This transcript is adapted from a Rosh Hashanah talk given on September 30, 2019.

Rabbi Ruhi Rubenstein: It is my pleasure and honor, for our Scientists in Synagogues drasha today, to invite Dr. Elliot Berkman from the University of Oregon Department of Psychology and from Temple Beth Israel to speak to us about the psychology of teshuvah.

Dr. Elliot Berkman: L’shana tovah. I’m Elliot Berkman. As Ruhi already mentioned, I’m a TBI member and a professor of psychology at UO. And as I sit in Rosh Hashanah services listening to the Unetaneh Tokef, among other things we just recited, I’m often left feeling alone. I don’t know if I’m the only one with that feeling. Not so much that I’m alone in having sinned, but that the responsibility for teshuvah falls on me alone, that the responsibility falls on each of us, really, as individuals, that’s the sense that I get. It would be easy to think of Rosh Hashanah as this kind of solitary, inward-looking time, but I think that would be a mistake. If you look at the Mishnah and the commentaries on it, they’re clear that Judaism treats teshuvah as a fundamentally social process.

This was kind of an interesting discovery for me; my field within psychology is called Social Psychology, and a core tenet of this field is that humans are really, fundamentally, social creatures. This means more than just that we live in groups and that we depend on other people for survival – that we do. But more deeply, it means that our natural state, one in which our entire biology and psychology is built, is to live with others in interdependent groups.

And within psychology, my area of research is goals and behavior change – this question of “how do we set goals for ourselves, and how do we go about pursuing them? And how do we go right and when do we go wrong?” And decades of research in social psychology have now shown that goal pursuit, like many other human activities, is a fundamentally social act.

So given my background as I sit in Temple and experience Unetaneh Tokef, it’s always been a little bit confounding to me why I get this sense of aloneness during this prayer, because I know that goals – and what is teshuvah other than a New Year’s resolution – are really fundamentally social. So I was relieved to dig in a little bit and find out that really, Judaism’s views on teshuvah align quite well with those of social psychology. It just took my field a few thousand years to catch up. (laughter)

So today I’ll just tell you a little bit about some of the science and research that kind of gives me this hunch. So what ways is teshuvah a social act? There’s a few. In Maimonides, in The Laws of Teshuvah, makes a distinction, and I think he makes kind of a big deal about it – a distinction between repenting for sins against God and repenting for sins against other people.

So he talks about this, and so in this view, Maimonides really underscores teshuvah as a social process. It’s not something that we can really do on our own. If I have wronged you, I must recognize that I’ve wronged you, I must attempt to make amends, and I must ask for your forgiveness. And you, I would hope, would give it to me. If you don’t forgive me at first, I’m supposed to come back to you with three friends. I bring friends, and I ask again for your forgiveness. And I do this three times. In essence – and I should note that after three times, if you do not forgive me, then it’s kind of on you – then I’m forgiven by God, and it’s your fault. Except if I’m a teacher, in which case I never have to stop and it’s not on me. My students can ask for forgiveness, and I can say no as often as I want. (laughter) Maimonides, of course, being a teacher himself.

So I mean in essence this liturgy is telling us teshuvah, for sinning against other people at least, is really not complete until this interactive process happens, right. It requires other people.

There’s research on goals, and how other people affect our goals also. So there’s this idea of transactive goal dynamics – essentially, that other people can influence the likelihood of the success of our goals. So for example, when people feel more connected to each other and we can manipulate this, and this is one of the things that we do well, we’re psychologists. So we can make people feel more connected to other people. And when they do that, that improves their performance on tasks that those people complete on their own, even when there’s no other people around. And it can also reduce the harmful effects that stereotyping and discrimination have on the victims of those processes.

Also, people whose romantic partners are high in conscientiousness – these are sort of organized, detail-oriented people – are more likely to earn more money and be promoted compared to other people whose partners are low in conscientiousness. And that’s even separate from your own level of conscientiousness.

We also know that we learn from other people quite profoundly. There’s this signal in your brain called the error-related negativity, so when you’re learning to do something, your brain has what a psychologist might call it the “oh, shoot” response – like when you do something wrong, you get this sort of little signal. And I think we all know that feeling, right, that feeling of, “Oh, I did something wrong.” What that is, at the level of the brain, is actually a learning signal. What that’s doing is kind of flagging that moment for you to say, “Hey, next time do something a little differently.” And we’ve identified fairly precisely where that happens, and when that happens, in the brain.

And so one favorite kind of recent studies was from a group at the University of Virginia, who found that not only do people get that when they themselves make mistakes, but you also get that signal just as robustly in your brain when you watch someone else make a mistake. And not just anyone else – it has to be somebody that you feel close to, and that you feel connected to. So in the control condition, they had people watch strangers making mistakes, and when a stranger makes a mistake, you don’t see that same response. It’s really somebody that you feel is similar to you, somebody who is part of your community.

So the implication here for this bit: the wisdom embedded in our tradition, and confirmed by recent research, is that other people can help us to change, and that witnessing other people changing can help them and us as well.

So the second way teshuvah is a social liturgy is that asking for forgiveness is different if you’re alone, compared to when you’re in a group. So again, Maimonides and his laws of teshuvah noted that only in the 10 days beginning now until Yom Kippur, our sins against God are received immediately. If we ask for forgiveness for a sin against God, it’s granted in this time. That’s only when you’re asking alone. When you ask for forgiveness in a group, it’s granted any time of the year. Doesn’t have to be in these ten days. It’s kind of an interesting point. So to Maimonides’ point, to use his words, he says public confession and public teshuvah are praiseworthy, they are to be encouraged. We want this not just at this time of year but all the time, you know, around here.

And there’s something to this public nature of teshuvah that makes it more valuable, in Maimonides’ view. And again, research has sort of backed up this sense that he had. One recent study was on this process people called pre-commitment. They had folks announce their determination to change when they set a goal. So they kind of went on the record and told their friends and family say, “I have this goal.” When you do that, it makes you more likely to stick to your goal and more likely to be successful, as you might imagine.

So they use social media in this case, and they had folks who were dieters go on the record and say, “I have this specific weight loss goal.” And they showed that people who did that were 10 to 15% more likely to not only succeed in hitting that target, but also to maintain their weight loss for six months. So again, our tradition kind of acknowledges this – that going on the record is important. It takes courage, it’s not easy to do this publicly, because what we’re acknowledging our shortcomings and we’re making a vow to change, especially in the presence of other people that we respect. But that is one evidence-based way to get a lasting behavior change.

Finally, Rabbi Ruhi pointed out to me – I missed it the first time – that the entire passage in the liturgy is written in the first person plural. We are asking for forgiveness, we are attempting teshuvah. So the liturgy at least recognizes this, that it’s more effective to ask “we” than “I.” And that, again, makes sense from this scientific perspective. There’s a bunch of different research on what happens when we talk about our actions in slightly different ways, and thinking about things from this kind of outside-of-self perspective – psychologists call it self-distancing – can make people better at a lot of things. So it actually makes you more empathic, it helps you empathize with others, it helps you regulate your emotions, and indeed, helps you engage in self-control more strongly when you do that, when you see the perspective from the outside, which is one of the things that this sort of first person plural does. There are lots of ways to do that, mindfulness practice is one, right, where you try to introduce some distance between the entrenched first-person perspective and the way you otherwise would see the world. Self-talk, talking to yourself, like, “You can do it” in the second person, introduces this distance, [and] you’re watching yourself from the outside. But in essence, all these things show that seeing ourselves from the outside perspective helps us see the larger context and minimize our own egoistic concerns, right. It’s not about me, it’s about us, it’s about we.

Also, when you think about collective action – so if you’ve ever been in a hotel room, they have these placards that might encourage you to hang your towels on the door or on the hook so that they don’t wash them and can save water. So when I was at UCLA, a colleague of mine, Noah Goldstein, ran a study where he had those placards, but he randomly assigned rooms to have a message that says, “Most of our guests prefer to save water.” So everybody has a thing that said, “if you want to save water you can put this there,” right, but this one said, “Most of our guests [do].” And when they did that, towel reuse increased by 25%. That’s pretty remarkable, that was great. And the hotels love it because they save money on water, right, but it’s couched in this kind of environmental thing.

And other colleagues of mine found that people are willing to pay more, up to $0.80 more, for a healthy food item if they think that other people who are similar to them also were willing to pay more for that. So if we believe other people are in this with us, we’re more likely to kind of go along with that.

So I’ll close just briefly by noting an apparent tension that’s always struck me throughout this holiday. So on the one hand, we’re sitting here thinking about teshuvah, change, how we were – literally, it means returning to our better selves, the souls that we know that we can be, we vow to return to that. But on the other hand, we know we did this last year, and we know we’re going to do it next year. And so it’s it’s a little confusing, right. So we’re saying we’re going to change, and yet it’s already on our calendars that we will be back here next year doing the same thing. And again, I think psychology has some insight there. A brilliant colleague [at University of Miami], a mentor named Charles Carver, who died a few months ago, made a number of important contributions to psychology. But one of them was grappling with this very question of “How do we motivate to set goals for ourselves if we’re going to perpetually know that we’re going to fall short?”

And one of the insights for him came when he did some real research on how people feel when they reach those goals. And it turns out that achieving your goals doesn’t actually feel that good. It doesn’t feel as good as you think it will. You know, maybe some of our sage elders have already learned this, but I think for many of us that’s still something that we relearn. And in Charles Carver’s research, what he showed was that what really makes people feel good, or really makes them feel satisfied with their lives, is the sense that they’re making progress toward their goals, the sense that they’re moving toward something, or that you’re not stuck. Getting that thing, right – it’s all about the chase. Getting the thing isn’t as good as it feels. And that was true. I mean, he kind of pushed this, and he did work on people who were pursuing extremely difficult goals that they knew they would never really achieve. And even then, those, in fact, were some of the most satisfied people in the world, the people that were pursuing goals that, you know, they knew essentially were hopeless, but instead of feeling hopeless, they felt optimistic and they felt engaged and energized by feeling like they were making progress on those goals. There’s something pretty powerful about that, I think, from the perspective of Judaism.

So the insight here is that the cyclical nature of this holiday is inherent to the way Judaism is structured. We recognize that we’re always going to be striving for something better. Hopefully next year we’ll be back, striving for something even higher, even though we know it’s unattainable, in some sense. It’s nourishing to our psychology to strive toward our better selves.

So in writing this, I’ve been thinking of this holiday, and I’ve been trying to convince myself that this holiday is not this kind of solitary, inward, reflective thing. Part of it is certainly that, but part of it is really a collective action, that we are coming together as a community to help each other change, to change ourselves as a community. And I’ve felt less alone, I’ll say that. Somehow it seems easier for me [to see] that a community might change itself than an individual person, right. A community, you could set new goals and evolve toward them, but of course maybe that’s just because I’m a social psychologist.

And so I wish you a shana tovah, and I hope that you all feel this sense of connection, that teshuvah is a collective process for you and the people around you together. And that thinking about it that way will make your teshuvah more fulfilling and successful.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. Elliot Berkman is Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and a member of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, OR).