Most days my writing life feels split, by day reporting on local government affairs — which means lots of time on shale energy impacts here at Barnett Shale ground zero and the new adventures in hydraulic fracturing — and by night, pondering the richness of family life when it is touched by developmental disability.
But sometimes the two writing worlds collide in unexpected ways.
Currently, I’m reading Susan Schneider’s new book, The Science of Consequences: how they affect genes, change the brain and impact our world.
The book is a marvelous literature review for the lay reader. Everything, and I do mean everything, you want to know about the principles of learning from consequences seems to be in this book. Learning from consequences — applied behavior analysis — is huge in the autism world. I do plan on another post that will delve into that later. But for now, I’m enjoying the ride, getting my mind blown at least once per chapter; for example, in “The Dark Side of Consequences,” learning that positive consequences can be negative and negative consequences really aren’t.
So, I’m up to page 129, deep in the chapter “Observing and Attending,” and Schneider elegantly lays out the “ostrich effect.” As in, the opposite of what the former mayor of Dish, Calvin Tillman, has offered as a personal tagline: “once you know, you can’t not know.” Or, as in Promised Land, that electrifying moment when someone or something jerks your pretty little head out of the sand and your old wise heart starts pounding, knowing, readying, because what you choose next absolutely defines who you are.
Schneider highlights a whole body of behavioral research that shows people often prefer to look the other way rather than confront bad news. She writes, “We could hope that we humans would be wiser and more willing to take the potential disappointments of observing when it’s in our own best interest.” (p. 129)
But we don’t.
(We learned that lesson early in the Wolfe house. We let people, including “experts,” tell us Sam would “grow out of it” and for two years, and life got worse and worse. After we named the disability and tackled its issues one by one, the whole family’s quality of life got better each day.)
The first study Schneider puts out for the reader is Brock and Balloun’s 1967 classic “Behavioral receptivity to dissonant information.” The participants were asked to listen to a series of messages that were covered up by static, but they had to power to clear the static for three seconds by pressing a button. Researchers let the participants know the message topics and their order. The purpose was to see when they would clear the static and listen in. Smokers listened 35 percent less to a more accurate, but discouraging, message about the link between smoking and lung cancer than another message, which discounted the link. Nonsmokers listened in to both messages.
Then, Schneider tells us about a Swedish study of investors and when they looked at their investment portfolios. Of course, they check more often during rising markets, something Vanguard reports, too.
With that foundation set, Schneider moves us on to high-stakes, ever-more disturbing human behavior, such as the resistance of prosecutors — hey, jobs and self-image on the line here — when confronted with DNA evidence of a wrongful conviction (see Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me). To date, some states won’t compensate the wrongly convicted, or even expunge records.
Or the resistance to get an HIV test, even though it is easy and inexpensive, even at the risk of infecting others. “Like cigarette smokers, they are rolling the dice, not wanting to observe and learn the truth,” Schneider writes. (p. 130)
Of course, the logical conclusion of this section ends thusly:
“Historians still debate whether Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of war production, knew about Hitler’s ‘final solution’ for the Jews. Whatever the case, Speer said later that ‘If I didn’t see it, then it was because I didn’t want to see it,’ and he alone at the Nuremburg trials accepted responsibility for the war crimes of the Nazi regime.” (p. 130-1)
Let that sink in for a minute — that full spectrum of the ostrich effect and what it means to humanity.
That’s why that supposedly implausible plot twist in Promised Land, as a storytelling device, has no cognitive dissonance for me. Too many years with boots on the ground in the Barnett, watching the ostrich effect over and over and over again.
But the storytellers in Promised Land still managed to break my heart in the final scene. Landman Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) comes to the grocery counter to pay for pack of Trident and the store owner just gives it to her.