The Incident, as we’ll call it, gave Elihu Wingate a few weeks of notoriety among his fellow psychologists. We know it’s hard to imagine, a gentle soul like Elihu Wingate the object of gossip up and down the West Coast.
“You’ve seen articles like this, in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s. The reporters follow the same arc: Ordinary Life Builds Up to Dramatic Incident. The incident isn’t described right away. The article hints at it, works up to it, maybe opens with a vignette of an ordinary day in the subject’s life, before everything changes.”
Try to throw a colleague off a cliff, and this is what happens.
Of course, we exaggerate. Gossip is always more colorful than truth, though the real version of events also contains a cliff-like structure, and the two men scuffling at the edge of it. We’ll get to that later.
You’ve seen articles like this, in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s. The reporters follow the same arc: Ordinary Life Builds Up to Dramatic Incident. The incident isn’t described right away. The article hints at it, works up to it, maybe opens with a vignette of an ordinary day in the subject’s life, before everything changes.
On a typical morning, Elihu Wingate drives downtown to his office, which is inside a turn-of-the-century building. He greets colleagues, researchers and secretaries, custodial staff and accountants. He sits at his computer in his corner office, studies data, writes reports, plans his business trips.
Elihu Wingate is an expert on the psychology of consumer behavior. This means that corporate managers everywhere, no matter what their product—lawn mowers or tax preparation services, flea collars or gourmet chocolates—want to hear what Elihu Wingate has to say.
After work, Elihu Wingate drives home to a pleasant suburban development called MountainView Estates. He has developed a post-divorce routine in his enormous, post-divorce house. He makes a salad, grills some salmon or halibut. He sits out on the patio sipping iced tea.
There’s no winter to speak of in this part of California. If we’d installed a surveillance camera on the patio and reviewed the film on fast forward, the only change in the long stationary blur of Elihu Wingate on his deck chair would be from short sleeves to long sleeves, iced tea to hot tea. Even the breaks in his routine are routine. Elihu Wingate’s two daughters, Iris and Orchid, are there most weekends, when the surveillance camera would catch more motion: a larger blur and two smaller blurs playing badminton or Frisbee, or jumping in the pool.
As the sun sets Elihu Wingate washes his dish and glass and cleans the grill. He goes upstairs. He checks his e-mail. Nothing.
He checks the junk mail box. Nothing.
He opens his favorite online video game, where he’s a test pilot for top-secret military planes. He forgets to check the fuel gauge. The plane crashes.
He tries a game he just bought this weekend. He’s an FBI agent creeping through a labyrinthine abandoned building, trying to get the bad guys before they get him. He’s shot by what looks like a twelve-year-old.
Elihu Wingate turns off the computer. He reads psychology journals in bed until he falls asleep.
There are warning signs before the Incident, to be sure. Months before, maybe even years. Little fissures opening up in the smooth, tranquil surface Elihu Wingate presents to the world.
It hasn’t been easy to get the facts. Psychologists are protective of their own. Most likely they’re afraid the whole melodramatic episode reflects badly on their profession. Or maybe they pity Elihu Wingate.
“Such a nice guy,” they keep saying.
“Elihu’s a genius,” his colleague Dan Keegan likes to tell people. “The brains of the operation. I just handle the practical stuff.”
In his booming voice Dan Keegan will list his colleague’s accomplishments. You’ll learn more than you thought you wanted to know about counterfactuals, upward comparisons, downward ones, Elihu Wingate being the first psychologist to talk about these concepts seriously.
“And there’s his research on regret, ” Dan will tell you. “Never even occurred to anyone before Elihu that regret could be a positive thing. Changed the field. Now everyone’s studying regret, hindsight, all that stuff.”
Lumbering Dan Keegan, he of the thinning hair and thickening paunch, may seem an unlikely cheerleader, but no mere pompom girl could match him in enthusiasm, loudness, and sheer size.
“Then he started relating all that to consumer behavior,” Dan will say. “Figured out how regret factors into negotiating strategies.”
He gets excited at this point, leans over, mimes a friendly punch on your arm and you feel like you’ve been cuffed by a bear.
“Have you heard his newest thing? Jury research. How hindsight affects juries in liability cases.”
“So what’s his secret?” you might ask as you move out of thumping range.
“Damnedest thing,” Dan Keegan will say. “People tell him stuff they won’t say to any other interviewer.”
If you can imagine the opposite of the glad-handing Dan Keegan, Elihu Wingate is it. Quiet, lean as a runner, dark expressive eyes with a touch of befuddlement. People instinctively sense that Elihu Wingate is the last person in the world who would ever make fun of them. So when he asks those boring interview questions (“What factors led to your decision?” “How do you feel about your decision now?”), they don’t just blurt out whatever occurs to them, they think about the question, remember more details. Whole other topics come to mind they never would have mentioned to someone else.