psych pstuff header

by Dr. Donna Roberts

The Story

In 1948 Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” appeared in the June edition of The New Yorker. Jackson’s story depicts a small town with an insidious annual lottery in which the winner, instead of receiving a windfall, is ritually stoned to death by the community.

More than three decades later, in 1982, my sophomore English class in upstate NY read this story and reenacted the plot, conducting our own lottery in the classroom.

The logistics of our classroom exercise were simple and eerily mimicked Jackson’s tale. A plain wooden bowl filled with 32 pieces of folded white paper was passed from student to student. Each student chose one, ceremoniously unfolded it, and held up the result for all to see.

While I don’t fancy myself a person who typically experiences premonitions, from the beginning, I had a bad feeling about the little game we were playing. I was seated in the last row, about four from the end of the line. Student after student opened their slip and gleefully exhibited a blank, white paper. As each spotless sheet was revealed, the tension grew—we knew the basics of probability, after all. But as the bowl moved closer, I grew more nervous.

By the time the bowl made its way to me the classroom was abuzz with excitement and I was filled with the dread of the inevitable. With trembling hands I opened my slip. There. It. Was. The simple black X scrawled across the pristine white page. Cheers erupted all around me. I smiled weakly and held back the tears. It was just a game after all.

My English teacher was quite pleased. The reenactment was, in a very real sense, a huge success. The suspense was enhanced with each opening of a blank paper, just as Jackson had depicted in her story. It was a great lesson, he concluded.

On the receiving end it was harrowing—even more so than it should have been. It wasn’t even my penalty that was so disturbing: I had to complete an extra writing assignment. For me, this was not the punishment it would have been for many others in the class. I enjoyed schoolwork and writing, in particular.

It was that feeling of dread as the bowl approached and the certainty it was going to be me that left me so shaken. It was the subsequent embarrassment in front of the whole class, when it was revealed. I felt guilty and ashamed and targeted—all of which was irrational as it was a simple game of chance. But, while the rest of the students moved on to their next class and lunchroom chaos and after school activities, the lump in my throat remained. It’s still there as I vividly remember that day. Still now my face feels hot and my throat constricts.

So what does it all mean? Was there a greater lesson here? Was it a “good thing” for this high school English teacher to bring literature to life in this way for typically apathetic adolescents?

I’m still not sure. I need a moment. I need a tissue.

Psych Pstuff’s Summary

As it turns out, Jackson’s story caused quite a stir, and not just in my 1982 classroom. While it was accepted for publication with only minor editing, it also created a flood of backlash from The New Yorker’s rather sophisticated clientele. Readers were confused at best, and offended at worst, at least in part because of the common practice at the time of not identifying stories as fiction or non-fiction. Editors and readers alike questioned Jackson about the tale’s meaning, to which she quipped, “It was just a story that I wrote.”

Hordes of New Yorker readers cancelled their subscriptions, citing their distaste for Jackson’s story as the reason. Jackson herself received hate mail. Finally, she published a response in The San Francisco Chronicle, stating, “I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Put into perspective, my high school experience certainly does not merit the label “traumatizing”—or at least no more so than any other day’s events in the life of an adolescent. And yet, even today, many years later, I still feel a twinge of angst, a rush of anxiety, a feeling of victimization.

In all honesty, I’ve had it pretty good—back then in high school and since. I’ve had far more positive experiences than negative ones in my life, and while I’ve endured the normal ups and downs of the human condition, I have not suffered extreme trauma or hardship. That said, there really is no Richter Scale for pain, especially emotional discomfort. To one degree or another we all feel the gamut of human emotions and they can only be judged by their intensity relative to our other experiences.

Despite this, psychologists are pretty much in agreement (not a frequent occurrence, mind you) that we tend to remember negative events more strongly and in more specific detail than positive events. Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass notes that the brain processes positive and negative information in different hemispheres, with material associated with negative emotions requiring more in-depth processing. In short, we ruminate on the difficult and painful stuff.

Similarly, Florida State University researcher Roy Baumeister, in his article “Bad is Stronger than Good,” argues that it is evolutionarily adaptive for “bad” to take precedence over “good” for basic survival purposes. In our modern day-to-day living he translates this to “Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” Basically, our bad memories, and their associated emotions, tend to persist longer.

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.

And there’s more bad news about bad news. Harvard Business Professor Teresa Amabile’s research indicated that negative setbacks were twice as strong as positive events in relation to determining one’s emotional state. The processing of negative emotions, it seems, is more intricately linked to the brain areas responsible for learning and memory.

Despite Jackson’s reticence to sermonize any deep message for humanity in her tale, literary scholars have attempted to dissect it for meaning, theorizing about themes from the modern manifestation of ancient sacrificial rituals in the context of contemporary society to the phenomena of mob mentality. I still struggle to find meaning beyond entertaining bored students in the class exercise that bright spring day. I want it to have some transcendental purpose, in spite of, or perhaps more accurately, because of the way the anguish has persisted, so fresh through the passage of time. But I remain at a loss to find its greater significance, its kernel of wisdom, its moral to the story meant to guide our young lives.

So perhaps, it’s just as simple as rock icon Meatloaf once crooned, “Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are…”

Ω
Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.