August 7, 2018

A map to make the right choices (Nitzavim)

One of the most important ideas developed in the Torah is freedom of choice and consequence of actions, and perhaps the starkest expression of this idea is found in our parsha where we read:

“See! Today I have set before you [a free choice] between life and good, and death and evil” (Devarim 30:15).

Simply put, if you choose the right thing, you will live, and if you don’t you will die – the verse couldn’t be any clearer! Yet, just a few verses later, the Torah helps us with our decision, as if we weren’t sure which path to take, by telling us to “choose life so that you will live… to love Hashem your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him” (ibid. vrs. 19-20).

The question that has bothered a number of commentaries is why did the Torah need to tell us which choice to make when the consequences seemed so clear?

One suggestion offered by the Maggid of Mezritch is that the decision between good and evil is often not as clear as we seem, and ‘evil’ is often just the less-good option. Consequently, the message being taught is that we should always choose the best of two goods and be our best selves in terms of how we serve God.

However, I’d like to offer a second suggestion to this question based on a fascinating study cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ (pp. 96-98).

Gladlwell explains that the social psychologist Howard Levanthal wanted to see if he could persuade a group of college seniors at Yale University to get a tetanus shot and so he divided them up into several groups, and gave all of them a seven-page booklet explaining the dangers of tetanus, the importance of inoculation, and the fact that the university was offering free tetanus shots at the campus health centre to all interested students. The booklets came in several versions. Some of the students were given a “high fear” version, which described tetanus in dramatic terms and included photographs of a child having a tetanus seizure and other tetanus victims, while others were given the “low fear” version which used less extreme language regarding the risks of tetanus and which didn’t include any photographs.

Levanthal wanted to see what impact the different booklets had on the students’ attitudes toward tetanus and their likelihood of getting a shot. The results were, in part, quite predictable. When they were given a questionnaire later, all the students appeared to be well educated about the dangers of tetanus. But those who were given the high-fear booklet were more convinced of the dangers of tetanus, more convinced of the importance of shots, and were more likely to say that they intended to get inoculated.

However, all of those differences evaporated when Levanthal looked at how many of the students actually went and got a shot. One month after the experiments, almost none of the subjects — a mere 3 percent — had actually gone to the health centre to get inoculated. For some reason, the students had forgotten everything they had learned about tetanus, and the lessons they had been told weren’t translating into action. The experiment didn’t stick. Why not?

Leventhal believed that the booklet was missing an important element, and sure enough, when he redid the experiment one small change was sufficient to tip the vaccination rate up to 28 percent. It was simply including a map of the campus with the university health building circled and the times that shots were available clearly listed.

According to Malcolm Gladwell there are two interesting results of this study. The first is that of the 28 percent who got inoculated, an equal number were from the high-fear and the low-fear group. Whatever extra persuasive muscle was found in the high-fear booklet was clearly irrelevant. The students knew, without seeing gory pictures, what the dangers of tetanus were, and what they ought to be doing.

The second interesting thing is that, of course, as seniors they must have already known where the health centre was, and doubtless had visited it several times already. It is doubtful that any of them would ever actually have used the map. In other words, what the tetanus intervention needed in order to tip was not an avalanche of new or additional information. What it needed was a subtle but significant change in presentation. The students needed to know how to fit the tetanus stuff into their lives; the addition of the map and the times when the shots were available shifted the booklet from an abstract lesson in medical risk to a practical and personal piece of medical advice. And once the advice became practical and personal, it became memorable. What Gladwell is trying to teach us is that even when things are clearly presented and easy to do, sometimes it takes something extra, or what he calls a tipping point, to translate ideas into action.

Returning to our parsha, having informed us of our choice of “life and good, death and evil” the Torah then gives us a ‘map’ which tells us how to choose life by loving Hashem, by listening to His voice and by cleaving to Him.

What we learn from here is that true freedom of choice only exists when both options are equally comprehendible to the chooser. Thus the task of the parent, educator and religious guide is to provide the map so at least, if someone doesn’t choose one path, it is not because they didn’t know how to get there.

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