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Things can only get better. Especially if you're in prison

Recently, convicted fraudster (this will forever be his moniker), Bernie Madoff, told his interviewer: “I have no decisions to make.” He is scheduled to be released in 2139 and he told Barbara Walters; “I know I will die in prison. I lived the last 20 years of my life in fear. Now I have no fear because I’m no longer in control.”

Perhaps he is on to something. Anxiety can stem from a fear of losing what we have, that the future will not live up to our earlier expectations. Have you ever seen how terrified rich people are about losing their money? Rather than fighting to secure what we want, perhaps it’s easier to just give up and get rid of any sense of doom by eliminating the struggle altogether.

This defeatist attitude fits in with a Psychological Science study, which looks at the ways people respond to rules. Their research shows we often respond to restrictions on our behaviour by rationalising the new rules, in order to feel good about them. At other times, we rebel and pursue what has been banned with increased vigour.

Kristen Lauren, of Canada’s University of Waterloo, said the explanation seems to lie in how absolute the restrictions are. In one case, people were told of an impending reduction in speed limits and it was found that they were more likely to approve of the reduction, the more it was presented a fait accompli. Complete smoking bans across European bars and restaurants seem to bear this out.

The researchers even believe this phenomenon helps explain the Arab Spring; under an absolute dictatorship, people survive by rationalising their oppression, but when the dictatorship weakens, as in your president fleeing the country, their rationalisations stop and uprisings can occur. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who said revolutions normally happen when things are getting better.

Disturbingly, this seems to suggest that people are happier under absolute tyranny than when they have some rights. Maybe, it is just best to burn bridges and close doors. David Mamet once said: “Those with something to fall back on, inevitably do. They intended to all along. That is why they provided themselves with it; but those with no alternative see the world differently.”

It is probably not ideal to want to fail, but a sort of rationalisation – whereby you treat events pragmatically and stoically, closing off possible alternative futures- probably provides the only kind of release Madoff is going to experience, unless he lives to be 201.

Nigel Phillips


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