There’s a way to speed up the dirtbag detection process: observe a person’s behavior under harsh conditions.
Pimp My Rite
My boyfriend dumped me and moved out of our place. I’m on the lease and can’t afford to break it, but it still feels like “our place,” and that’s making it hard to move on. My hippie friend said I should burn sage or light a candle and do a “letting go” meditation. Umm, OK. Can you please explain how rituals like this are bogus and unscientific so I can get her off my back?
As I see it, lingering emotional distress like yours requires serious intervention — like sacrificing a goat on the coffee table. (Possibly two, if one doesn’t get ’er done.)
Just kidding about the goats — but only because you’d have to hire crime scene cleaners afterward, which could get seriously pricey. Research by Harvard Business School’s Michael I. Norton, among others, actually finds that rituals — symbolic activities we do with some goal in mind — seem to help us feel better: less negative, less anxious and more in control. Amazingly, this is even true for ritual-doers who don’t believe in the rituals — who think they’re idiotic, embarrassing and pointless.
Annoyingly, researchers aren’t quite sure why rituals have this effect on us. My guess is that we confuse the real with the symbolic. Research by cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga suggests our mind is a master spin doctor, creating stories about our behavior that make us look consistent, rational and smart. And no sooner does it come up with those stories than it turns right around and believes them. In short, our mind is under the impression that we’re not stupid — that if we do something, we must have a good reason.
In other words, your friend is on to something — and you might use this to get her onto another thing: a ladder in your living room. I suggest a painting ritual — painting over your old life (in stylin’ new hues, of course) to transform the house you shared with your ex into a colorful new home of your own.
Per the research on ritual, ceremony would be an essential part of this — including explicitly calling what you’re doing a “ritual” and saying a few words, the way you would at a funeral. Incorporate a ceremonial tearing-up of a photo of the two of you together, and have your friends chant, “Out, out, Steve! You are no longer welcome here!” Then have everybody accompany you to toss the pieces into the dumpster.
Admittedly, this ritual will probably seem seriously silly while you’re doing it, but you can just choose to buy into it and have a good time. While you’re at it, give your friend some props. She was on the right track in helping you rid your home of the Ghost of Boyfriend Past — despite suggesting burning a small bunch of cooking herbs when it probably seemed nothing short of arson would do the job.
I read in Bon Appetit about this woman who takes all her dates to Olive Garden to see whether they judge her when she pockets all the leftover breadsticks. OK, whatever. But what I wanna see is whether somebody’s a good person. What kind of dates do you suggest for determining a potential boyfriend’s character and values?
— Concerned Woman
People often say you can discover a person’s true character from how they treat the waiter. And sure, rudeness to a waiter is a red flag, but it isn’t like we easily identify the sociopaths among us because they summon the server referee-style, by blowing a whistle.
It helps to consider the roots of good behavior — moral behavior, that is: why people are good to other people. Evolutionary cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Nicolas Baumard explain that “People may behave morally because they intrinsically value doing so — a genuine moral reason — or in order to gain the approval of others.” But there’s a complication: We all care about our reputation and doing things that put us in the best light, which is to say both the worst people and the best people behave better when they know they’re being watched.
A person’s true character will come out over time. But there’s a way to speed up the dirtbag detection process: observe a person’s behavior under harsh conditions. In other words, consider getting kidnapped and held hostage together by the Albanian mob — or, if that’s a little impractical for you, go camping or even just hike some challenging trail. When the chips are down (like if you get injured), that’s when you see: Is he there for you, or is he the type to leave you to die in the wilderness? “I’d totally make a tourniquet for you, but this is a $400 Burberry shirt. Good luck!”