Our lifelong struggle to learn how to live is inseparable from two facts only: that of our mortality and that of our dread of it, dread with an edge of denial. Half a millennium ago — a swath of time strewn with the lives and deaths of everyone who came before us — Montaigne captured this paradox in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Centuries later, John Updike — a mind closer to our own time but now swept by mortality to the same nonexistence as Montaigne — echoed the sentiment when he wrote: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead, so why… be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
Feudalism and Guilds in the Tour de France?
Science writers on the books that inspired them
I was more than interested to discover how much of the work on these effects—which in education they call “same race effects”—has been done by economists. If I’m a social psychologist, the economists are eating my lunch. They’re doing very persuasive, very elegant studies using these data sets that come out of the education reform movement. The economists are the first to jump on it. I feel like that is rich hunting ground for social psychologists as well, and they can bring a perspective to the analysis of that data that the economist can’t.
I’m not criticizing the work that’s been done by economists, but if you read it, you will notice that there is a beat that’s missing—they’re economists, so they come at it from a different perspective. I would love to see social psychologists go over that same data and interpret it their way. And that again would be something that would be insanely useful to the conversation we have in this country about how to make schools better.
MG: Yes. I’ve started a new book, and it very explicitly comes out of the world of psychology. There was a paper that Lee Ross wrote 50 years ago, maybe 45 years ago, called “Shortcomings of the Intuitive Psychologist.” It’s a famous paper, and I’m tearing off a little, tiny piece of that argument and having fun with it.DN: And what piece is that?MG: I’m interested in how we deal with strangers. How good are our intuitive ideas about dealing with strangers? I haven’t thought it through entirely, but I’m fascinated by what it means to deal with someone who you don’t know and, most importantly, whose credibility you cannot assess easily. Strikes me as a very contemporary problem, and from a psychological perspective, super interesting. There’s just so much fantastic psychology on that question.