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Buds of a feather

By blasting away at ducks, Joe Robinson wonders, did Cheney and Scalia also Super Glue their psyches into one wild, symbiotic soul?

March 02, 2004|Joe Robinson

The best-known duck hunt since Porky Pig chased Daffy, the recent trip by Vice President Dick Cheney and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has ruffled more feathers than Foster Farms. Some legal observers, TV and radio commentators and editorials in most of the nation's largest newspapers argue that, since the Supreme Court will be taking up a case with Cheney at its center -- whether he has the right to withhold details of White House meetings with energy officials that helped shape the administration's energy policies -- it was wrong for Scalia to share Louisiana marsh mud with his friend the Veep. Last week, the Sierra Club filed a rare motion for Scalia to recuse himself from the case, contending the trip was proof of conflict of interest. But Cheney and Scalia have insisted that the trip was harmless fun that would have no effect on judicial impartiality.

That runs counter to a growing body of evidence showing that shared experiences in the wild produce an intimate social bond that leaves people fondly disposed toward their companions. In fact, there are few things this side of boiling oil more persuasive than an adventure in the wilderness. Shared experiences in the wild create a powerful dynamic that promotes trust, camaraderie and empathy, many experts say.

Whether it's a fishing trip or a whitewater paddling run, a romp in the woods loosens stiff upper lips and smooths the path to friendship and agreement. This knack has made the outdoors a favorite getting-to-know-you tool for presidents, business honchos and Washington lobbyists with spare fishing trips to Bimini. The Old Boy Network has always had a backcountry channel.

The Cheney-Scalia outing put the two at the intersection of a physiological and psychological process with the potential to join them at the wader. People behave differently outdoors. Comfort zones expand and bonds can grow even among the most wooden government officials and bean counters. In the natural environment, "people slow down; their sensory awareness widens," explains Judith Holloway, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who takes doctoral students on trips into the wilderness. "Their ability to give themselves over, to trust people, increases."

The environment conspires in a variety of subtle ways to increase our receptivity to others. Studies show the sound of water in the wild has a calming effect, while scenes of beauty can change mood and calm jangled nerves. "When we're among congestion and traffic, we tend to withdraw," says Marc Shoen, clinical professor of medicine at UCLA. "You go into the wild, and you get this space and openness. You don't feel you need to protect yourself as much."

It's a world apart from the normal force field of defense mechanisms that keeps a tight lid on personal disclosures. Most people protect themselves behind the mask of the job title, which is merely a show face, something psychologists call the "persona," a name taken from masks worn by actors in ancient times. But most people are bad actors. We want to get offstage and be who we are, the individual, not the collective face, to live within an authentic place. Shared experiences in the outdoors have a way of letting that happen naturally.

The wilderness is common ground, egalitarian turf devoid of the markers of station and competition. "It's probably the only place human beings have left where ... we're all the same," says Ellin L. Bloch, a professor and director of the PhD program in clinical psychology at Alliant International University in Los Angeles. "That brings us to our most basic level of who we are as human beings. We're not in the fancy buildings, there are no hierarchies, we're just with the trees and birds."

And, of course, with our soon-to-be buds, because all that commonality leads to greater feelings of trust and a willingness to disclose more of our real selves. Building similarity is the key to developing relationships. "Two guys in the woods, through that interaction, are increasing the basis of similarity between them," says Margaret A. Neal, a professor of organization and dispute resolution at Stanford University.

A couple of days in a duck blind can provide enough similarity to leave the parties suspecting they might have been separated at birth. There's the confederacy of whispered strategies, the shared drama of creeping in the crisp bite of dawn, the teamwork of stalking prey, induction into the tribe of rubber wear. The kick of guns against shoulders, the falling birds add an even deeper layer of bonding. "They're focused on a common goal, 'our' target, which does pull out the archetypal hunter within," says Pam Brill, a Bedford, N.H.-based psychologist and author of "The Winner's Way."

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