Guest columnist Jonathan Kahane: An answer to everything

Published: 2/3/2021 12:13:23 PM

There are so many things that I just don’t understand — and never will. That conclusion flies in the face of my spending 23 years of my life in academe as a student and an additional 40 years teaching and conducting research in psychology at a local college.

If it had all been left up to me, I would probably still be wandering around the Bronx schoolyards looking for a stickball game. Thanks Mom and Dad.

I have learned to live with open-ended questions that I can’t answer right now. The list of these conundrums would fill a book. That won’t stop me from continuing to look for solutions.

I am going to discuss two of these problems which have caused me to spend many hours in thought. I feel that Possibly (with a capital “P”) I may have gained some understanding of these two issues, and I’d like to share them with you.

First, I have spent 10 years of my life trying to gain the ability to speak a foreign language — French. I even lived in France with the thought of immersing myself in the culture. I almost starved to death. One example of my problem was conjugation of verbs. I will provide you with my insight a bit later.

Second, and the one that has become critical during the last several years, is how can people who voted for Trump four years ago continue to support him after what he and his enablers have said and done, especially recently? I will tackle this question first.

I would like to use one of the many theories that I came across during my career in the field of experimental psychology, proposed by Dr. Leon Festinger, to provide some understanding. It’s called Cognitive Dissonance Theory. (For those of you who have spent more time on more useful pursuits, you could reasonably call it “rationalization.” Psychologists love to use big complicated words to name their theories.)

The basic principle of the theory says that when one’s behavior supports their beliefs then consonance is the result. When behavior and beliefs are at odds with each other, what ensues is dissonance. This is an uncomfortable state and the individual tries to remedy it. When the behavior has already been executed, the way to do this is to adjust the attitude.

In the original experiment, Dr. Festinger asked a large class of students to eat chocolate-covered ants. Half the group was given some rationale to try them such as: they taste pretty good, they’re high in protein, they’re a delicacy in other countries, etc. The other group was simply asked to eat them. The concern was not how many in each group ate them, but of those who did, which group rated them as tastier? Contrary to most expectations, the group that was given no rationale scored them as tastier.

The explanation is that in our society, the attitude toward eating chocolate covered ants is, “Yuck.” The group that was not provided any reason for eating them had to come up with a reason for doing so in order to achieve consonance. They did so by saying they tasted pretty good. The experiment was repeated with honey-covered grasshoppers where the insect was visible, and the results were more impressive.

Anecdotally, a friend and I decided to take a two-night camping trip in the White Mountains and cap the expedition by reaching the peak of Mount Washington. During the first two days we were treated to pouring rain, freezing temperatures, and a leaky tent. We reached the summit on a beautiful and warm sunny day. Lots of tourists had driven up the mountain and were enjoying the spectacular scenery. My friend said, “They can’t appreciate the view like we can.” I replied, “It’s the same damn view!”

Hopefully you already see my point. The people who had voted for Trump “ate the chocolate covered ants.” They voted for him. In order to maintain consonance, they were forced to rationalize his and their behavior in order to maintain consonance. They couldn’t rescind their votes so they continued to back him.

I also want to share with you the understanding I recently acquired which has helped clear up my confusion with the French language. I mentioned the problem I have with conjugating verbs earlier. The following provided me with the epiphany I longed for. An M.I.T. grad student was driving a cab in Boston to help fund his education. One evening he picked up his fare at Logan. The visitor asked, “This is my first time in Boston. Could you tell me where I can get scrod?” The student cabbie hesitated for a moment and then replied, “Sure, but that’s the first time I’ve heard it asked for in the pluperfect subjunctive.”

This country has gotten “scrod” for the last four years. There’s an answer to everything, but some answers are better than others.

Jonathan Kahane lives in Westhampton.

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