Have you ever noticed a discrepancy between how you think you would react in a hypothetical situation and how you actually behave in real life? It turns out that this phenomenon is not uncommon. Researchers at Ghent University conducted a study that sheds light on this intriguing aspect of human behaviour.
The study focused on the disparity between people’s responses to hypothetical moral dilemmas and their actions in real-life scenarios. To explore this further, the participants were first presented with the well-known Harvard ethical dilemma, the “trolley problem.” They were asked to make a hypothetical decision about whether to divert a train from five individuals toward a single person. Subsequently, the participants were placed in front of a machine with two cages: one containing five mice and the other containing a lone mouse. They were informed that the five mice would experience a painful electric shock unless they pressed a button within twenty seconds. If they chose to act, the single mouse would bear the brunt of the shock instead. The study’s results revealed a striking disconnect between the participants’ decisions in hypothetical situations and their actual behaviour when faced with real-life consequences. While their hypothetical choices may have aligned with ethical reasoning, their actions in the experiment did not necessarily reflect their previous decisions.
This discrepancy brings to mind a comment by Rashi quoting the Talmud (Sotah 2a) on the connection between two Torah portions: Sotah and Nazir, both mentioned in this week’s Parsha. Rashi suggests that witnessing the public humiliation of a Sotah, a woman suspected of adultery, in the Temple should inspire an individual to become a Nazarite – someone who vows to abstain from certain indulgences, such as drinking wine, for a specified period. The rationale behind this connection is that observing the consequences of immoral behaviour should motivate one to distance themselves from potentially harmful influences.
However, the obvious question arises: If witnessing such a scene profoundly impacts an individual, leading them to comprehend the importance of refraining from harmful behaviours, why must they become a Nazarite? Shouldn’t understanding the message be sufficient protection against sin?
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler provides an insightful answer in his monumental work Michtav M’Eliyahu. He suggests that for those who struggle with drinking or immoral behaviour, or a combination of both, mere comprehension is not enough. It is through action that the message is truly internalized. Hypothetical understanding may not accurately reflect how we react when facing real-life challenges. The phrase “easier said than done” often resonates when we face life challenges. Our failure to achieve what we set out to do is not necessarily due to hypocrisy but rather because we sometimes underestimate the complexities of human nature. What appeared simple in the realm of imagination became much more complex when confronted with the realities of daily life. By accepting the limitations and challenges they face, the Nazarite effectively removes these obstacles from the equation.
To successfully implement our goals, we must learn to identify the real-life factors that impede our progress and develop strategies to overcome them. In our own lives, we often encounter situations where our actions fall short of our intentions. Instead of becoming disheartened, we should recognize that transitioning from hypothetical understanding to real-life action requires effort and a deeper understanding of ourselves. By acknowledging the complexities of human behaviour and devising strategies to address them, we can bridge the gap between our aspirations and actions and truly make a positive impact on ourselves and the world around us.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay