When John F. Kennedy was 17, he was part of a prank club. At Connecticut’s elite Choate school in 1935, word spread that the group was planning to pile horse manure in the gymnasium. Before this “prank” could happen, the school’s headmaster confronted the troublesome boys. The scheme was the culmination of a list of offenses at the school, and young Kennedy was expelled.
Though the sentence was eventually reduced to probation, the headmaster suggested that Kennedy see a “gland specialist” to help him “overcome this strange childishness.” The doctor Kennedy ended up seeing was Prescott Lecky, a young, mutton-chopped psychologist. Lecky had made a name for himself at Columbia University as a skeptic of psychoanalytic theory, running up against Carl Jung and the Viennese establishment’s approach at the time. Instead of tracing Kennedy’s rebellious instincts to repressed motives or early-life stress, Lecky interrogated the boy’s sense of self.
“I have always been intrigued with the surprising things people will do in the service of preserving their identity,” says William Swann, a social- and personality-psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He took up Lecky’s ideas and, in the 1990s, built them out into what he called self-verification theory. It asserts that we tend to prefer to be seen by others as we see ourselves, even in areas where we see ourselves negatively. As opposed to cognitive dissonance—the psychological unease that drives people to alter their interpretation of the world to create a sense of consistency—self-verification says that we try to bring reality into harmony with our long-standing beliefs about ourselves.
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