11. Relationships

“Relationships” is a big, complex topic, which is why Parts IV and V are entirely devoted to it, and some chapters in Parts II and III as well. So what I offer here is just an overview of some very important points designed to help you appreciate the true scope and importance of your relationships in your quest to self-actualize.

First, let’s acknowledge that humans are social animals. We exist in a web of relationships with other humans, and non-human animals, too. If those relationships are nurturing and supportive, they help us succeed. If they are dysfunctional and destructive, they drag us down. As you have probably seen in your own life and those of the people around you, few things will have more impact on your success or failure than the people you choose to associate with.

There is an article I discuss with the students in almost all of my classes, regardless of the subject matter being taught. It is from the November 7, 2003 Wall Street Journal, and its title is, “Expectations May Alter Outcomes Far More Than We Realize.” It discusses the large body of research that shows that people’s performance is linked to the expectations of those around them. The article quotes Robert Rosenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside:

Expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students, they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes, they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect a certain response from their research subjects, they tend to get it.

Psychologists call this the “expectation effect” or “Pygmalion effect.” The article goes on to describe an experiment in this area:

Elementary-school teachers were told that one group of kids had done extraordinarily well on a test that predicts intellectual “blooming” and so would make remarkable academic gains. The test seemed prescient: after a few months, the “bloomers” it identified had achieved statistically significant gains over the other students. In reality, there was no such test. The kids the teachers thought were bloomers included students from every ability level as measured by a nonverbal intelligence test. So did the supposed nonbloomers. “The only difference was in the mind, and expectations, of the teacher,” says Professor Rosenthal.

The lesson is clear: we tend to live up, or down, to the expectations of those around us. So, no matter how talented or dedicated you are, if you are hanging around people who constantly put you down, or who demean your values, you will be far less likely to succeed. But if you are hanging out with people who are supportive—who think you’re marvelous and who at least respect, if not agree 100 percent with, your values—you will be far more likely to succeed.

The other reason it’s important for you to form healthy relationships is that your effectiveness as an activist is tied directly to your ability to create and manage quality relationships with other activists, your audience, and even your opposition. Recall Todd Gitlin’s comment, quoted in Chapter 9, about the importance of “people”—oriented qualities such as patience and a tolerance for small talk.

In Peter Singer’s biography of animal rights activist Henry Spira, Ethics Into Action (see Bibliography), Singer describes Spira’s 1975–1977 campaign to convince the Museum of Natural History in New York City to stop conducting cruel research that involved mutilating cats to test their sexual response. A key breakthrough was a surprisingly sympathetic article on the campaign that appeared in Science, a magazine one would normally expect to support the vivisectors. Singer quotes the article’s author, Nicholas Wade, on Spira:

I think he was effective because he was such a friendly, outgoing, moderate sort of person. He wasn’t strident. He didn’t expect you necessarily to agree with everything he said. But he was very bubbly and full of ideas, and just interesting to listen to. So I found him an engaging character to cover. I thought he had lots of good points, so I was ready to run with them and bounce them off his adversaries.

Spira eventually won that campaign, and went on to win many others.

Exercise

Relationships Goals List

Write down a list of your goals related to your relationships, in as much detail as possible. Don’t forget to include . . .

• Family relationships

• Intimate relationships

• Relationships with friends

• Relationships with neighbors, classmates and other acquaintances

• Relationships with bosses, teachers and other authority figures

• Relationships with other activists, including mentors

• Relationships with your audience

• Relationships with your opposition

• Relationships with neutral parties

We’ll call this document your Relationships Goals List.