and then totally stopped calling.) But the growing of them, the cultivation of things that go from tiny blobs on a screen to bigger blobs to wriggly aliens with oversize heads to things that start to look like actual babies and are strong enough to physically wind you. It is the strangest, most painful and stressful and joyful thing I’ve ever done. Expecting Amy captures it to an uncanny degree …

Still, the series is more than a portrait of a fiendishly complicated pregnancy. (Schumer suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition marked by severe, prolonged nausea that lasts well beyond the first trimester and in her case led to several hospitalizations for dehydration.) It documents how, while enduring sickness beyond anything she’d been prepared for, Schumer continued to work, embarking on a 60-show tour of 42 cities and putting together a Netflix special called Growing. … Expecting Amy relies on its subject’s total exposure. We see Schumer vomiting repeatedly; we sit in on her sonograms. (When the baby is the size of a pea, she quips, “You’re going to get bigger, and we don’t want you to be body-shamed. Eventually you’ll be the size of a lima bean, and that’s fine.”) The camera captures the suction pumps attached to her breasts postpartum, and even, for a second, reveals her internal reproductive organs while her baby is being born by Cesarean section.

Expecting Amy, in that sense, doesn’t just demystify pregnancy. It promises that pregnant people can do more than merely get through the day — that they can even continue to create and be enriched (as well as depleted) by what they’re going through. And — spoiler — it has a happy ending. “Everyone was saying it would be worth it,” Schumer says, after she gives birth and a simple surgery to repair her uterus turns into a three-hour ordeal. “But it’s like, I would have done so much more to meet him.”

Here, I think, is what so many in the influencer fandom claim to want: transparency, honesty, and an unfiltered(!) view into someone’s everyday life. It’s telling that Gilbert uses the word “excruciating” to describe the documentary, a word with its etymological roots in crucifixion, an unfiltered public display of suffering. Do the Amy Schumer fandom and the Instagram Influencer crowds overlap? I honestly don’t know. Regardless, the series sounds like it might appeal to the brave and vulnerable among us Mockingbirds.

4. At the intersection of race and grace, Richard Brody reviews A Time for Burning, the seminal 1966 documentary that follows Lutheran minister William Youngdahl working to bridge the gap between his white congregation and the local black community in Omaha, Nebraska. This part in particular, about the freedom to acknowledge one’s flaws, sounded very Lutheran and very familiar:

“A Time for Burning” also shows Youngdahl meeting with members of Omaha’s Black community. A group of churchgoing teens express their bewilderment that professing Christians can both harbor and defend racist attitudes. (One young man says that “a church isn’t a showplace for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners” — i.e., a place where racism should be confronted.) At a Black barbershop, a barber cutting a child’s hair speaks bluntly to Youngdahl of America’s history of racism and the country’s betrayal of its own principles … he predicts that Youngdahl will be fired from his ministry for the mere fact of wanting to listen to Black people. (Spoiler alert: he’s proved right.)

The film, by the way, was commissioned by the Lutheran Church in America, and nominated for an Academy Award. It’s free in the public domain now, and can be watched on Youtube. If one wants to create a hospital for sinners to be healed of their racist assumptions and unexplored prejudices, one can do much worse than a church smitten by the gospel of grace.

5. My favorite laugh of the week was from the Onion: “Woman Who Doesn’t Use Facebook Completely Out Of Touch With Friends’ Prejudices”:

Admitting that her lack of a Facebook account often leaves her feeling disconnected, local woman Laura Starling confirmed Wednesday that she’s entirely out of touch with her friends’ prejudices. “I never got around to joining Facebook, so I’m basically in the dark about what kind of narrow-minded opinions my old classmates and former coworkers have these days,” said Starling, who added that, because she never logs into the popular social media site, it has grown increasingly difficult in recent years to keep up with her longtime acquaintances’ heated knee-jerk responses to events in the world that reveal their intolerant viewpoints and irrational biases.

You’ll also get a chuckle out of Goals! This Woman’s Screen Time is Way Down Ever Since She Fell Into a Manhole and Couple perfectly matched unless they’re driving, cooking, eating or choosing what to watch. Also, Youtube comedienne Julie Nolke has been nailing the pandemic humor lately.  For reference, here is Part 1, and Part 2 is just as funny:

6. Mockingbird favorite Oliver Burkeman brings his trademark wisdom to the Guardian with a reflection on habit formation:

The only way positive habits and routines really do come about, in my experience, is like this: you try every trick in the book, attempting to force change, before giving up in frustration. Then, once there’s no longer a drill sergeant barking commands inside your mind, you hear the quieter voice suggesting that it might feel good, just for today, to do the right thing. And not to do it “every day at 8am,” or “every day for the rest of your life,” but just today. Then, if you’re lucky, you do it the next day, too. And if you’re really lucky, you suddenly realise, three weeks later, that you’ve been doing it pretty much every day. The habit has stuck. But not through “habit change.” All you did — to borrow a piece of advice with roots in Alcoholics Anonymous, which might benefit us all — was to “do the next right thing.”

Spoiler: the quieter voice is not always your own.

7. Our friends at 1517 re-upped a timeless Capon quote, one we’ll leave you with for the weekend ahead.

Bookkeeping is the only punishable offense in the kingdom of heaven. For in that happy state, the books are ignored forever, and there is only the Book of life. And in that book, nothing stands against you. There are no debit entries that can keep you out of the clutches of the Love that will not let you go. There is no minimum balance below which the grace that finagles all accounts will cancel your credit. And there is, of course, no need for you to show large amounts of black ink, because the only Auditor before whom you must finally stand is the Lamb — and he has gone deaf, dumb, and blind on the cross. The last may be first and the first last, but that’s only for the fun of making the point: everybody is on the payout queue and everybody gets full pay. Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in; the only bruised backsides belong to those who insist on putting themselves into outer darkness.

And therefore the only adverse judgment that falls on the world falls on those who take their stand on a life God cannot use rather than on the death he can. Only the winners lose, because only the losers can win: the reconciliation simply cannot work any other way. Evil cannot be gotten out of the world by reward and punishment: that just points up the shortage of sheep and turns God into one more score-evening goat. The only way to solve the problem of evil is for God to do what in fact he did: to take it out of the world by taking it into himself — down into the forgettery of Jesus’ dead human mind — and to close the books on it forever. That way, the kingdom of heaven is for everybody; hell is reserved only for the idiots who insist on keeping nonexistent records in their heads.


  • DZ shares a bit of his spiritual past with The Soul of Christianity podcast this week. He’s got skin in the game, folks!
  • A few weeks back, the New Yorker published an article on Flannery O’Connor and racism, articulating that we should explore and reckon with her problematic private correspondence on matters of race. Over at First Things, Jessica Hooton Wilson’s rejoinder lays out the answer. “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”
  • Mbird friend and contributor Brad Gray reviews Seculosity.
  • FYI: Scientists have finally calculated how many hot dogs a person can eat at once
  • Photos this week from Syndmar Lodge Care Home, a nursing home in England recreating iconic album covers to pass time during their quarantine.


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