After the recent presidential election, several readers of my advice column expressed shock that one of the candidates could garner so many votes: “How could anyone vote for him?” They would then go on to list what they saw as the candidate’s many disturbing personality characteristics and actions. In addition, some would lament how they felt deceived because they always considered friends or family members who voted for him to be “decent and good people.”
What I call the “Yeah … but …” phenomenon can perhaps shed some light on these “how could they?” voting decisions, as well as other decisions.
For example, in a dialogue between two people who voted for different candidates, the first part of the phenomenon is the “yeah” part. It is acknowledgment: “Yeah, you’re right. Candidate X is not a good, kind, or principled person.” Then comes the “but” part: “but, look at all he has done to make the economy and the markets strong.”
Another example: we once had a president who carried on an inappropriate relationship with a young woman in the Oval Office. “Yeah, we can agree that what he did was shameful and maybe left him vulnerable to blackmail, but he gave us the lowest inflation in years, and a balanced budget with a surplus.”
That, in a nutshell, is how Yeah … but … works: by rationalizing that a positive outcome cancels out, or at the very least, neutralizes a distressing fact.
It’s not just voters who use the Yeah … but … phenomenon. We all use it, sometimes in self-dialogue, and sometimes in discussions with others.
Here are three examples:
- Yeah, it’s terrible that babies and children were separated from their parents at the border, but their parents should never have brought them here.
- Yeah, I’m not proud that I cheat on my tax returns, but I still pay more than my fair share compared to others.
- Yeah, it’s horrible that for decades a certain religious organization has overlooked sexual predation, but look at all the charitable contributions, good schools, and help for the poor this same organization has provided.
The Yeah … but … process is self-serving; it brings psychological peace and stability. It provides a framework to gloss over a disturbing behavior by convincing oneself that some other acceptable, even honorable behavior justifies, excuses, or at the very least, makes the objectionable behavior or situation more palatable.
Once one recognizes that he/she is using Yeah … but …, there is the opportunity to look at a desired outcome and question if it is possible to achieve it in other ways that do not include an unsettling condition.
In the examples used, these are the desired outcomes:
- Have a strong economy and markets.
- Create balanced budgets.
- Treat children humanely.
- Feel good about completing tax returns accurately.
- Find a religion that doesn’t involve sexual predation.
There are reasons why many will cling to their current Yeah … buts … and live with the emotional discomfort:
- They fear being ostracized by family members, friends, and organizations that accept, support, and perhaps even encourage, the “yeah …”.
- It is emotionally easier to go along to get along.
- There is a lack of will and/or courage to question their values, beliefs, and actions.
- There is a fear of being viewed as weak for a change of mind.
- They aren’t quite sure how to go about finding an acceptable alternative.
In many cases, however, others are open to questioning their Yeah … buts …. A combination of an open mind, some creativity, and a willingness to consider the Yeah … but … concept, either by oneself or with others, might produce some new insights and perhaps help alleviate the need to live with conflicting values. Ways can be found to try to get to desired outcomes without sanctioning a particular person or organization that is morally unacceptable.
The first step in the process is to be aware of the many Yeah … but … situations we all engage in on a regular basis. The next step is to decide whether to accept the situation as is, or to explore the possibility of achieving the desired outcome without having to condone or explain away objectionable conditions.
Regardless of the path chosen, a clarity of one’s values will emerge.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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