Monday, September 25, 2006

Jealousy and sabotage

Today's Delancey Place snippet strikes a chord:

Daniel Gilbert speaks to our predisposition to select both friends and facts that reinforce the self-perceptions and opinions we already hold. Gilbert is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and his work is characterized by extensive testing and research:

"... Of course, other people ... are the richest source of information about the wisdom of our decisions, the extent of our abilities, and the effervescence of our personalities. Our tendency to expose ourselves to information that supports our favored conclusions is especially powerful when it comes to choosing the company we keep. ... [W]e spend countless hours carefully arranging our lives to ensure that we are surrounded by people who like us, and people who are like us. It isn't surprising then that when we turn to the folks we know for advice and opinions, they tend to confirm our favored conclusions--either because they share them or because they don't want to hurt our feelings by telling us otherwise. Should people in our lives occasionally fail to tell us what we want to hear, we have some clever ways of helping them.

"For example, studies reveal that people have a penchant for asking questions that are subtly engineered to manipulate the answers they receive. A question such as 'Am I the best lover you've ever had?' is dangerous because it has only one answer that can make us truly happy, but a question such as 'What do you like best about my lovemaking?' is brilliant because it has only one answer that can truly make us miserable. Studies show that people intuitively lean toward asking the questions that are most likely to elicit the answers they want to hear. ... In short, we derive support for our preferred conclusions by listening to the words that we put in the mouths of people who have already been preselected for their willingness to say what we want to hear.

"And it gets worse ... to be considered a great driver, lover or chef ... we simply need to park, kiss, and bake better than most other folks do. How do we know how well most other folks do? Why, we look around, of course--but in order to make sure that we see what we want to see, we look around selectively. For example, volunteers in one study took a test that ostensibly measured their social sensitivity and were told they had flubbed the majority of questions. When these volunteers were then given an opportunity to look over the test results of people who had done better or worse than they had, they ignored the tests of the people who had done better and instead spent their time looking over the tests of the people who had done worse. ...

"And if we can't find people who are doing more poorly than we are, we may go out and create them. Volunteers in one study took a test and were then given the opportunity to provide hints that would either help or hinder a friend's performance on the same test. Although volunteers helped their friends when the test was described as a game, they actively hindered their friends when the test was described as an important measure of intellectual ability. ... Once we've successfully sabotaged their performances and ensured their failure, they become the perfect standard for comparison."

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, Knopf, 2006, pp. 165-7.

Hmph. The stories Pretty Lady could tell you.

Pretty Lady prefers, largely, to dwell upon the positive in people. She is not anymore a blithe Pollyanna spirit, but by the main she finds her joys in digging for the gold in other people's souls, no matter how deeply this gold may appear to be buried.

Also, it strikes her as singularly unintelligent to view life as a zero-sum operation. She has always regarded success, brilliance, greatness and happiness in other people as a source of hope and inspiration for herself, rather than as a Dangerous Threat. Thus, no matter how poor, unrecognized, or crossed in love she has been in the past, she has always been the first in line to cheer in exultation when a friend of hers hit the jackpot. Because if you love someone, their happiness is yours, is it not?

Apparently not. Or else a great number of Pretty Lady's ex-friends were very confused little people.

You will all be happy to know that Pretty Lady is not anymore consorting with the female who made determinedly certain, with every Los Angeles social-railroading technique at her disposal, that no high-powered art dealer within her large acquaintance ever got within squinting distance of Pretty Lady's studio. You will be thrilled to discover that the girl who dissolved into agonized whining, whenever Pretty Lady reported that her love life was, uncharacteristically, looking perky, is a distant memory. It was with great unwillingness and regret that Pretty Lady cut ties with the Flaky Heiress, after she made it a condition of friendship that Pretty Lady tie her uncertain finances in with proven Flakiness, but she cut them. The jealous saboteurs in Pretty Lady's life are no more.

So the person who ignorantly informed her recently, "you need to get a new set of friends" can go soak his cranium. Because Pretty Lady has a friend or two who trumps this rot. First among them is the dear, wonderful, blessed lady who not only purchased her a massage for her birthday, but reveled in the blow-by-blow description of the wonderfulness of this massage, on the telephone afterwards.

This friend, truly, makes friendship her profession. Although in the past we may have disagreed on everything from the guilt or innocence of Richard III, to the merits of 'Paint your Wagon,' to certain interpretations of Biblical law, to which Presidential candidate to vote for (Perot! I ask you! The man is a totalitarian lunatic!) we have never, ever had a fight. We have merely had some thoroughly enjoyable long-term discussions.

In fact, the long-term nature of our association may be summed up by an event which took place as long ago, perhaps, as junior high. At one of this friend's frequent slumber parties, the two of us engaged in an all-night Pente tournament. At the conclusion of a particularly hard-fought game, one of the other guests remarked, in awe, "At one point, neither one of you moved for forty-five minutes." It seemed like no time at all.

Over the decades, Pretty Lady has changed her opinions--political, social, spiritual--many times. She has perpetrated many egregious and inadvisable bloopers. She has done an almost infinite number of things which might have been calculated to shock the sensibilities of her more-conservative friend right into orbit. Throughout every one of these adventures, this friend has been there, loving Pretty Lady as herself.

No, there has been no sabotage. There has been no judgment. There has merely been faith, and trust, and consideration, and honesty. When either one of us goes 'splat,' the other one has been there to say, 'You didn't do so badly. I've watched you grow a lot. I'm here.'


Anonymous said...

Those kind of friends are rare and can usually be counted on one hand. They keep you steady in the storms of life, and forgive you even when you neglect them. And it's usually wise to listen to their advice. But not necessarily to agree with everything, of course!


Anonymous said...

Ah, you are learning grasshopper.

I too, like you, began life thinking if I was nice to everyone, and honest, and fair, and good then would I be treated in turn. Not so. I learned - and it was a lesson that had to be repeated numerous times to soak completely into me - that there are some (nay a lot of) people who simply have no talent for being friends. Nor desire. They are users, or projects, or momentary distractions. But they haven't the spirit of giving openness, nor the self-honesty or ability to sacrifice, to do more then simply see you (and everyone else) as means to their ends. Spotting these folks gets a little easier with age. My pink glasses now see through the fog a little more clearly. You look for signs. One of them is whether the dear has any other friends. While in my youth I used to mistake that solitary figure for someone shy, or aloof, or even mysterious, I now know that 9 times out of 10 the absence of any meaningful relationships, prior to me, is a sure sign they lack something needed to form such a bond. I'm special, but I'm not miracle worker; and a miracle is what it takes to convert the purely self-centered into a good close real friend.

I'm blessed with friends, in part b/c I know how to be a good one myself. But don't learn these lessons the hard way too many times; some people simply aren't worthy of your friendship. You can help and pity them, but do not ever trust them completely!

Bob said...


My friends get a pretty good laugh when I go splat and generally say something to me like,"Dumb Sh*t... next time you'll know better."

My friends don't jabber on about how they watched me grow, or that I really didn't do too badly. Thats so condescending it's embarrassing.