It’s good to grow older in many ways, especially in Chicago. One of the most exciting things going on here for older people is not what you might expect: an event, a discount or a giveaway. Rather, it’s a unique, peer-led study group community where people 50-and-up (most in their 70s) get to keep learning about topics they care about in a shared environment of serious inquiry—without the hassle of examinations and grades. It’s called Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and it’s going on at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies.
Besides the regular classes, OLLI—as members fondly call the Institute—puts on extra events now and then. I attended one of these recently, the gist of which was something like “How to learn to have productive discussions with people who hold strong opposite opinions.” The day began with a pithy presentation by a respected communications expert, followed by a roundtable discussion among the participants. Last was a session with a young facilitator who asked questions and suggested behaviors designed to help make such discussions fruitful—that is, result in people being able to better understand each other’s positions.
It was clear the information we got was intelligently formulated, and it made really good sense in an ideal world. But it was also clear that most of the older people participating felt, from long experience in the real and imperfect world, that such attempts were mostly doomed to failure—and very possibly might result in alienation between the sides and even the end of friendships or other relationships. I thought about this again today when I was reading an article in the email newsletter from Brain Pickings, an intelligent and soulful website about human nature and other deep topics.
“You can see the proof in an MRI scan of someone presented with political opinions that conflict with her own. The brain scans of a person shown statements that oppose her political stance show that the highest areas of the cortex, the portions responsible for providing rational thought, get less blood until another statement is presented that confirms her beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened.”
The article goes on about the human tendency to invent a positive explanation for negative or embarrassing phenomena in our lives—a la “The Ben Franklin Effect.” Now this is an interesting way to defuse differences. Franklin observed and wrote that the way to make a friend of an enemy is to induce her/him to do you a favor. The writer extends the theory to explain why people who are mistreated or abused or dismissed generally make up a reason why it’s okay and even valuable. It goes on to say a Stanford study is a a vivid example of this process in action.
“‘Students … signed up for a two-hour experiment called ‘Measures of Performance’ as a requirement to pass a class. Researchers divided them into two groups. One was told they would receive $1 (about $8 in today’s money). The other group was told they would receive $20 (about $150 in today’s money). The scientists then explained that the students would be helping improve the research department by evaluating a new experiment. They were then led into a room where they had to use one hand to place wooden spools into a tray and remove them over and over again. A half hour later, the task changed to turning square pegs clockwise on a flat board one-quarter spin at a time for half an hour. All the while, an experimenter watched and scribbled. It was one hour of torturous tedium, with a guy watching and taking notes. After the hour was up, the researcher asked the student if he could do the school a favor on his way out by telling the next student scheduled to perform the tasks, who was waiting outside, that the experiment was fun and interesting. Finally, after lying, people in both groups — one with one dollar in their pocket and one with twenty dollars — filled out a survey in which they were asked their true feelings about the study.’
“Something extraordinary and baffling had happened: The students who were paid $20 lied to their peers but reported in the survey, as expected, that they’d just endured two hours of mind-numbing tedium. But those who were only paid a dollar completely internalized the lie, reporting even in the survey that they found the task stimulating. The first group, the researchers concluded, were able to justify both the tedium and the lie with the dollar amount of their compensation, but the second group, having been paid hardly anything, had no external justification and instead had to assuage their mental unease by convincing themselves that it was all inherently worth it. McRaney extends the insight to the broader question of volunteerism:
“This is why volunteering feels good and unpaid interns work so hard. Without an obvious outside reward you create an internal one. That’s the cycle of cognitive dissonance; a painful confusion about who you are gets resolved by seeing the world in a more satisfying way.”
Enlightening, eh? It’s even more interesting to hear how Franklin got a serious political opponent (who had publicly attacked and abused him) to do him a favor. Franklin had only one condition in devising the favor: he would not kowtow to his opponent. He decided to ask to borrow one of his opponent’s books. Because Franklin was a widely known expert on books and the founder of the first lending library in the United States, his request would have been considered an honor in anyone’s estimation. The guy sent the book immediately, and ever after treated Ben with respect.
We might not be able to pull off a coup like that when we have differences that separate us from others, but it’s a strategy worth studying.