Great Ideas: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

When I was a teenager, I came across this Bible passage, from Matthew 12: 31-32, in which the writer puts the following words into Jesus’ mouth: “And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” I read that, and immediately, a thought popped into consciousness. Not a question about what this strange-sounding statement might have meant to first-century hearers. Not curiosity about the audience to which it was being addressed, and for what reason. Definitely not doubt that this was something the historical Jesus might ever have said. But this: words blaspheming the Holy Spirit! Big, horrible, nasty, four letter words! That’s what popped into consciousness, and I was appalled by how my own mind had seemingly betrayed me…. Words, popping out from underneath the furniture of the known parts of my mind like speedy cockroaches. Something like this has never failed to happen, since then, when I have found myself standing near a cliff, or on a rooftop, or on a high balcony-unwanted, anxiety-provoking words popping into consciousness, saying, “Jump. Jump” Know what I am talking about?

It’s just one way of illustrating how there are different parts to our selves-as if the self were like a thrown-together committee-and sometimes the committee members conflict, sometimes smart people find themselves embroiled in stupid anxieties, or doing stupid things. Here’s another example of this, and while it comes from a psychology experiment conducted in the 1970s, it speaks to any age and situation, really, in which people are challenged to delay gratification and deal with frustration in the now in order to secure a greater good in the future. Four-year-olds, ushered one-at-a-time into a room by a kind experimenter who gives them toys to play with for a while. Then the experimenter brings out marshmallows-sets a plate down right in front of the child, holding one marshmallow, and then, some distance away, sets down another plate, this one holding TWO marshmallows. The experimenter checks to make sure that the child likes marshmallows, and then he asks, “Would you like the plate in front of you, with the single marshmallow, or would you like that plate over there, with TWO marshmallows?” That plate over there, of course. Then the experimenter says, “Great. But now I have to go out of the room for a little while. If you can wait for me until I come back, you can have the two marshmallows. If you can’t wait, then just ring this bell, and I’ll come back and give you the single marshmallow in front of you. But if you do that, you can’t have the two.” The child nods yes (he understands), the experimenter leaves, the child stares at the two marshmallows across the room, he stares at the one marshmallow right in front of him, he starts to salivate, he feels desire suffocating him, he looks again at the two marshmallows, he tries to fight temptation, he can only hold out so long, he’s only four years old. He rings the bell. Now, in your mind’s eye, substitute Wall Street for the room containing toys, substitute the securities that tanked and have been a big part of the financial mess we are in for the plate holding one marshmallow, and substitute far more reliable, sustainable sources of wealth for the plate holding two marshmallows. Wall Street financiers-so-called “Masters of the Universe”-unable to resist greed, investing in financial instruments so complex that not even the traders understood them, but that’s OK to them because, in the short run, the payoff was big. Congress in cahoots, unwilling to press for tighter regulation. Smart people doing really, really stupid things.

One more example to consider. This one comes from another psychology experiment, but this one is focused on the phenomenon of “learned helplessness.” The experimenter, Martin Seligman, worked with dogs in two phases. In the first phase, Seligman established in the dogs a sense of whether or not they could act on their behalf to escape unpleasant circumstances. For one group, things were set up so that they learned that they could act to stop the electric shocks they were receiving. For the other group, things were set up differently: these dogs learned that nothing they did would cause the shocks to stop. They learned to be helpless. At this point, the experiment moved on to phase two. In this phase, the set up was a cage divided by a low wall. On one side of the wall, the floor was electrified; but on the other side of the wall, the floor was normal. Here’s what happened in this phase. The dogs that had learned earlier that they could help themselves quickly figured out that the thing to do was jump over the wall. As for the other group of dogs: they just sat down on the electrified side of the wall. Didn’t even try to figure out how to escape. Didn’t believe that was even possible anyway-the sense of helplessness persisted-even though, in reality, their actions would have mattered. How many of you resonate with this? You sympathize with the dogs who learned helplessness. You read the self-help books that tell you YES YOU CAN, you listen to the Senior Minister preach about YES YOU CAN, you watch the great and powerful Oprah on TV proclaim YES YOU CAN, and perhaps for a time you can feel it, you believe it, but it fades, you find yourself back to NO I CAN’T-even when there’s a part of your mind that understands quite clearly that it is irrational to conclude something about all present and future circumstances on the basis of just some selective past experiences of helplessness.  It’s irrational to do that. Illogical. And yet, smart people find themselves saying NO I CAN’T anyway.

Smart people, stupid things. Our selves-the thrown-together committee-divided. Unwanted thoughts popping into consciousness like cockroaches; doing what is unhelpful or downright wrong even as we want to do what is right; persisting in feelings of helplessness even though we know it doesn’t have to be that way. Being our own worst enemies. No peace in the home, or between neighbors, or in the cities, or in the nations, or in the world-because it’s not in the heart. It’s not in the heart, but we long for it to be in the heart, we long to achieve genuine happiness so that, like ripples in a pond, happiness can expand outwards into everything.

That’s what I want to tackle this year, in the context of a once-a-month sermon series, based on the wonderful book by psychologist Jonathan Haidt called The Happiness Hypothesis: Achieving a vision of happiness that is sustainable and does justice to what one wise person calls the “triple-bottom line”:

(1) people living near and far and yet to be born,

(2) our planetary ecology, and

(3) profit/economics/how we make a living.

Doing justice to all three in a balanced way. Progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner echoes this when he talks about a “a New Bottom Line”-when he says that “every institution should be judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring for others, generosity and kindness, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.” This is what Rabbi Michael Lerner says, and right here is the recipe for reclaiming the American Dream and creating lifestyles which are more sane and more sustainable.

For now, though, the place to start is with Chapter 1 in the Jonathan Haidt book, where he begins to probe the problem of unhappiness. He quotes from the ancient Roman writer Ovid, who says, “I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.” This is our particular focus today. Unhappiness. The divided self.

The classic Western formulation of this problem has already been suggested. Ovid talks about reason versus desire. St. Paul in the Christian tradition talks about the warfare between the Spirit and the Flesh. To use the language of contemporary psychology, it’s controlled processes of the mind versus automatic processes. Controlled processes represent the kind of thinking that requires concentration and effort, needs language as its vehicle, proceeds step-by-step, plays out at the center of conscious awareness. Such a capacity is new to us, relative to automatic processes which, for their part, reflect millions and millions of years of accumulated evolutionary wisdom. Unlike controlled processes, automatic processes are what go on in our minds without the need for conscious attention and control, without need for language. They can run in parallel and take care of many different things at once. What they contribute are gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, intuitions. If automatic processes are like the powerful elephant, then controlled processes are like the precise rider. Very different kinds of intelligences-and in all three of the examples I mentioned earlier, the conflict between them is clear. Scary thoughts popping into awareness, and because they are scary, because they cause us anxiety, our attention grabs hold of them and won’t let go even as we want to banish them forever. Greed for here-and-now profit and pleasure even though greater profit and higher-order pleasure is possible for those who can delay gratification and work for the longer-term good. Feelings of helplessness (anxiety, sadness, anger) overwhelming the voice of reason that says, the moment before you is very likely different from the moment behind you. In the future, right now, you can make a difference, even if, in the past, your hands were tied… The elephant out of control, and the rider hanging on for dear life….

This is the classic Western formulation of the problem, suggesting the classic Western solution: to emphasize reason and Spirit over desire and Flesh. The rider to conquer the elephant. Not to wave a white flag, not to surrender, but to win….

One version of this message comes from some people who draw on the findings of evolutionary biology as it traces the development of our human brains: from the mere clumps of neurons of our vertebrate ancestors of millions and millions of years ago, to our brains of today, complex and many-structured. In this long evolutionary process, one moment stands out, around the time of the death of the dinosaurs, when, in the more social animals, particularly the primates, a new layer of brain tissue developed that would enable our ancestors to make creative associations among ideas; to rise above the immediate situation and see it from a larger perspective; to suppress or inhibit immediate reaction and replace it with a more considered response; to think about consequences; to reason. I’m talking about the neocortex, which is Latin for “new covering”-so very different from the older centers of the brain which, if they are directly stimulated, bring about gluttonous, hypersexual, ferocious behaviors. Experimenters have seen this in rats, cats, and other mammals, and presumably this is what would happen to us as well. Something we HAVE seen in humans is what happens when the “new covering” is damaged or impaired, as in cases of brain tumors. Here again, the gluttonous, hypersexual, ferocious behaviors, emerging. Without the “new covering” of the neocortex, we would not be truly human. And here is where some people draw the conclusion that the solution to the problem of the divided self is to win the war of reason against emotion and desire. They see the brain’s evolution over time as telling a story about the emergence of that which gives us our humanity. Reason steps forward and leaves emotion behind. Reason is the Holy Grail of countless years of evolution, and so … let there be more reason. Whatever is best goes in this direction. Win the war.

Yet there is more to the story. Listen to how Jonathan Haidt describes this: “There is, however, a flaw in the … script. It assumes that reason was installed in the frontal cortex but that emotion stayed behind…. In fact, the frontal cortex enabled a great expansion of emotionality in humans. The lower third of the prefrontal cortex is called the orbitofrontal cortex because it is the part of the brain just above the eyes…. This region of the cortex has grown especially large in humans and other primate and is one of the most consistently active areas of the brain during emotional reactions. […] When you feel yourself drawn to a meal, a landscape, or an attractive person, or repelled by a dead animal, a bad song, or a blind date, your orbitofrontal cortex is working hard to give you an emotional feeling of wanting to approach or to get away.” What Jonathan Haidt is saying here, in other words, is: take a closer look at ALL the data. Don’t just look at some of it, and then pronounce final conclusions. Take a closer look at ALL the data, and what you see is that the emergence of the “new covering” didn’t just enable a new reach of reason, but also a new reach of emotion. It benefited both the elephant and the rider-made them BOTH smarter. In other words, the war of reason against desire and emotion is a war that cannot possibly be won. Reason and emotion operate in the very same brain centers, so for one to conquer the other is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Smart people doing more stupid stuff!

Perhaps nothing proves the point better than to cite cases where people’s orbitofrontal cortex has been damaged-through a stroke, or a tumor, or a blow to the head-and they lose their emotional lives. When they ought to feel emotion, they feel nothing. Reason and logic remain intact; they perform normally on IQ tests; they continue to be aware of and understand social rules and moral principles. But what happens when they go out into the world? Again, listen to Jonathan Haight describing this: “Now that they are free of the distractions of emotion, do they become hyperlogical, able to see through the haze of feelings that blinds the rest of us to the path of perfect rationality? Just the opposite. They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or to set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out upon the world and think, ‘What should I do now?’ They see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings if like or dislike.” This is what Jonathan Haidt says. “It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all.” If we go back to the rider and elephant metaphor here, what’s happened is that the elephant has gone away-there’s nothing to carry the rider any longer. He’s dead in the water. In short: take a look at ALL the data, and the story that emerges can’t possibly be one of reason versus emotion. We just can’t win that war. It’s Vietnam. It’s Iraq. Can’t win it.

But what we can do-the solution to the problem of the divided self that we can work towards-is in building emotional intelligence. We are going to be exploring this for the rest of the year, but here’s a start on thinking about some ways in which the rider can learn to respect the elephant and work with it more effectively. It’s key to a better future. Key to figuring out the New Bottom Line that Rabbi Michael Lerner talks about. Key to liberal religion like ours in particular, since for too long, our movement has been suspicious towards the elephant, at times wanting to recast religion and the religious life as a hyperlogical sort of thing, presuming that only when you become free of emotion, spiritual sanity and truth will come-but it won’t come. The religious rider without the elephant to ride upon is dead in the water…. Liberal religious life must balance reason and emotion. It must find a way, else it won’t be sustainable into the future….

We need to build emotional intelligence. So: Go back to one of the illustrations I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. The one about the four years olds and the marshmallows-how they were challenged to delay gratification and deal with frustration. Using some of the language I’ve developed since sharing this story, we can say that the children were being tested to see how they could navigate the conflict between their controlled processes and automatic processes-between the rational rider that prefers the two marshmallows, and the elephant that wants the one marshmallow immediately. What researchers saw in the children who were able to delay gratification the longest was this: they looked away from the source of the temptation. They thought about other pleasant things. They knew, at some level, that they weren’t going to be able to wear down the elephant, groaning as it was for a taste of the single marshmallow NOW. How can the small rider block the full-on charge of an elephant? So what they did instead was nudge it. They stopped looking. They thought about something else. They might have even imagined that the marshmallow was yucky, something nasty. Now, that’s going to delay the elephant. That works. That’s emotional intelligence. I should also add that, years later, the experimenter caught up with the children he had worked with, and he discovered a clear correlation between an ability to delay gratification and performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, as well as the likelihood of being admitted to top universities. Now that’s not stupid. That’s smart.

As for the illustration about learned helplessness. The dogs, lying down on the electrified section of their cage, not believing they can do anything to make things better, even though all they need to do is simply jump the low wall separating the side of the cage they’re on with the other side. And again, I am really identifying with these dogs this morning. So much hurt in the world, and it can all feel so overwhelming, and compassion fatigue sets in, and everything feels hopeless, and you don’t know how or where to even begin. What’s a smart way to address this? Perhaps what Martin Seligman did to help the dogs unlearn their helplessness will be instructive for us. Here’s what he did. He had to drag each helpless pooch over the wall that divided the electrified side of the cage from the one that was not. Unless and until he could give back to them at least a small concrete sense of change-even if they had to be dragged to it-the dogs were not going to stop feeling helpless. The dogs had to be helped to reclaim and rediscover the sense that they had some control over the situation. No amount of mere talking can do this for them, or for us. When we are feeling stuck in a deep conviction of our own powerlessness-when the elephant within us is depressed and won’t rouse at the sound of the rider’s voice-the best thing that we can do is something small. Even to admit one’s powerlessness-as people in 12 step programs do-is a clear win, a taste of reclaiming sanity. As individuals, we may not be able to act directly to change the state of our economy. But we can find ways to be better savers and spenders of our own money, and that’s going to drag us over the wall. We may not be able to change the state of the world. But we can find ways to make a difference in our corner of the universe. We can smile at someone we’ve never met before, this morning, and share some friendship. That’s going to drag us over the wall, and you know what? It might amount to dragging them over the wall, too-might just be the thing they need, the nudge they need to get to the other side. That’s emotional intelligence. Not stupid, but smart.