We're Only Human

The Psychology of the Serenity Prayer

serenity“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

These are the first lines of what’s known as the Serenity Prayer, which is well known to many recovering alcoholics. It’s often recited in the rooms of AA as a reminder of the core principle of successful sobriety: Acceptance of the reality that for addicts, nothing but absolute, lifelong abstinence will lead to healthy and lasting recovery.

As simple as that message is, it’s very difficult for many alcoholics to embrace, at least at first. Most resist the finality of an absolute prohibition, hoping and looking instead for half measures and temporary fixes to the problem—or putting off abstinence for another day. These lukewarm efforts often end in relapse.

What’s actually going on in the mind of an alcoholic as he or she goes through the process of recovery? What are the cognitive mechanics underlying the initial, angry rebelliousness and, later, the genuine commitment to a sober life?

Duke University psychological scientist Aaron Kay has some ideas that may clarify this mysterious transformation. The human mind, he and his colleagues say, sees all restrictions, prohibitions and bans as fundamental limits on personal freedom. Personal freedom is so highly valued, and so important to our sense of identity, that we will go to great lengths to protect it. On the most basic level, when the mind processes “no drinking ever again”—this prohibition is perceived as nothing less than a totalitarian clamp-down on personal liberty, and processed in the same way as any such edict. It’s the cognitive equivalent of “no travel allowed” or “all political speech prohibited.”

We have two ways of dealing with such unwanted restrictions on liberty. The first is what scientists call “reactance,” which really just means shouting, no! People get annoyed, indignant, outraged, defiant; they bridle at the new restriction, and inflate the value of what’s being taken away—in the case of an alcoholic, the freedom to drink without censure. Or—quite differently—people sometimes rationalize the new prohibition. They go through whatever cognitive gymnastics are needed to make this unwelcome restriction okay, to cast a positive light on the prospect of never drinking again.

These two processes are incompatible, so why does one win out over the other? Why do we jealously guard our liberty some times, and other times go through mental contortions to rationalize bans. Kay and his colleagues believe it is a single factor—the absoluteness—that shapes our thinking. When prohibitions are the least bit tentative or vague, if they allow any loopholes, then we plot to get around them and preserve what’s ours. But when restrictions have no shades of gray, and no prospect of bending, we search out ways to make them palatable. The scientists tested this theory in a couple simple experiments.

In the first one, volunteers read about how a hypothetical new city speed limit would improve public safety. Then some of these volunteers read that lawmakers had already acted to lower the speed limit; according to this news story, the law would go into effect on a prescribed date. Others read that it was likely the new law would go into effect, but that it had not been enacted yet. In other words, some were presented with a fait accompli, while others were left thinking about a likely—but not signed and sealed—restriction on their driving rights.

Afterward, all of the volunteers—including a control group—rated their level of annoyance regarding the lower speed limit. They also reported how often they drove in the city, assuming that regular drivers would be more annoyed than infrequent drivers, who might see the restriction as irrelevant.

The results, reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, supported the scientists’ theory. Those presented with an absolute, written-in-concrete restriction were much more likely to rationalize the change. They had more positive attitudes toward the new speed limit than did controls. By contrast, those who read about a likely new limitation expressed much more annoyance; it was not yet a certainty, so they wanted nothing of it. As expected, the frequent drivers were more likely to rationalize the infringement on their liberties; they were more motivated to make the infringement acceptable.

The second experiment was similar, but with some important differences. In this case, the volunteers read about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving—and a government plan to ban the practice. But the scientists introduced a new twist as well: Some read that it was a done deal; others that there was a small chance it would not be passed; and still others that there was reasonable chance it would be voted down. In other words, they introduced two different degrees of uncertainty.

Again, the volunteers rated how bothersome the new restriction would be, and they also rated how important this particular liberty—driving while talking on a cell—was to them. And again, volunteers facing the absolute certainty of a new ban were more likely to rationalize: They played down the importance of this right. Those who faced the likelihood of a new restriction had a harsher reaction. They claimed that this restricted right was very important to them, and this was the case even if there was only a miniscule chance of the new ban not being approved. These findings boil down to this: We are very reluctant to give up any bit of personal liberty, and will grab at straws before we do.

Kay and his colleagues concede that life is more nuanced than these studies suggest. Some restrictions on liberty, even when they are absolute, may be too sudden or too abhorrent to be rationalized easily. That may be the case with the alcoholic, who certainly faces a horrifying prospect. The alcoholic must also dictate his or her own prohibition and with time come to the realization—or rationalization—that freedom isn’t always liberating, and restriction isn’t always oppressive.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, is available in paperback. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American and The Huffington Post.

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