“Let us suppose you did manage to break a hole in the wall with your head. What will you do in the room next door?”
Stanislav Jerzy Lec
This acid, wise, sceptical and very Jewish aphorism from ‘pan Stanislav’ has long been one of my favourites. I have always felt that its clear understanding of the inevitable presence of a ‘room next door’ was evidence of a sober view of the world, of an ability ‘to look the truth in the eye’ and be seduced by nothing. And it wasn’t until recently that I realised, with some surprise, that these qualities which I value so highly had never prevented me from stubbornly beating my own head against the wall, testing the strength of both one and the other. What’s more, I had always held this capacity in other people for an apparently senseless knocking down of walls in high esteem, and I was disappointed if the conclusions my friends drew from Lec’s aphorism were overly pragmatic, and they preferred to stay content with the room they were already in, sparing their own heads and the neighbour’s wall. How to reconcile my wholehearted agreement with the position of Jerzy Lec and my total inability to put it into practice? Was it my irrational Jewish temperament, unwilling to face up to reality, that prevented me, or were there other, less subjective and more basic causes? Behind the obvious inconsistency of my behaviour are to be found certain fundamental psychological laws, which make at least some aspects of my personal biography worthy of attention. But first, let us describe one psychological experiment.
A group of healthy subjects and a group of patients suffering from depression were set a series of not very complex technical tasks. A specific feature of the experiment was that the results achieved by a testee in completing the tasks depended not only on his efforts and skill, but also on the hidden intervention of the experimenter, who could manipulate either success or, on the contrary, failure.
The situation was, therefore, not wholly under the testee’s control, and he was warned of possible interference by outside factors with an impact on the outcome, but he did not know how often these factors would intervene. It was this he was asked to evaluate at the end of the experiment. In other words, he was asked to assess to what extent he had control of the situation, and to what extent the situation had been controlled by external forces. It was assumed that the healthy subjects would give a more adequate assessment of the situation than the depressives, the expectation being that the latter’s passivity and low self-esteem meant they would more often hold themselves responsible for the failures, while they would perceive success as the result of outside intervention. The experimenters were astonished to find that the results contradicted this assumption. In reality, the depressives were significantly more accurate in assessing their level of control over a situation, and this applied not only to their failures, but also to when they were successful. The healthy subjects demonstrated a clear tendency to overestimate their own contribution to success and felt it was they who were in control of the situation and responsible for a positive outcome, whereas in actual fact the experimenter had been playing them along. Hence, healthy subjects were inclined towards an unfounded optimism and an exaggeration of their potential, while the depressives showed an unexpected accuracy in their evaluations and self-evaluations.
This experiment presented psychologists with a very serious problem. Since an ability to perceive reality objectively is considered to be the supreme independent value, the celebrated American psychologist Professor Martin Seligman came to the conclusion that depression has a positive side: it enables a more objective perception of reality and liberates an individual from an unfounded optimism that distorts perception. Professor Seligman even suggested that, because of this valuable quality, moderate depression is important for adaptability and for this reason did not disappear in the evolutionary process. This supposes that we could all do with being a little depressive, and as a result more realistic. However, a psychiatrist would find it very difficult to accept such a proposition. First of all, depression, even in a modest degree, causes mental suffering and for this reason alone cannot be ‘recommended’ for an individual. Secondly, it is known that depression lowers the resistance of the organism to all harmful influences, assists the development of somatic illnesses, including the most serious of them, lowers the adaptive abilities of the organism and for all these reasons cannot play any positive role in evolution. Thirdly, even if depression helps towards a more objective view of oneself and the world, this view has no practical significance, since depression at the same time blocks active behaviour, meaning that no approach to reality, even of the most sober variety, can be realised in behaviour and lead to a change of the situation in the desired direction. And what use is it to ‘see things as they really are’, if this only leads to further torment, which is, indeed, so characteristic of depression?
In this case, though, one can only suppose something opposite: an inability to perceive reality with strict objectivity, an optimistic view of things and oneself, an exaggerated notion of one’s capabilities and ability to control a situation: all these are components of a healthy individual because they allow him to struggle more actively with difficulties and throw down the gauntlet to the world despite the absence of any firm guarantee of winning. In truth, not one task that requires a non-standard, creative approach actually has any obvious solution. It appears ‘objectively’ insoluble since it has never once been solved in the past. And almost any risk, without which no serious undertaking is possible, appears unjustifiable from the perspective of cold logic and a calculation of all the pros and cons until the moment when it does become justified by success, something that is far from guaranteed at the outset. This means that reality cannot be evaluated as something static, i.e., by the features it displays at any given moment. Its evaluation must implicitly recognise the impact of any supposed activity by a person to change the reality, and this parameter will remain subjective and doubtful until the moment it takes effect. It cannot be evaluated with complete objectivity, but at the same time, it cannot be ignored. And in order that nothing should hinder the potential to realise himself, a person must preserve an optimistic view of his capabilities. We have already written in an earlier chapter about “search activity” in conditions of uncertainty.
Belief in one’s capabilities, optimism, even if rather excessive from the perspective of a sober observer, are necessary for a demonstration of search behaviour. Incidentally, even in cases where such activity does not lead to a successful solution of a real task, it does guarantee one undoubted win: it is a win for health, since the actual process of search itself raises the organism’s resistance to all harmful factors (“I may not catch up with them, but at least I’ll get warm”). So, what, ultimately, is to be preferred: to assess a task objectively as insoluble, one’s capabilities as insufficient, refuse to search for a solution and as a result not only waste an opportunity to solve the task, but also damage one’s own health, or to approach a problem with unjustified optimism, engage in its active solution and at the very least obtain such a permanent benefit as good health and, lo and behold, by one’s activity also create unforeseen chances of winning that never existed before? There can only be one answer, and for this reason healthy people, as opposed to depressives, see the world through rosier tinted spectacles than it objectively deserves.
There is, it is true, an objective, coldly computed calculation of all the static factors of reality, and there is the higher truth of dynamic search, which transforms this reality. Putting the problem at its most extreme, we might use the following example. Every human being is mortal, and faced with the inevitability of oblivion any activity might seem pointless. This is objective reality, and depressives are frequently sensitive to it. Healthy people, though, have the capacity to ignore this reality and continue active behaviour, motivated by the illusion of immortality, perceiving their inescapable demise as an abstraction. Were it not for this illusion, this unfounded optimism, death would catch each of us sooner, out of despair and depression. More importantly, human development would come to a standstill, as all of society turned into a huge hospital ward for depressives. Consequently, the fact that beyond the wall there really is a room next door doesn’t mean that banging your head against it is completely stupid. Far from it. You may find the result is you have an extension to your own room.
That’s how this law operates at the level of individual psychology. It works the same way with the social psychology of big groups, too. The creation of the Jewish state is an example. Was not the declaration of independence in the conditions prevailing in 1948 a demonstration of unfounded optimism? However, the declaration of independence itself changed the reality, or at least changed the psychological climate, and this proved decisive. “A person who does not believe in miracles cannot be considered a realist in Israel”, David Ben-Gurion said, and this paradox contained a deep psychological truth. Belief in miracles (i.e. ‘unfounded’ optimism), by determining human activity, is capable of changing reality. And so an alternative title for this chapter might be this – Two Aphorisms: Ben-Gurion Versus Jerzy Lec.