Tag Archives: Psychology

Wither the SAT

31 Mar

Test

The College Board organization has recently revised the SAT college admissions test. In a couple of weeks it will publish new sample questions to illustrate the changes it has had to make the test more relevant, the vocabulary more functional, and the orientation more real world.   Below are a few of my ideas about how the new SAT questions might appear.

 

Stawar Aptitude Test

 

1. Joshua graduated two years ago with a degree in _________. He should ask Sallie Mae ___________.

a. Art History,   out on a date

b. Communications, for an unpaid internship

c. Humanities, for a forbearance

d. Occlumency,   if she’s from Kentucky

 

2. Which of these founding documents of America contains 234,812 words?

a.   The Constitution

b.   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

c.   Chicken Soup for the Soul

d.   The Affordable Health Care Act

 

3. If your current cell phone plan has unlimited data and messaging, 50GB of free cloud storage, but limits talk to 500 minutes per month, when will you be eligible for the next phone upgrade?

a.   after the first year

b.   the week before you accidently drop it in the toilet

c.   just in time for the   iPhone12 release

d.   when you sign a new contract for 12 more years

 

4. If the toll for a new bridge is $12 for a round trip, based on the current inflation rate of 3%, what is the probability that your father would actually use the bridge ?

a.   100%

b.   one in a million

c.   50/50

d.   not a chance in hell

 

5. After a(n) ________________ consideration of the all the alternatives, Donald   conclude that __________________ was the last place he wanted to be.

a.   copious,   band camp

b.   assiduous, drug court

c.   indolent, summer school

d.   odiferous, the Port-a-Potty

What Does Your Desktop Say?

13 Mar

deskyopinkblot

           I’m always changing the desktop wallpaper on our computer at home. I just got rid of the Valentine Day’s hearts for February and replaced them with a couple of Irish Dancers for March and St. Patrick’s Day. The boy dancer looks a bit goofy, so I will probably change it again— I’m thinking a leprechaun or shamrock. Over the holidays I had a slide show of Thanksgiving and then Christmas pictures set up in the screen saver , which irritated my wife Diane. When the grandchildren come to visit, I usually put up something like images of SpongeBob Squarepants or Disney princesses.

On my work computer I have our company logo on the home screen. My daughter and her husband have a slide show of pictures of their children constantly playing on the computer in their kitchen. For a lot of people these screens have become our personal art galleries.  A few years ago a British study of the psychological meaning of computer desktops was commissioned by Microsoft. Psychologist Donna Dawson reviewed a sample of office workers’ desktops seeking factors which reflect personality traits. She said “….desktops are our personal space and as such provide a fairly accurate personality description of an individual.”

According to eMarketer, the average American spends over 5 hours a day looking at screens. BioniX a company that makes software that helps people customized their computers, quotes a customer who says, ““One of the things I love about getting a new phone or computer is not just the things I can do with it, but the fact that I can personalize it and make it my own. I like my technology to reflect who I am, what I’m into, my opinions and beliefs.” The website also says that such customization helps people “feel at home” with their device and implies that no one would ever “dream of using the factory settings” for their desktops.

BioniX also says that getting a new device is much like buying a new home. The first thing you want to do is to redecorate it and make it your own. Since we spend so much time with our screens they say, “the choice of the image that greets us every time we fire up our laptop is an important one”. Brian McGannon, a columnist from postgradproblems.com says, “Maybe you’re a minimalist who likes to keep it simple, or maybe you’re the flashy type who has a beautiful cityscape with lightning flashing in the background. Either way, that desktop background can provide a deep look into your personality.”

Many people consciously choose images that are a source of inspiration. These pictures may be spiritual or religious in nature. Personal beliefs may also be expressed through political and historical images or quotations. Calming images that evoke relaxation or pleasant reveries are often seen on work desktops used to reduce the ill effects of on-the-job stressors.  Desktop visuals may also serve as reminders for goals we want to achieved or resolutions we wish to keep. Additionally the number and organization of icons on your desktop also may have psychological significance.  Along with Dawson and McGannon, writers Jeff Wysaski from pleated-jeans.com and Sophie Daste from Sparklife have offered their take on the different kinds of desktops people use. These along with some interpretations stemming from the content analysis of common symbols are presented for several desktop themes below.

1. Windows/MAC Default: Use of factory loaded defaults is generally associated with older users who may not be very tech savvy regarding how to personalizes the device. They also imply a lack of artistic temperament, being overly simplistic and old fashioned. It may also point to depression and a lack of energy or perhaps contempt for modern technology. You also may just be “stuck using your dad’s old laptop.” On a MAC it suggests someone who is easily pleased, unimaginative, and perhaps uses the use computer sparingly and only bought a MAC because of its association with youth.
2. Plain Blue Wallpaper: This simple, but often used, wallpaper suggests that the user possesses the technical skills to personalized the computer. This ability, however, is overpowered by a defensive and guarded unwillingness to disclose very much. Overall it suggests someone who likes to keep their personal life private.
3. Cute Animals: In all likelihood this user is an animal lover, compassionate, optimistic, imaginative, charitable and very possibly a little girl. These images suggest some degree of distancing of the self from others. Cartoon animals represent one step further away from reality.
4. Sports Photos or Logos: This wallpaper is associated with personality characteristics such as team/city/college loyalty, adventurousness, hero worshipping, and possibly beer drinking. It also suggests aggressiveness, competitiveness, extroversion, and a high energy level. Unless of course unless it’s the Green Bay Packers, then it’s okay.
5. Nature: These images are often used by people value travel and tend to be dreamers. They are commonly associated with people who lack windows in their workspace and need a vacation.
6. TV/Movie Characters or Scenes: People who use these backgrounds tend to be homebodies and loyal Netflix users. They may be imaginative and have an active fantasy life. This type of screen may overlap with the Celebrity Crush desktop, which is generally harmless unless you are over 15 years of age, when stalking becomes a viable possibility.
7. Personal Photos: These users tend to be family-orientated, as they are often they are people with children.. They may also reflect travel or hobbies. Subcategories include photos of: (A) You and your significant other, which reveals romantic tendencies, but also exhibitionism, since it invites personal conversations; (B) you accepting an award . Such self-portraits strongly indicate narcissism — folks with big egos who revel in past triumphs. This category reminds me of a guy that Diane once worked for, who didn’t have any pictures of his family around his office, but instead had many pictures of himself; and (C) college days: these indicate a desire to return to the good old days where there was less pressure and responsibility. Unless you just got out of college last week, authorities agree that it might be time to move on.
8. Inspirational Quotes: These are used by people who are overly conventional, easily influenced, and generally happy with their lives, although they may feel pangs of ambition at times.
9. Cluttered Icons on Desktop : When a desktop has icons strewn across the screen it suggests the owner is disorganized and tends to easily lose focus. Research reveals such people are e likely to be male, liberal, have higher education, be career-oriented, and are math whizs.
10. Highly Organized Icons: People with very tidy desktops are likely to be younger, non-urban, tech savvy, and place personal life ahead of work. When the icons are arranged symmetrically its suggests obsessive-compulsive features. If can also indicate they value balance and that they have the ability to keep a cool head, even in thorny situations.
11. Several Rows of Desktop Icons: This type of a desktop arrangement reflects a strong need to feel in control and prepared for every contingency. At the same time it indicates underlying anxiety, insecurity, and internal disorganization.
12. Seasons of the Year: Seasonal images are most often used by elementary school teachers who are constantly decorating bulletin boards and, of course, talented writers.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Striking a Blow for Masculini-Tea!

19 Jan

teas Our 6-year-old grandson has three sisters and virtually lives in a world of princesses and pink. I have always admired how he is still so secure in his masculinity.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Diane made the kids some Funfetti cupcakes with pink icing and sprinkles to celebrate the youngest girl’s birthday. I wondered if our grandson would reject this rather girly treat. As Diane predicted, he happily accepted his pink cupcake. His only beef was that he didn’t get the one with the big piece of chocolate on top, intended for the birthday girl.
Personally, I have always tried to combat my own insecurities about masculinity by over compensating to some degree. I’ll drink beer when I really don’t want one and I’ll talk to other men about sporting events that I know absolutely nothing about.

Over my lifetime, I estimate that I have attended one ballet, one fashion show and about seven afternoon teas. In my own defense, I can claim that I have never attended a bridal shower or a Tupperware party regardless of promised refreshments.
This holiday season, Diane took our daughter, our two older granddaughters and our son to the Brown-Forman production of “The Nutcracker Ballet.” Fortunately, I was left with the two youngest children to watch Christmas cartoon specials and catch up on our SpongeBob Squarepants. I was a little disappointed, however, to not get to see the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, since I always thought the music was pretty catchy after all my years of playing Tetris. Overall, I have to agree with columnist Dave Barry who once said he would rather watch a dog catch a Frisbee than go to a ballet.

I did, however, once attend a ballet that was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby.” People always say that ballet dancers are really great athletes, so I used that belief to rationalize my attendance. It was exactly like attending a basketball game, except most of the players were girls, the uniforms were pastel and all the jumping and prancing about seemed to lack any essential purpose. As I remember, the final score was a shutout — Daisy 36, Gatsby nothing.

It is a little disconcerting to realize that I have gone to more afternoon teas than professional baseball, hockey and football games combined. I have occasionally wondered if there was something wrong with me, since I, unlike my grandson and his father, have no interest whatsoever in professional sports.

Love of sporting events has long been popularly considered a leading indicator of masculinity in America. In his dubious run for governor of Texas, macho singer Kinky Friedman once said at a press conference that he was not pro-choice, and he was not pro-life, but he was, pro-football.

Last weekend, Diane and I drove down to Vine Grove, Ky., to an afternoon tea at the Two Sister’s Tea Room. In November, the proprietors Paula Jaenichen and Amy Pickerell — who have relatives in the New Albany area — reopened what was formerly a local Victorian tearoom. With excellent hot fresh scones, it was a very accomplished afternoon tea. The Two Sisters should not be confused with The Sisters Tea Parlor & Boutique in Buckner, Ky., which Diane and I have also visited.

Most of the teas Diane and I have gone to have been full afternoon teas. According to the What’s Cooking America? website, many folks mistakenly refer to the full afternoon tea as “high tea,” because they think it sounds ritzier. In fact, “ high tea” (sometimes called a “meat tea”) is just the old British term for dinner. Working men and children would partake of “high tea,” so-called because it was served at a tall dining table, rather than in a sitting room or drawing room where low tables were used.

The first scholars to write about tea may have been men in third-century China, but one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, the Duchess of Bedford, is usually credited with establishing the afternoon tea tradition during the Victorian Era. The duchess reported having a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon (probably low blood sugar).

At the time, there was no such thing as lunch and unfortunately dinner wasn’t served until around 8 p.m. The peckish Duchess found that a pot of tea and some bread, butter and cakes, served in her private rooms, hit the spot perfectly. Soon she — and everyone else — was inviting guests over for an afternoon of “tea and a walking the field.”

Over time, three basic kinds of afternoon teas evolved. A Cream Tea consists of tea, scones, jam and clotted cream. The Light Tea has all the same items, but adds sweets (which are usually cakes, cookies, tiny tarts, or shortbread). The top-of-the-line is the full afternoon tea that has all of above, and also includes savories and a dessert. Often, these courses are served on three-tiered serving dishes.
In America salads, fruits, and soups are sometimes included. I have to say that I have enjoyed all the teas I’ve attended, but the usual menu is a bit too loaded with carbohydrates and sugar for me these days.

Until I started attending teas, my knowledge of scones was limited to what I had gleaned from Scrooge McDuck comic books. I have since learned that scones are rather crumbly biscuit-like affairs with a wide variety of possible ingredients. These are traditionally served with jam, lemon or lime curd, and Devonshire or clotted cream (which is a thick unsweetened whipped cream).
Diane says that her favorite place for afternoon tea is the Hopsewee Plantation near Myrtle Beach, S.C. The owners of this restored rice plantation added the River Oak Cottage Tea Room where you can get the Hopsewee Full Southern Tea, which in addition to scones and sweets, includes such fare as cucumber sandwiches, curried chicken on ginger snaps, blue cheese spinach quiche, salmon mousse and parmesan-peppercorn crackers with mozzarella, pesto and tomato.

Around Christmas time, the girls in the family, except for our 10-year old-granddaughter Becca, all attended an afternoon tea in Cincinnati. Poor Becca had a rehearsal for the church Christmas play to go to with her brother. She had to stay and eat lunch with us boys until it was time to go to church.

We watched Cincinnati Bengals football highlights and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoons until we got hungry and went out for pizza. We told Becca to just pretend that the provolone cheese-filled Rondos were scones and the Sprite was Jasmine-Apricot tea.
New York-based psychoanalyst and Psychology Today blogger Gurmeet S. Kanwal says that “‘masculinity” and ‘femininity’ exist in every individual,” so maybe liking high teas just reflects my feminine side.

Perhaps one day there will be afternoon teas designed especially for us men. Personally I doubt it, unless there is some way to add competition, danger and destruction to the event. Perhaps the tea could be held with participants wearing only gym shorts and involve running among the tables like an obstacle course, all the time juggling teapots of scalding hot tea. Now that would really be something!

Originally Published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

Indiana Jones vs. Goliath

2 Jan

uNDERDOGV

“…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…”
Ecclesiastes 9:11
Last September when the Floyd Central football team unexpectedly defeated Jeffersonville High, the News Tribune quoted Floyd running back Gaige Klingsmith as saying, “This was a huge win, and everybody was doubting us. We were the underdogs and came through.” Just the other night my wife Diane and I were watching a Scottish television show about how a group of misfit underdogs managed to defeated their powerful arch-rivals in the traditional Scottish game of shinty (a cousin to racquetball). Whether it’s sports, politics, or international conflicts, people are always attracted by the idea of a winning underdog. From the Old Testament’s David and Goliath to the Hunger Games’ Katniss, the successful underdog is an archetype that is familiar to all of us. In fairy tales we have Cinderella and in sports we have James J. Braddock the “Cinderella Man” who defeated heavily favored Max Baer for the world’s heavyweight boxing championship in 1935. What else, besides a preference for underdogs, could account for all those Chicago Cubs fans.
Many of us identify with the underdog automatically. This may be because there are so many more underdogs than top dogs. In most endeavors, there is only one top dog, while there are many underdogs. To paraphrase Lincoln, God must have really love underdogs, since he made so many of them.
A few years ago University of South Florida psychologist Joseph Vandello, conducted several studies about people’s preferences for underdogs. In one study participants first read an essay about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Afterwards, half of the group was presented with a map showing Palestine as an area smaller than Israel, while the other half was given a map which was altered to show Israel as being smaller in size. When asked who they sided with, all participants chose the side that had the smaller map representation. Delving a bit deeper into the issue, Vandello also found that most people believed that underdogs worked harder than favorites. People naturally seemed to like for someone to defy the odds.
New York Times writer Steven Kotler suggest that we are attracted to underdogs due to that most American of values— “infinite possibility”. We like to believe that in America any one can grow up to be president and it encourages a sense of hope in our own lives.
Aside from our respect for hard work and the sense of hope they engender, the underdog’s appeal might be rooted in something even more basic. According to Los Angeles Times science writer Geoffrey Mohan, our brains may be actually hard wired to identify with the underdog. He cites a Japanese’ study, in which 10 month old infants watched an animated video of a yellow square (the underdog) being pursued by a bullying blue circle. The ball bumps the square seven times and then smashes it completely. The researcher found that 16 of the 20 infants tested reached out for the underdog yellow square.
In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at the New Yorker magazine, examined the underdog phenomena in the light of modern social science. Gladwell first considerers the biblical story of David and Goliath, analyzing it from a novel perspective. He maintains that in ancient times, armies had three types of troops— infantry, cavalry, and projectilists (slingers and archers). Each group had its strengths and weakness. For example, infantry required close quarters fighting in order to be effective, while cavalry moved too fast to be accurately targeted by projectiles. The slinger was a feared and respected warrior, not just a youth with a slingshot, as we often think of the shepherd boy David. When the Philistines proposed one-on-one combat to settle their dispute with Israel they had an infantry vs. infantry confrontation in mind. David, however, turned the tables, as he felt no obligation to play by those arbitrary rules. Gladwell cites one historian who said that Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword, would have against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol. In contemporary vernacular it seems that without realizing it, Goliath had taken a knife to a gunfight.
Diane says that it’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crowd parts and the huge swordsman steps forward expertly handling a massive blade. Like David, Steven Spielberg changes the paradigm and instead of giving us the arduous close quarters fight we expected, he has the exhausted Indiana Jones simply pull out his pistol and readily dispatch the scary and troublesome fellow. We didn’t expect it, but we loved it.
Changing the paradigm is the primary weapon in the underdog’s arsenal. Gladwell also refers to the work of Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft. In 2001 Arreguín-Toft published an article in the journal International Security entitled; How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. This work analyzes how underdogs can and often do win.
According to Arreguín-Toft’s analysis of international conflicts over the past two hundred years, the stronger side typically wins about 70% of the time. When the underdog, however, doesn’t play by traditional rules and adopts guerrilla or other unconventional tactics, this weaker side wins almost 64% of the time. But even underdogs, find it difficult to abandon tradition. During the American Revolution George Washington, for example, was determined to fight the war using classic European military strategy, despite the colonists’ early success with unconventional tactics. He found them distasteful and it almost cost him the war. Underdogs often win using approaches that the opposition finds “unsportsman like”.
This willingness to be disagreeable is related to the basic personality structure of the successful underdog. For the past 30 years psychologists have refined a theory of personality based on what is called the Five Factor Model. Using factor analysis they identified a set of basic personality traits, known as the Big Five. The Big Five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. University of Toronto psychologist Jordon Peterson’s research suggests that successful underdogs display high levels of openness and conscientiousness, but low levels of agreeableness. This profile paints a picture of an individual who is open to new ideas, self-disciplined and works very hard, but who is also prone to be uncooperative, antagonistic, and uncomformist— just the sort of person liable to skillfully use a creative and unconventional approach that others might find objectionable.
According the Gladwell, we should all keep in mind that the strong are not necessarily as strong as they think they are. Likewise the weak are not necessarily as weak as they are believed to be. If you find yourself in an underdog position the three things to remember are: (1) work as hard as you possibly can (2) Don’t be bound by convention and be open to new and creative approaches and finally (3) Don’t worry about what other people think. I’m pretty sure that the Philistines booed David when he first pulled out his slingshot.

Originally Published in The Southern Indiana News-Tribune

 

SLING

Abracadabra: Why it Reaches out and Grabs Ya

6 Sep

magic

I recently attended a silent auction and was the high bidder on a walking stick that I added to my small collection. Although I don’t really like walking all that much, I was attracted to this stick because of its unique design and because it reminded me of the sumac walking stick that Emma Thompson use in the Nanny McPhee movies. Whenever Nanny McPhee needed to conjure up some magic to teach naughty children a lesson, all she had to do was tap her stick twice on the floor. Oh, if it were only that easy!

Oklahoma State University social psychologist and Psychology Today blogger, Melissa Burkley refers to the continuing popularly of magic as the “Harry Potter Effect” after J. K. Rawling’s hero from her immensely popular series of books and movies. According to Burkley, “If there is one thing psychologists can learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon, it is that people love magic.”

Part of our attraction may stem from the fact that all of us have had experience with magical thinking. Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event takes place as a result of a second event, without any plausible connection. From ages two to seven years of age, magical thinking predominates and youngsters have considerable difficulty with logical thought.

Magic may also appeal to people who feel powerless or lacking in control over their environment and circumstances. This may be especially true for adolescents and young people who struggle with interpersonal situations. Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and on-line and other role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, can provide an alternative magical universe where they have limitless power in contrast to their everyday life.

But do people really believe in real world magic? According to Burkley, “Recent research suggests that not only do people believe in magic, it is likely hard-wired into our brains…”. We often see this in everyday superstitions.

Just the other day my wife Diane and I were discussing the “knock on wood” superstition and also how our granddaughters play the childhood “jinx” game. Various cultures have different explanations for the “knock on wood” custom. It is one of many forms of “apotropaic magic” which is intended to “turn away” evil influences. According to one explanation at the divinecaroline.com website, the ancients druids, worshipped trees, believing that spirits lived in all wooden objects. To encourage these spirits to work on their behalf, they would knock on wood. Thus, whenever we want a good thing to continue or to prevent a bad thing from happening, we rouse these elemental spirits by knocking on the nearest piece of wood. Diane and I also recently received a clock and a bracelet, that came from Turkey as a gift, and both of them were decorated with the traditional apotropaic blue eyes, for protection.

The “knock on wood” superstition also reflects the magical belief that just talking about something good happening can cause bad luck, since it tempts fate. Athletes tend to be very superstitious in this regard. For examples in baseball, it is widely held that you can jinx a no-hitter by talking about while the game is still in process. A recent study by Jane Risen from the University of Chicago and Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich explored the magical thinking behind the belief that is bad luck to “tempt fate”. They theorized that this belief stems from two sources. First is the strong human tendency to be disproportionately attracted to negative events. They contend that, “negative events simply “pack a bigger psychological punch” than positive ones, probably because of evolutionary associations with survival.

Second research has consistently shown that thinking about an event makes it seem to us more likely to take place. Combining these two phenomena, the researchers then hypothesized that since the bad outcomes that might result from tempting fate are very negative, we automatically think more about them. Next, because we think more about them, we also conclude that they are more likely to occur, than the bad outcomes resulting from not tempting fate. Their studies clearly demonstrate that people are predisposed to expect the ironic. An example might be the careless college applicant, who ostentatiously wears a sweatshirt from the college to which he wants to be admitted, only to be rejected.

Our granddaughter’s “jinx game”, which also purportedly brings bad luck, is initiated when two people simultaneously say the same words. The rules vary on just how to resolved the jinx created, but usually it ends when one child pronounces the name of the other, who is then considered the jinxed party. The historic penalty for violating a jinx, is a “pinch or a poke” in the arm or buying the other person a drink, hence the phrase, “Pinch and a Poke! You owe me a Coke!” San Francisco psychoanalyst Jerome Oremland has described the game as a ritualized expression of preadolescent conflicts over their emerging new identities.

One of Diane’s aunts once wrote a family history of her mother’s side of the family, who were German farmers in east central Wisconsin. In this narrative there were several references to “hexes”, which were spells casted by neighbors to account for unfortunate events, such as cows going dry, bad crops, and at least one fretful baby. Historically such beliefs are common as prescientific explanations for events with unknown causes. When Diane questioned her mother about this she said, “Yes, it was true.”

Such magical thinking is still present in various forms. In a 2006 Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues conducted a study to determine if college students could be lead to believe that they possessed magical abilities. The participants were first introduced to a confederate of the experimenter, who posed as a fellow student. With half of the subjects, he acted extremely cordial and friendly. With the other half, however, he acted as obnoxiously as possible, in an attempt to evoke hostility. Then the subjects were given a voodoo doll and directed to stick pins in it, in the presence of the confederate, who was the intended “victim”. The “victim” feigned having a headache and then the participants were asked how much they believed they had actually caused the headache. As predicted, the people who had interacted with the obnoxious confederate were more much more likely to believe that they had actually caused the headache.

According to evolutionary psychologists, the human mind is especially adept at identifying patterns, since such casual links are critical for survival. Unfortunately this process is far from perfect, so we often believe that events are connected when they are not, resulting in magical thinking and superstitious behavior. It may well be that we are so receptive to magic because as Burkley asserts , “…we are hard-wired to overestimate our control over external events”.
Although I enjoy magic as entertainment, personally I’m not a superstitious person and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I stay that way.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

Schindler’s Lift

11 Jul

imagesCAMWV0J7

 

About three months ago, my wife Diane and I noticed that the Indianapolis hotel where we were staying had an elevator that required the use of a key card to access the floors with guest rooms.

Of course, a burglar could simply follow someone onto the elevator and get off on the same floor. Nevertheless, the key card gave a comforting sense of false security.

Then just a few weeks ago, we were at the downtown Marriott in New Orleans. They had recently changed their elevator system. Instead of the usual up and down buttons, there was a keypad, on which you entered your floor number. The keypad then indicated which of the seven elevator cars would take you to your floor.

Disconcertingly, there were no buttons to push inside the car, since it already knew where you were going. The system worked fine, was fairly fast and seemed to be an improvement over the usual elevator car roulette. Almost everyone commented about it.

It wasn’t all that great, however, for distractible people like me who punch in their number and then look away to check their e-mail and fail to notice what car they have been assigned. Our grandchildren wouldn’t like it either, because it cuts down on the number of buttons you get to push (or argue over pushing).

This system is called “The Schindler ID Traction Elevator” and they claim it can reduce average traveling time by up to 30 percent. There is even a You Tube video of the Marriott elevator. The Marriott video only has 77 views, compared to thousands of views of the video of the Schindler over at the New Orleans Sheraton. The Sheraton’s elevator computer must also serve hot hors d’œuvres and cocktails.

Vertical-movement devices have been around for a long time. They were mentioned in the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who says that Archimedes built his first elevator in 236 B.C. Personally, I have always been attracted to elevators and escalators. As a child, I considered them sort of thrill rides. According to the National Elevator Industry Inc., there are about 700,000 elevators and 35,000 escalators in the United States, with more than 325 million daily riders.

People have always been suspicious of elevators. In New Albany, the Hedden House was one of the first private residences to have its own elevator. In Jeffersonville, the Howard family, of steamboat fame, had planned to add an elevator to their beautiful new mansion in the late 1800s. They changed their mind when a Howard relative was injured in an elevator accident in which someone was killed. In 1852, Elisha Otis patented the first safety elevator, which helps prevent the fall of the cab if the cable is accidentally severed.

Today, elevators are required to have a variety of redundancies and safety devices, including a heavy-duty shock absorber system at the bottom of the shaft if all else fails. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 27 elevator-related fatalities each year. The fatality rate for taking an automobile ride is about 4,400 times higher than the rate for an elevator ride.

The escalator is an even safer option. A 2008 study found an injury rate of only 7.8 per 100,000 for elders and most of these were falls. There were no reported deaths. A 2006 study of youngsters found an even smaller injury rate (2.6). Regardless, many people are still afraid to ride in elevators and escalators. Children often worry that the escalator might devour them, while adults may feel trapped or claustrophobic.

Last year, Kyrie O’Connor writing in the Houston Chronicle differentiated between people who are escalator “standers” and “walkers”. She believes that Houston is dominated by standers. She says these folks (like me) stand around “as if they were on a conveyor belt or carnival ride.”

This is opposed to people hailing from the northeast, who tend to be walkers. O’Connor observed that most walkers were men and dress in business attire, rather than casual clothing.

Blogger H. Sandman speculates that “standers” are unexcited, lazy or maybe out of shape. He also describes them as possibly aimless, resigned and lacking anywhere important to go. Walkers are characterized as being impatient, driven and restless. As a confirmed stander, I can’t understand why those walkers just don’t take the stairs if they are in such an all-fired hurry.

Vertical movement also has other psychological features. Larry Sanna at the University of North Carolina found that the direction people travel when moving vertically can actually influence their behavior. He noted that upwards movement is often used as a metaphor for virtue, such as in the phrases “moral high ground” and “uplifting.” Downward movement, on the other hand, has negative connotations, such as “decline” and “the lowest of the low.”

Elevator behavior also has certain norms. According to New Yorker magazine staff writer Nick Paumgarten, when strangers ride elevators they regulate their position within the enclosed space to maintain a maximum distance from each other. For example, if there are two people, they will stand in opposite corners. If there are three, they form a triangle. Four people stand in a square configuration and so on.

Lee Gray from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte says that elevators “are socially very interesting, but often very awkward places.” He says people’s elevator movements are as predetermined as a square dance.

All this relates to the notion of personal space. Harvard anthropologist Edward T. Hall argued that personal space is the equivalent of an animal’s territory and that when it is violated, people feel particularly uneasy. In studies of primates and other animals forced to be in proximity, at first they try to minimize contact, act unobtrusive, and display discomfort, but the tight quarters often lead to aggressive outbursts.

Besides safety concerns, lack of control is one of the main causes of elevator phobia or “lift anxiety.” Paumgarten says that the “door close” button does not actually work (as I always suspected) on most older elevators. He claims that the buttons were installed to serve as a placebo to give riders an illusion of control.

Rebekah Rousi from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, studied elevators use in Australia and found that riders tended to talk mostly about the mechanical aspects of elevators and safety issues when interviewed. She says it was clear that users felt most safe when they perceive their own level of control as greatest.

Speaking of safety, Diane and I once visited the old building where I now work before it was renovated. It was on the weekend and we foolishly rode on a tiny ancient elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators installed in Jeffersonville. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we easily could have been trapped there for days.

The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation provides the following safety tips for elevator riders: 1. Use the door-open button to hold the doors open for slower riders, rather than trying to push them open (even if most of the buttons are mainly decorative); 2. Keep items and clothing clear of the doors; 3. Remain in the elevator car in case of emergency. (Do not crawl on top of the elevator car.); 4. Take the stairs if a fire may be present; and we would add 5. Think twice about riding an elevator in an abandoned building that is literally older than the invention of the airplane.

 

From a column first published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune

 

 

Schindler-Elevator-PORT-Technology

Bored to be Wild

3 Apr

bored_man

 Last weekend I was assigned to  watch my two youngest grandchildren, while my wife Diane and our daughter went shopping. This has become a more or less a routine procedure, intended to weed out the especially cranky and whiney members of our party. I’m sorry,  but  too much shopping hurts my knees and makes me crabby.

I did my level best to entertain the little nippers, including a lengthy cartoon quiz and discussion session  regarding  the relative merits of Spongebob Squarepants as compared to  Patrick and Squidward, innumerable  games of Stupid Zombies on my cellphone, and watching most of an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie  on You Tube.  Despite these desperate measures, blonde-haired, blue-eyed,  four-year-old Rosie turned to me and said dismally, “I’m bored.” Surprised that she  knew what that meant, I was forced to agreed, saying, “Yeah, me too”. With two older sisters I’m sure Rosie’s heard that phrase quite often.

I have always thought that being able to tolerate a boring situation with patience and equanimity was a sign of maturity. Since such circumstances are inevitable, it is an important life skill that children are seldom taught.  Of course, with today’s frenetic and over stimulating technology, entertaining yourself has become considerably easier, although some may argue that these same digital  advances,  have  resulted in shorter attention spans,  aggravating instead of ameliorating the problem.  

The first recorded use of the English word “boredom” was, appropriately enough, in Charles Dickens’ exceedingly boring novel “Bleak House”  back in  1852. Psychologists believe that there are three basic types of boredom stemming from:  1.  Being prevented from engaging in some desired activity,  2. Being forced to engage in some undesired activity, and 3. For no apparent reason, being unable  to remain engaged in any activity.  All of these are related to problems in focusing attention.

Boredom is usually described as an unpleasant emotional state,  experienced when an individual has nothing  in particular to do  and lacks  interest  in their surroundings. It is generally seen as the opposite of arousal and may occur when all immediate challenges   are either incomprehensible or conversely, too simple or monotonous.  Additionally boredom has been found to appear at times when all perceived needs have been fully met and overall motivation is low.

Relativity  may also be a factor in boredom,  as people who have just returned from a very exhilarating or stimulating environment may find their usual  surrounding dull and boring in comparison. Veterans, for example who return from combat, may have difficulty at times adjusting to the calmer environment of civilian life.   Inveterate thrill-seekers who engaged in highly exciting recreational  activities (such as sky-diving)  or occupations (such as fire-fighting) may also start to find everyday activities exceptionally  mundane and boring.          

Boredom also seems to be related to the fatigue that stems from engaging in repetitive activity. A 1926 study in Britain demonstrated individual differences in the amount of boredom reported by workers assigned to perform the same repetitive  and monotonous task.  When we are bored we generally experience a lack of interest,  poor concentration, and temporal distortion,   as time seems to crawl along.  

In 1986 Richard Farmer, from the Oregon Research Institute,  and  Norman D. Sundberg, from the University of Oregon, developed  the  Boredom Proneness Scale to measure how likely people are to feel bored.  Subsequent research has shown that boredom proneness is related to depression,  hopelessness, perceptions of increased effort, loneliness, and poor motivation.  Other studies have  found  it to be a significant factor in depression,  anxiety disorders,  alcohol and drug abuse (especially as professed by teens),  pathological gambling, as well as eating disorders. Individuals who are  easily bored,  also have reportedly more hostility, anger,  less career success,  and poorer social skills,  than people not prone to boredom.

I’m afraid that I fall into that high boredom prone category. When I’m in a situation that  I find boring  where there is  little activity  going on,  my mind is  like a computer that automatically shifts into sleep mode.   I find that I have   these attentional lapses  especially at   continuing education seminars.  I used to embarrass Diane by bringing along a big stack of paperwork to do during these workshops to keep myself occupied. Now it’s even worse with  laptops and smart phones. I’m afraid that I’ve turned into  one of those insufferable people  who sit near the wall so they can plug in and pretend they are taking notes, when they are really reading their e-mail,   watching You Tube, checking their bank balance, or making grocery lists.

I suppose my worse attentional lapse took place a few years ago at a department  store. There were a lot of bargains and sales that day and   Diane and I had been shopping for quite a while. After an exhausting search,  Diane had found several items of clothing that she wanted to buy. I was tasked with watching over her intended purchases while she tried on some other things. I found an empty chair and put the clothing on the chair next to me. With nothing to do, except to sit there,  my attention started to wander.  Eventually the lack of activity caused my internal  screensaver to  kick  in, I shut down,   and  must have  nodded off. When I was roused by a rude shake, I discovered, to my horror, that all the clothes had disappeared. Some overzealous clerk had taken the entire pile of clothing and hung them back up on the racks, literally under my nose. Suffice it to say that Diane was less than pleased with my dedication that day.

            According to educational researcher Ulrike E. Nett  from  The University of Konstanz in Germany  there are  three psychological strategies that people  typically use to cope with boredom. 1. They reappraise the situation and try  to increase the relative importance of the boring situation or activity. 2. They actively make changes to the situation to make it less boring. and 3. They evade the boring situation by seeking out a more interesting activity or diversion.  

Generally boredom is seen as a negative force in people’s lives, however,  like any situation that causes discomfort,   it also can serve as an impetus for positive change by increasing our motivation to act. For example,  an individual with a very boring job,  may use the boredom as a catalysis to seek out a more challenging and ultimately rewarding position.

Finally, existential philosophers have viewed boredom, which they have called “a muffling fog”,   as a fundamental dimension of human existence.  In situations lacking any stimulation, the individual must confront “nothingness”.  Directly experiencing this lack of meaning creates existential anxiety.   Using  “waiting at the railway station”  as an example,  philosopher  Martin Heidegger wrote over  100 pages on the topic of boredom, which, either ironically or perhaps  fittingly, are  themselves incredibly boring to read. 

I had no idea Rosie could be so profound in her observations about spending time with me. I’m just afraid she might agree with Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who once   famously wrote “…there is a sense that any immediate moment of life may be fundamentally tedious [especially when spent with grandpa].”

Based on a column in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

A Ticklish Issue

3 Apr

ImageAristotle, Socrates, Galileo, Da Vinci  and Darwin  are just a few of  history’s  great minds who  have speculated  about the origin and purpose of tickling.  My four-year-old grand-daughter, Rosie,  is an inveterate tickler. She revels in the power that tickling gives her over  older and larger  people. I also think she does it  because she likes to be tickled herself.  For some reason, however, she has picked me  as the primary target for her assaults, as small children and dogs often do.

I must have victim written all over my face, as I  can hardly visit anywhere,  without  some child or dog giving me the business. Little dogs, like my daughter’s Bichon Frise, jump on my lap and try to lick my face.   Our niece’s  Siberian Huskies slobber on my hands,  steal my fur hat, or try to bury  a bone (the one in my arm). I’m also a prime target for mimes. For her part Rosie never misses an opportunity to tickle me.

Today evolutionary psychology may be close to finding some answers regarding why people tickle.   Robert R. Provine,  a psychologist at the University of Maryland says that  tickling is a “mechanism for social  bonding between close companions. It helps forge relationships between family members  and friends...”

According to Provine, infants begin laughing in response to tickling  within the first few months of life. He says “It’s one of the first forms of communication between babies and their caregivers…”   Parents tickle because they are so reinforced by the baby’s laughter.

Back in the 1980’s University of Iowa  psychiatrist Donald Black  noted that the most ticklish parts of the body  tend to be where we have protective reflexes.   He believed that children learn to protect their necks, ribs, feet, and armpits as they wrestle and  tickle each other. In 1924, J.C. Gregory proposed that ticklish places on the body were those most vulnerable in combat and learning to guard them conveyed an evolutionary advantage. Laughter in response to such tickling may be seen as a sign of submission or a way to say “uncle”.

 Besides possibly developing self-defense skills, tickling among children can reinforce sibling and/or peer bonding.  It also may be an alternative to  violence intended  to hurt or  dominate each other.  When one sibling tickles  another  relentlessly,  to point of  unpleasantness it is called “tickle torture.”

Based on his observations of chimpanzees and orangutans, Provine also believes that the “ha-ha” of human laugher most likely evolved from the inevitable panting  that takes place  during prolonged tickle fights. 

Some experts  believe  that tickling  requires  social interaction and that’s one reason why  you can’t tickle yourself.  University of California psychologist Christine Harris, however, believes that tickling is more like a automatic reflex. To test her hypothesis,  she built a robotic arm that looked like a tickling machine. She christened her creation — Mechanical Meg. Subjects were blindfold and then tickled by what they thought was Mechanical Meg. Actually they were tickled by a human assistant hiding under a table (Meg didn’t actually work).  The subjects laughed and squirmed anyway, demonstrating that   tickling did not require the perceived presence of another human being.

I personally believe that you can tickle someone without actually touching them. When our kids were preschoolers I would sometimes tickle them on the knees (a much neglected tickle target). Then I would sit across the room and tell them that I could tickle them by remote control. I would stare seriously at their knees and wiggle my fingers and they would invariably start laughing and grab their knees.

Around the turn of the century scientists classified tickling into major categories. “Knismesis” is  evoked by a very light touch on the skin. It may produce an itching sensation, but not laughter. It is the sensation you get when an insect crawls on you and may have evolved in mammals to help them keep rid of parasites. 

The other class of tickling is called “gargalesis” and is achieved by repeatedly applying pressure to sensitive areas. Gargalesis is generally met with uncontrollable laughter.  It is generally   pleasurable, but can be extremely uncomfortable when it involves persistent involuntary tickling. Gargalesis was once believed to be the exclusive province of primates,  but more recent research suggests that rats can also be tickled. I pity the poor graduate assistant who  had that  job.

Charles Darwin  theorized that tickling was related to the anticipation of pleasure. He based this on the observation that ticklish people often  laugh before  being actually  tickled . In addition unexpected tickling from a complete stranger is generally perceived as an assault and no laughing matter.   Darwin believed that in order to laugh at a tickle, you cannot know the exact location where you were going to be touched. Knowing where the stimulation was going to take place removes all anticipation and that’s why people cannot effectively tickle themselves.  More recent research seems to confirm this notion.      

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues at University College London analyzed   self-tickling  using sophisticated  brain imaging studies.  Her studies show your brain can predict sensations when your own movements are the cause, but not if someone else does it. She says, “When you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction is used to cancel the response of other brain areas to the tickle. Knight Ridder newspaper reporter Usha Lee McFarling says,” the cerebellum acts as a killjoy, squelching the tickling response if the tickling doesn’t come from an outside source.

Research also suggests that tickling is a young person’s game and often between four and seven years of age many children no longer see it as pleasurable.  A survey of college students found that that only 32%  reported that they enjoy being tickled and about 36% said  they didn’t  like the experience at all. .  It probably has a lot to   do with   the wide variability in different peoples’ pain and pressure thresholds.  Provine says that interest and   participation in tickling drops off significantly after the age of forty. I must be an exception, since I have to frequently use tickling in self-defense. I think it must be like jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. Young children have no problem doing it,  but the older you get the harder it becomes. 

Some authorities say that if you shut your eyes tight and concentrated real hard during a tickle attack, you can stop the sensation. I think I’ll try that next time, but I’m skeptical.

 

Based on a column that originally appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune,

Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan

Shaun

Halloween is a distant memory and the scary costumes are long gone , but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind. Our five-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile“Shaun the Sheep” to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spinoff from the popular Wallace and Gromit films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover, while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little stuffed lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box, so we put Shaun in the car trunk instead. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie, Poltergeist. I also remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus, that could have been a scene right out of Jurassic Park. Especially in his book, “It”, Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children even the older ones disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown make-up is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frighten of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles”. They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our three-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child our middle son, Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘six-inch-long flying cockroaches’, we’d all have to move out of the state.” In elementary school Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school.

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively towards others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt, or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypical images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”. Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence towards the mothering figure, as well as, the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother”. As for me I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Such feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, ” Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away”. All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted. It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realized that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

Origionally Published in the Souther Indiana News Journal

Causal Comments

24 Sep

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When people offer  spontaneously, without thinking, their offhanded remarks   possess a special kind of power.  We frequently assume that extemporaneous comments are  truthful, or at least that they honestly reflect the way the speaker feels. Unintentionally overheard comments can be especially influential, since we assume they were frank expressions,  not tailored specifically for our ears, just ask Mitt Romney.

For example, our five-year old grandson prefers to wear button-up shirts  instead of the polo variety. We believe that’s because of a remark that some sweet nursery or Sunday School  teacher once made  that   resulted  in him referring to button-up shirts as “Mr. Handsome Shirts”.  After all, what male wouldn’t want to wear a “Mr. Handsome Shirt”.

Of course such statements are not always positive.  At a parent-teacher conference   my wife Diane once overheard her Kindergarten teacher tell her mother,  “Don’t bother ever giving Diane  dance lessons, because she has no rhythm at all.” This has stuck with her for all these years and made her feel inhibited and avoid dancing. Some people may say perhaps for the best.

In his book Uncommon Therapy famed hypnotherapist  Milton Erickson  describes how he once treated  a young woman who was convinced that her perfectly normal   feet were grossly oversized  and ugly. This belief kept her from ever going outside the house.  On pretense  Erickson made a  home visit ostensibly  to see the young woman’s “sick” mother.   He acted quite annoyed and grumpy and  “accidentally on purpose” stepped on the  young woman’s foot. As she recoiled in pain he said loudly, “If only you could grow those feet big enough for a man to see!”.  His crabby and spontaneous statement had more credibility with the young woman,  than all the reasoning in the world would have had,  and  ultimately  did the trick as,  she re-shuffled her thinking about her self-image.

Over the years Diane has prepared and given children’s sermons in various churches we’ve attended. She always says that the children’s sermon is an excellent way to communicate with the adults in the audience.  Since the message is not intended specifically for them, their defenses  are down.  Also their critical judgment is often suspended, as they are distracted and  charmed  by the youngsters’ response to the message.

Such casual messages function similar to what are called indirect or embedded suggestions in hypnosis. An indirect suggestion is a type of instruction phrased as an offhand comment, used during hypnosis to encourage patients to follow a desired course of action without specifically telling them to do so. The power of   indirect and embedded suggestions lies in their ability to by-pass normal conscious resistance and influence people on an unconscious level.

An embedded suggestion is another special kind of a hypnotic suggestion that is usually buried in some sort of mind-numbing context,  like a boring conversation.  The suggestion is typically repeated, but since it doesn’t stand out dramatically,   it is usually not consciously perceived.

I once attempted to use a variant of these techniques with a young woman I was seeing for counseling. Outside my immediate family,  she was probably the most argumentative person I had ever met. Even when I was repeating back exactly what she just told me, she would disagree.  Most of all she was highly self-critical and  I was trying to help her  realize that she did possess some positive features.  One day I was talking to her and the secretary called me  out of my office,   to handle an  emergency.  When I returned the  chart containing my progress notes was in a slightly different position. It was hardly noticeable,  but I realized that she had must been reading my notes. For the next session, I carefully prepared a fake progress note to put in a dummy chart that looked just like the real thing.  This note contained all the positive messages that I wanted her to realize. If I had said these things to her, she would have just argued with me and rejected them.  When she came in for her session, my secretary made a prearrange call to my office,   and I excused myself, claiming that it was another emergency. After about 15 minutes I returned. The client seemed both pleased and frustrated. She obviously liked what she had read, but seemed bursting,  wanting to argue the points. She was not able to, however, because she was loathe to admit she had been surreptitiously reading my notes.

Back in  June,   Ann Von  Brock, a blogger  with United Way in Asheville, North Carolina wrote a   piece entitled,   “Can One Passing Comment To a Child Really Make a Difference?”  It was about the power of adult influences on a young people’s lives.  She describes how her 7th grade biology teacher once wrote “has potential”  as  remark  on her report card.  Although  Von Brock  admits  she was a an underachiever for much of her school career  she  says,  “… somehow I hung onto the comment of that one teacher and always believed that I was a smart kid.”   She concluded that  seemingly casual comments can be   “powerful”, “ motivating  and inspiring”,  but  just as easily   “crushing”     depending upon the people, the setting, the tone,  and the context.

I suppose there are two important lessons you  can draw from  the power of passing comments.  First, if some casual comment is hurtful or discouraging, then reengage your  critical thinking  and challenge it. If parts still seem true, then use it as a motivator for positive change.  Second use your own casual remarks constructively. You can never really know how much influence a word of encouragement or a positive comment can have in the long run. We  are constantly confronted with  opportunities that can change people’s lives with very little effort or cost to ourselves.

I respond to  casual remarks as much as anyone.  When I was   in high school,  the first day of varsity football practice,  the coach looked at me  and realized  my brother had played for him a few years earlier.  He said   to the people standing around, “Stawar’s brother was an All Conference Guard, but Terry here  isn’t good enough to carry his cleats”. I suppose that was meant to be inspirational but it ended up being more prophetic.  Was it important to me or did it affect me?  I would like to say no, but then I do remember it,  48 years later.

On the other hand many years ago I   attended a two-day training workshop. It was in a resort area and everyone dressed very casually. On the first day I wore a tan jacket. On the second day  I overheard   people at  nearby table talking about what people were wearing. One of them said, “You should have seen this tan jacket some guy was wearing yesterday. It was really cool.” I don’t think I had never heard a spontaneous positive comment about my apparel before. I believe I wore my “Mr. Handsome” tan jacket for at least the next decade.

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