An excerpt from The Overstory by Richard Powers, pp. 232-238, read by Steph.
Four years at Fortuna College come down to one afternoon: Adam in his spot in the front row, Daniels Auditorium. Professor Rubin Rabinowski at the podium—Affect and Cognition. Last lecture before the final exam, and the Rabi-Man is surveying all the experimental evidence that suggests—to the delight of the oversubscribed class—that teaching psychology is a waste of time.
“Now I’ll show you the self-evaluations of people asked how susceptible they think they are to anchoring, causal base rate errors, the endowment effect, availability, belief, perseverance, confirmation, illusory correlation, cueing—all the biases you’ve learned about in this course. Here are the scores of the control group. And here are the scores of people who’ve taken this course in previous years.”
Lots of laughs: the numbers are pretty much the same. Both groups confident of their iron will, clear vision and independent thought.
“Here are the performances on several different evaluations designed to conceal what they were testing. Most of the second group were tested less than six months after they took this course.”
The laughter turns to groans. Blindness and unreason, rampant. Course grads, working twice as hard to save five bucks as they would to earn it. Grads fearing bears, sharks, lightening, and terrorists more than they fear drunk drivers. Eighty percent thinking they’re smarter than average. Grads wildly inflating how many jelly beans they think are in a jar, based purely on someone else’s ridiculous guesses.
“The psyche’s job is to keep us blissfully ignorant of who we are, what we think, and how we’ll behave in any situation. We’re all operating in a dense fog of mutual reinforcement. Our thoughts are shaped primarily by legacy hardware that evolved to assume that everyone else must be right. But even when the fog is pointed out, we’re no better at navigating through it.
“So why, you may ask, do I go on talking, up here? Why go on, year after year, cashing the college’s checks?”
The laughs are all sympathy now. Adam admires the brilliant pedagogy. He, at least, he vows, will remember this lecture years from now, and its revelations will make him wiser, no matter what the studies show. He at least will defy the indicting numbers.
“Let me show you the answers you yourselves gave to a simple questionnaire I had you fill out at the beginning of the semester. You’ve probably forgotten you ever took it.” The professor glances at the average answers and grimaces. His lips tighten in pain. Snickers across the room, “You may or may not recall that I asked you then whether you thought you’d . . .” Professor Rabinowski fiddles with his tie. He windmills with his left arm, grimaces again. “Excuse me one minute.” He lurches off the dais and out the door. A murmur passes through the auditorium. Thuds come from the down hall—a stack of boxes tipping over. Fifty-four students sit and wait for the punch line. Faint, swallowed sounds fill the hallway, but no one moves.
Adam scans the seats behind him. Students frown at each other or busy themselves with notes. He turns to look at that magnificent woman who always sits two seats to his left. Premed, fawn-colored, pretty without knowing it, binders full of neat handwritten notes, and he thinks again how glorious it would be to sit in Bucky’s over a beer with her and talk about this astonishing class. But the semester ends in two days, and the chance is as good as lost.
She glances his way confused. He shakes his head and can’t help smirking. He leans in to whisper, and she reciprocates. Maybe the chance hasn’t vanished. “Kitty Genovese. The bystander effect. Darley and Latane, 1968.”
“But is he okay?” Her breath is like cinnamon.
“Remember how we had to answer whether we’d help someone who . . . ?”
A woman shouts from below for someone to call an ambulance. But by the time the paramedics get their ambulance onto the quad, Professor Rabinowski is dead of a myocardial infarction.
“I don’t understand,” the premed beauty says, in their booth at Bucky’s. “If you thought he was demonstrating the bystander effect, why did you keep sitting there?”
She’s on her third iced coffee, and it bothers Adam. “That’s not the point. The question is why fifty-three other people, including you, who thought he was having a heart attack, didn’t do anything? I thought he was jerking us around to make a point.”
“Then you should have been on your feet and calling his bluff!”
“I didn’t want to spoil the show.”
“You should have been up in five seconds.”
He slams the booth table. “It wouldn’t have made any damn difference.”
She flinches into the booth, like he meant to hit her. He puts up his palms, leans toward her to apologize, and she flinches again. He freezes, hands in the air, seeing what the cowering woman sees.
“I’m sorry. You’re right.” Professor Rabinowski’s last lesson. Learning psychology is indeed pretty much useless. He pays for the drinks and leaves. He never sees her again, except for the following week, from four seats away, for two hours, at the proctored final exam.
. . .
He’s admitted to the new social psychology graduate program down at Santa Cruz. The campus is an enchanted garden perched on a mountain side overlooking Monterey Bay. It’s the worst place he can imagine for finishing a doctorate—or doing any real work whatsoever. On the other hand, it’s perfect for making interspecies contact with sea lions down by the pier, climbing the Sunset Tree naked and stoned at night, and laying on his back in the Great Meadow, searching for a thesis topic in the mad clouds of stars. After two years, the other grads take to calling him Bias Boy. In any discussion of the psychology of social formations, Adam Appich, master of science,a is there with several studies that show how legacy cognitive blindness will forever prevent people from acting in their own best interests.
He consults with his advisor. Professor Mieke Van Dijk, she of the sublime Dutch bob, clipped consonents and soft-core softened vowels. In fact, she makes him confer with her every two weeks, in her office up in College Ten, hoping the enforced check-in will jump start his research.
“You are dragging your feet over nothing.”
In fact, he has his feet up, reclining on her Victorian daybed across the office from her desk, as if she’s psychoanalyzing him. It amuses them both.
“Dragging? Not at all. I am utterly paralyzed.”
“But why? You make too big a deal about this. Think of a thesis . . .” —she can’t pronounce the th—”as a long seminar project. You don’t have to save the world.”
“I don’t? Can I at least save a nation-state or two?”
She laughs; her wide overbite quickens his pulse. “Listen, Adam, pretend this has nothing to do with your career. Nothing to do with any professional approval. What do you, personally, want to discover? What would give you enjoyment to study for a couple of years?”
He watches the words spill from that pretty mouth, free from the social scientific jargon that she tends to drop into seminars. “This enjoyment you speak about . . .”
“Tsh. You want to know something.”
He wants to know whether she has ever, even once, thought of him sexually. It isn’t inconceivable. She’s only a decade older than he is. And she is—he wants to say, robust. He feels a weird need to tell her how he got here, in her office, looking for a thesis topic. Wants to draw his entire intellectual history in a straight line—from daubing nail polish on the abdomens of ants to watching his beloved undergraduate mentor die— then ask her where the line leads next.
“I’m interested in . . . unblinding.” He steals a look at her. If only people, like some invertebrates, would just turn raging purple when they felt attraction. It would make the entire species so much less neurotic.
She purses her lips. She must know how good that looks on her, “Unblinding? I’m sure that must mean something.”
“Can people come to independent moral decisions that run counter to their tribes’ beliefs?”
“You want to study transformative potential as a function of strong, normative, in-group favoritism.”
He’d nod, but the jargon bugs the crap out of him. “It’s like this. I think of myself as a good man. A good citizen. But say I’m a good citizen of early Rome, when a father had the power, and sometimes the duty, to put his child to death.”
“I see. And you, a good citizen, are motivated to preserve positive distinctiveness . . .
“We’re trapped by social identity. Even when there are big, huge truths staring us in… ” He hears his peers jeering, “Bias boy.”
“Well, no. Clearly not or in-group realignment would never happen.” “Transformation of social identity.”
“Of course. Here in America, people went from believing that women are too frail to vote, to having a major party vice presidential candidate, in one lifetime. From Dred Scott to Emancipation in a few years. Children, foreigners, prisoners, women, blacks, the disabled and mentally ill: they’ve all gone from property to personhood. I was born at a time when the idea of a chimpanzee getting a hearing in a court of law seemed totally absurd. By the time you’re my age, we’ll wonder how we ever denied such animals their standing as intelligent creatures.”
“How old are you anyway?”
Professor Van Dyke laughs. Her fine high cheekbones pink out; he’s sure of it. Tough to hide, with that complexion. “Topic, please.”
“I’d like to determine the personality factors that make it possible for some individuals to wonder how everyone can be so blind . . .”
“. . . while everyone else is still trying to stabilize in-group loyalties. Now we get somewhere. This could be a topic. With much more narrowing and definition. You could look at the next step in this same historical progression of consciousness. Study those people who support a position that any reasonable person in our society thinks is crazy.”
“We’re living at a time when claims are being made for a moral authority that lies beyond the human.”
One smooth tensing of his abdominal muscles, and he sits up. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve seen the news. People up and down this coast are risking their lives for plants. I read a story last week—a man who had his legs sheared off by a machine he tried to chain himself to.”
Adam has seen the stories, but he ignored them. Now he can’t see why. Plant rights? Plant personhood.” A boy he knew once jumped into a hole and risked live burial to protect his unborn brother’s sapling from harm. That boy is dead. “I hate activists.”
“Orthodoxy and sloganeering. Boring. I hate it when those Greenpeace guys shake me down on the street. Anyone who gets righteous . . . doesn’t understand.”
“How hopelessly fragile and wrong we all are. About everything.”
Professor Van Dyke frowns. “I see. Good thing we aren’t doing a psychological study of you.”
“Are these people really appealing to a new, nonhuman moral order? Or are they just being sentimental about pretty green things?”
“That’s where controlled psychological measurements come in.”
He smirks a little, himself. But something large wells up in him, and he can’t even shift his weight or it will disappear. A way forward. “Identity formation and Big Five personality factors among plants rights activists.”
“Or: Who does the tree hugger really hug when he hugs a tree?”
A reading from The Overstory by Richard Powers. 2018, p. 232-238.
Recorded July 20, 2020
Location: Belchertown, MA