The grass is always greener on this side of the fence


In his book Sour Grapes, Jon Elster used the following story (Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes) to illustrate a kind of irrationality he called ‘adaptive preference formation’, in which people cease to desire what they can’t get:

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he.

Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success.

Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”

It occurs when a person lets the probability they assign to the various states of the world influence their evaluation of (i.e. the utility, desirability or rank order they attach to) each of those states.

With sour grapes, what is desirable depends on what is deemed possible: A is preferred to B because A is available and B is not.

The proverbial fox adjusts its preferences over the set of possible outcomes (have grapes, don’t have grapes) to the apparent attainability or feasibility of each outcome. He can’t reach the grapes so decides he doesn’t want them because they must be sour anyway.

More generally an irrational agent, finding that in deprived circumstances its desires can’t be satisfied, treats the best state it’s capable of attaining as the best that can be conceived.

This is a variety of cynicism which makes a virtue of necessity, as a way of avoiding (futile) frustation.

It can be expected to be more prevalent in times of reaction and political demoralization, like our own.

Thus Albert Hirschman, in his Rhetoric of Reaction, identified the ‘futility thesis’ as that which suggested attempts at social change were destined for failure, and therefore should be avoided. This argument typically carried, Hirschman said, a certain ‘refined sophistication’.

Polite opinion (official and media) thus no longer finds it necessary to proclaim that capitalism is superior to socialism, for today there is only one conceivable social system. As the saying goes, there is no alternative: no choice to be made.

What is to be said about this outlook?

Many people seem to understand cynicism as chronic nay-saying: an excessive, querulous devotion to scorn, criticism and debunking. (I’m sometimes accused of this fault myself.)

But cynicism (I prefer to think!) actually involves the opposite practice: a kind of rationalization or dissonance reduction.

The cynical agent reconciles a conflict between ideal and reality either by (a) forswearing beliefs or repudiating principles; or (b) adjusting perceptions of reality so that the latter becomes consistent with ideals.

The ancient Cynic is an ethical figure, dedicated to ruthless criticism of all that exists. The cynical person, on the other hand, seeks accommodation with the existing state of affairs, and is without moral or intellectual integrity.

Peter Sloterdijk is not a name to conjure with, either politically or philosophically, but his Critique of Cynical Reason contains a good description of this phenomenon:

The ancient world knows the cynic (better: kynic) as a lone owl and as a provocative, stubborn moralist. Diogenes in the tub is the archetype of this figure. In the picture book of social characters he has always appeared as a distance-creating mocker, as a biting and malicious individualist who acts as though he needs nobody and who is loved by nobody because nobody escapes his crude unmasking gaze uninjured.


[Modern] cynics…are no longer outsiders…

[This] is the essential point in modern cynicism: the ability of its bearers to work – in spite of anything that might happen, and especially, after anything that might happen. The key social positions in boards, parliaments, commissions, executive councils, publishing companies, practices, faculties, and lawyers’ and editors’ offices have long since become a part of this diffuse cynicism. A certain chic bitterness provides an undertone to its activity. For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they certainly see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. Others would do it anyway, perhaps worse. Thus, the new, integrated cynicism even has the understandable feeling about itself of being a victim and of making sacrifices…

It is afflicted with the compulsion to put up with pre-established relations that it finds dubious, to accommodate itself to them, and finally even to carry out their business. In order to survive, one must be schooled in reality. Of course. Those who mean well call it growing up, and there is a grain of truth to that.



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6 Responses to “The grass is always greener on this side of the fence”

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    […] less prevalent than an instinct for self-preservation, of bowing to exigency in the name of dissonance reduction, with the impotent yet consoling feeling that this is all really someone else’s […]

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