Tag Archives: stawar

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

I’m not Exaggerating, I’m Aspiring

11 Oct

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“134% of All People Exaggerate.”

                                          Unknown Author

Exaggeration is a common place phenomenon.  For one thing, it lies at  the heart of the advertising industry.  During last week’s Superbowl,  Chevrolet ran a commercial showing a driver of a Chevy Silverado talking to other pickup truck drivers in a post-apocalyptic world. The driver is told that one of their buddies unfortunately didn’t make it —  a misguided soul who drove a Ford.   And of course, locally  there was the  controversy over Papa John’s famous  slogan,  “Better ingredients, Better Pizza”,  to which Pizza Hut took such great offense.

For me the month of February brings up two other activities also prone to exaggeration–   filing income taxes and getting a dental checkup. The U.S. Internal Revenues Service estimates that about 40% of taxpayers exaggerate their deductions or business losses. According to a  Phillips Sonicare survey this is just about the same percentage of people who say they exaggerate how often they brush  or floss  their teeth  when they visit the dentist.

            The motive for exaggeration on a tax return is relatively straightforward— monetary gain. Lying to your dentist by exaggerating your commitment to oral hygiene, however, is more complicated. In this case people are looking for ways to avoid embarrassment or disapproval, or to look good and be more socially desirable.

            Exaggeration is among the most common forms of deceit in which people engage. It fits into the class of  psychological phenomena that social scientists call “self-enhancement”. “Self-enhancement” involves consistently taking a more positive view of  yourself, than is true, in order to convince others of your worth or acceptability.      

That 40% figure holds up  pretty well across various situations. Michael Kinsman, from Copley News Service,  reports that between  30 and 50% of American workers lie on their resumes, mostly exaggerating  their references, qualifications, or accomplishments. Peter  Voght a senior writer at Monster.com  advises job seekers to learn how to “package”  their résumés “smartly”, so that they can reach that  “happy medium between unintentional modesty and over-the-top exaggeration.”

               Other studies suggest that there is about a  10 to 18% gap  between what people say they do on surveys and what  close self-monitoring  reveals that they actually do.  These sort of exaggerations include things like church attendance,  watching popular television, how much they earn, compliance with physician’s orders,  prejudice,   charity, and  antisocial or illegal acts. People  even routinely  exaggerate how tall they are and regularly underestimate their weight.  All of these are part of our desire to be seen as socially desirable.

Psychological tests often try to weed out  this social desirability  factor in order to  make self-reported information  more accurate. Probably the most famous of all objective psychological tests , the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI),   takes   exaggeration very seriously and has a variety of internal scales   designed  to  measure things such as  lying, faking,   and the tendency to systematically answer true, false, or randomly. Paper and pencil tests are no substitute  for a lie detector and cannot tell you  specifically  when a person is exaggerating, but they can tell you if the person has a general tendency to do so.

Back in high school I had a friend who would always exaggerate how well he did on algebra tests. Even  if he failed completely  and  got a score  of  55  out of 100, he would say he got a 59 instead. I never  quite  understood  this seemingly  meaningless exaggeration,  but modern research may have an answer.   A recent series of   studies,  suggests   exaggerating about grades may differ psychologically from other forms of  deception. Exaggerating  past academic performance evidently does not  create the same level of  anxiety in people that lying  typically does.  In fact research reveals that exaggerators  often work hard to try to live up to the false image they project. One of the foremost researchers in this area, psychologist Richard H. Gramzow, now at Syracuse University,  suggests that these sort of exaggerations are best classified as aspirational,  rather than deceptive.  They are aimed more at the exaggerators themselves,   than at the audience. Gramzow  says. “Basically, exaggeration here reflects positive goals for the future, and we have found that those goals tend to be realized.”  Although I wouldn’t advise  using this as a defense in an IRS audit, these researchers also suggest that  the exaggeration  of  things like   charitable contribution are, not only self-enhancements,  but also the positive expression  of  future  goals.

  Aspirational exaggeration may explain things like Connecticut Representative  Richard Blumenthal’s misleading remarks  about his  military combat record,  or Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton’s story of being under sniper fire in Bosnia.

It has been suggested that self-monitoring  is generally more  accurate than the information   people  give on surveys. While this may be true,  that doesn’t mean that self-monitoring is free from misrepresentation and  exaggeration. In some jobs I’ve held , I‘ve had to complete  time sheets  which are  a  kind of self-monitoring.  If most people  accurately recorded everything they actually  did at work they  would be, at the very least, embarrassed,  if not in jeopardy of losing their jobs.  Most companies employ a coding system  that is woefully inadequate to cover all the possibilities that work presents. The lack of sufficient  descriptive codes only encourages misrepresentations and exaggeration. Freeman  Institute  has come to the rescue and published a tongue-in cheek  “Extended Job-Code List”. Among these  work  activity codes listed are:  5316 – Useless Meeting, 5318 – Trying to Sound Knowledgeable While in Meeting, 5402 – Trying to Explain Concept to Coworker Who Hates You, 5503 – Scratching Yourself, 6200 – Using Company Resources for Personal Profit, and 6221 – Pretending to Work While Boss Is Watching.
            A final form of self-monitoring  is the  health related diary or log. I’m still monitoring my blood sugar and  I’ve also kept a  food diary,  which at times has resembled an exercise in creative writing. You just have to know how to properly decode it. For example a “sliver of apple pie”,  actually means “ one big  honking piece of apple pie”.

    Recently Diane was keeping a health-related diary in which she had to list her activities ever hour. She wrote down she was putting away boxes, but didn’t specify that it was Christmas boxes she was putting away in late January. To not appear like she was an inactive person, who spent the whole day reading, the log forced her to vary her activities to include washing the kitchen floor, washing lots of clothes, and undertaking various cooking projects. I think her most creative entry, however, was listing vacuuming as an activity, when she was actually watching me vacuum (she wants you to know that she did dust).

Magic Cookies: The Placebo Effect

18 Jan

 

 Our expectations  can be remarkably  powerful.  The magic feather that Dumbo, the flying elephant, was told would help him fly,  is a classic example of what is known as a placebo.  The word placebo is Latin for “pleasing” and refers to an object that has no actual effect, other  than to bolster our expectations.  

In the early 70’s when I was a brand new psychology  student,   my study group was assigned to devise  an experiment involving preschool  children. I believe it was Thurmond Culpepper, a member of our  group, who proposed that we study expectations and  preschoolers’ memory for  pictures.  This evolved into the “Magic Cookie Study”.

In step one of our study,  all the children were to be given a rather  odd looking cookie to eat. This sugar cookie, covered with  marshmallow and sprinkled with pink  coconut, was to serve as the  placebo. 

Half of the class was to be  told that the cookie was magic and would help them remember things perfectly.  The other  half of the kids  were told that  it was just a snack.  Then we planned  to  test them  by  showing    pictures of   animals , and then recording how many  of the animals they could  recall five minutes later. 

It turned out that most of the kids hated the cookies and not only  refused to eat them but  physically  threw them at Thurmond while making  fun of his name. Evidently coconut is not very popular with the  preschool set,  as  many complained vocally  about the pink  hair on their cookies.

Also, it was  nearly impossible to get them to  sit down long enough to  look at the animal pictures. And when it came  time to telling us what animals they remembered,  few subjects  felt that this boring  task was  worth their time or effort, especially compared  to throwing cookies or  grabbing  the experimenter’s stopwatch and dashing madly  about the classroom. We did  not demonstrate  the  placebo effect,  but  we did  discover that   our study group needed someone who actually knew something about kids.     

Newsweek magazine science editor Sharon Begley has reported on a  new placebo study  published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.    Daniel Cherkin  at theGroup Health Center in Seattle  compared the effectiveness of  acupuncture,   simulated acupuncture,  and  standard treatment on back pain. The researchers found that pain decreased  significantly for 60% for both acupuncture groups,  but only 39 % for the standard care patients.  Although the results  were used to support alternative  approaches, like acupuncture, the most intriguing  finding, as Begley points out,  is  that   fake acupuncture (randomly getting poked with toothpicks)  worked as well  as real acupuncture,  and twice as well as standard procedures.   

A survey of Chicago area internists   revealed that half  of  them  used   placebos with their patients. Twelve per cent, however,  had ethical qualms and said that placebos should never be used. Most physicians, who used placebos, were somewhat  cagey in what they actually told their  patients– not wanting  to lie outright, but also not wanting to diminish  the benefits of  positive expectations.

According to Fabrizio Benedetti of the Universityof Turin, a pioneer in placebo pain research, positive expectations  can lead to the release of natural pain killers in the brain. The greater the expectations, the greater the  relief  that people feel.  About 30% of the population  appears  capable  of a   strong placebo effect and   magic cookies not withstanding, children have a greater response than adults.

 According to MIT behavioral economist  Dan Ariely,  we  associate the cost of medicines  with their  efficacy and this  may be why expensive placebos work best and  people  claim that generic medications do not work as well as brand names.   Placebo effectiveness is also  related to factors such as  exoticness,  intrusiveness,  and technological sophistication.   Injections, for example  are more potent that capsules, which in turn  are better than tablets. Procedures   associated with   elaborate scientific looking equipment or arcane devices, also tend to have greater credibility. 

One mental hospital used an impressive looking electroconvulsive shock machine to successfully  treat depressed patients for many years. However a technician found  that the  machine had never been plugged in properly and it’s success was purely placebo effect.        

 The size of a  pill is also related to its  placebo value. As you  might  expect,  if a  little is good,  a lot is great.  When they feel bad,  most people want the maximum strength  possible.  As comedian Jerry Seinfeld said,   “We want them to figure what dose can  kill  us and then back off just a little.”     

Placebo saline injections even helped some Parkinson  patients in  a study at   theUniversityof British Columbia.  The very brain chemicals that placebos stimulate, may actually help  reduce some  Parkinson Disease  symptoms, such as stiffness and rigidity.  

Placebos  may also be  effective  when people  learn, through association, that a particular experience is routinely followed by a  specific  response. This is known as classical  conditioning.   In a 1999 study,  patients   received several  injections  of a substance  that quickly depressed their respiration. Later  the  injection of an inactive  substance produced the same results. The  nervous system  had learned to associate all  injections with the depressive response.  

Similarly  when kidney transplant patients were repeatedly given a strong  anti-rejection medication, along with a  distinctly flavored drink,   the drink alone began to have the same beneficial effects as the medication.   Begley says  that this “was like finding that Kool-Aid can prevent organ transplant rejection”.  

            Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore  Jacobson  wrote a controversial book in 1968 entitled  Pygmalion in the Classroom about their  study  in which teachers were told  that certain (randomly selected) children had been  scientifically identified as  “late  bloomers”  and would show tremendous academic  progress  in the next school year . The teachers’ expectations were a self-fulfilling  prophecy and the designated  children  showed a tremendous gains in achievement.

This  research demonstrates that, not only our own expectations, but those of others, can result in a significant placebo effect. The story of the unplugged  shock machine also dramatically displays this effect.   In addition to the machine, the expectations of the attending staff  influenced  patients to the point that they  exhibited sham seizures, when they thought shock was bring administered.

The placebo effect is a real testament to the  power of our expectations. It also explains why I still want a big  antibiotic pill every time  I catch a cold,  even  though I know it doesn’t work on viruses.  Maybe I should just eat a cookie instead.

Psychoanalyzing your Christmas Cards

8 Nov

 

 

Did you do the Christmas card thing this year or did you just e-mail “Happy Holidays” to everyone in your address book? Maybe it’s technology or just the times, but people don’t seem, to take Christmas card giving as seriously as in the past. Banishing someone from your Christmas card list was the ultimate in social rejection. Lists were carefully saved and even passed down from generation to generation. Ironically most of the cards I get now come from companies wanting my business.

Over the last several years, the number of Christmas cards sent by Americans has declined, probably due to communication technology and increased social isolation. Some of the personal touch remains, however, as a number of people include messages, or their annual Christmas letter, in their cards, bragging about their latest family triumphs in order to get one up you. Last night Diane wouldn’t open the card from her cousin before dinner because she said she did want to ruin her appetite.

Christmas cards began in London in 1843, the same year Charles Dickinson’s “Christmas Carol” was written. This current holiday season the Greeting Card Association estimates just over two billion greeting cards will be sent.

Christmas cards do have some appealing features. They connect us to others, help us put our emotions into words, and provide a tangible keepsake to preserve memories. Most of us feel inspired to reciprocate if we receive a card.

In one of the few scientific studies of holiday cards, Karen Fingerman and Patricia Griffiths from Pennsylvania State University found that people who received many cards believe that a large number of people are thinking about them and feel less lonely. Also people reported having a significant emotional reaction to about one-third of the cards they received, sort of like Diane. Younger adults view cards as a way to establish new social ties, while older adults see them as a link to their personal pasts.

Dr. David Holmes, a psychologist from England’s Manchester University says the choice of a specific Christmas card inevitably gives away an awful lot about the personality of the sender. Psychologists just love to interpret things-inkblots, dreams made up stories, drawings, and also any decision you make (or don’t make). It’s sort of an occupational hazard and analyzing your Christmas cards may be going a bit too far.

Anyway, Dr. Holmes says people who find it difficult to express their feelings often hide their timidity behind the humor of a comic card. Introverted people are drawn to cards that picture Christmas trees, especially those that are devoid of baubles or presents. Winterscapes are sure signs of loners, as are cool colors such as silver, white and blue. Holmes also suggests people who value tradition; tend to send the same sort of cards their parents sent. They often prefer Victorian or cozy fireplace scenes that evoke the past.

Snowman lovers tend to be very sincere softies with keen intellects, while penguin fanciers demonstrate taste, style, sophistication and a good sense of humor.

Even card shape may be meaningful. Square cards suggest practicality, while tall, slim cards suggest concern with style and an artistic flair. People who send round cards are the most unconventional, often in a chaotic sort of way.

I am not convinced about this, but below are some of my interpretative guidelines that I thought might help you this holiday season as you look at you cards.

• CANDLE: Suggests warms feelings, but a tall candle can be interpreted as being a show off.

• DOVES: Unconsciously thinking about chocolate when they bought the card.

• ELF: Suggests small but highly industrious features, sort of like Switzerland.

• FROSTY THE SNOWMAN: Drove by Wendy’s before choosing the card.

• GEESE: Possible goosaholic. Do their front steps have plaster geese dressed up in red capes?

• GINGERBREAD MAN: Suggest fear of being “consumed” by others, tendency to avoid situations by running away as fast as you can.

• GOLD: May have attention problem and is attracted by shiny objects.

• MUSICAL CARDS: This is the sort of person who would buy your kid a drum- significant latent hostility.

• NUTCRACKER: The scary teeth and military uniform add up to oral aggression in my book.

• CHRISTMAS PRESENTS: Generous, but maybe be a bit materialistic. The actual meaning may depend on the choice of wrapping paper, but let’s not get into that.

• SANTA: Jolly, but some possible paranoia (“He knows if you have been bad or good”). “Making a list and checking it twice” also suggests possible obsessive-compulsive issues.

• TOY SOLDIER: These are adorable, cute and smiley characters that are packing heat –denial of aggressive impulses.

• STARS: Stars are distant, aloof, impersonal, and grandiose- sort like our cat.

• STOCKING: Suggests some fetish possibilities that are best not discussed.

• TEDDY BEAR: The Teddy bear is the international symbol for cuteness. On the positive side, if some person sent you this card, maybe they think you are cute.

• WREATH: With no beginning or end, the wreath suggests a well-rounded personality.

How do your friends and family stack up? Is someone lonely or in need of cheering up? Do you want to cheer someone up? Maybe you should consider sending a last minute penguin.

(Based on an article  appearing originally  in the  the New Albany Tribune)

 

Lucky Ducks

20 Sep

Lately I‘ve  been thinking a lot about luck.  In these uncertain times, its tempting to think that maybe there is something you can do to  get a little edge.  My father was an usually practical man, but he  could be superstitious, especially when it came to  luck.  Growing up during the depression I don’t think he  want to take any unnecessary  chances.   He was known to carry  a  buckeye in his pocket for  luck, he refused to eat anything that that scratched the ground on New Year’s Day, and he even nailed a horseshoe  over the doorway to the  garage (pointing  upwards, of course, so  the luck wouldn’t dribble out). Despite his best efforts the only thing lucky in our family was the brand of cigarettes my mother smoked.

 I always assumed that luck was sort of randomly distributed, but it seems like it is more like other characteristics, with some people  at each extreme and most of us in the middle. Multi-millionaire Senator  Judd Gregg fromNew Hampshirecould be a poster child for  the lucky ducks.  In  2005 he cashed in a Powerball ticket worth $853,000.   To add a bit of irony,  his good luck occurred right after voting  against raising the minimum wage and  increasing subsidies  to help  poor people pay their heating bills.

Our son had a Norwegian friend who also lived  a charmed existence.  He had Aryan superiority written all over him.  Slot machines are everywhere inNorwayand this fellow couldn’t  pass one by with out playing and winning.

On the other side of the spectrum are people like  outdoors writer Patrick Mc Manus who insists  that he is so unlucky, when it comes to hunting and fishing, that his bad fortune rubs off on others. I guess there is nothing  very new about hexes,   jinxes,  and Jonahs.  They even made a movie about it.  William Macy  starred in a  2003 film entitled The Cooler, in which a  casino boss hires an  extremely unlucky man to hang around so that his  presence will break  other players good luck streaks.

Of course, the big question is  whether we make our own luck or is really just random. Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, once said, “Luck is the residue of design”.

English psychologist Richard Wiseman  from  the Universityof Hertfordshireand   author of   The Luck Factor,   has conducted a series of experiments comparing people who see themselves as lucky  and those who don’t.

In one  study he asked his subjects to follow a set path  across town to meet him at  a particular coffee shop.   Secretly he had  placed  20-pound notes along the pathway. He found that the  lucky subjects  were much more likely to notice the money and collect it along the way. Unlucky subjects were oblivious to the opportunities along the path.  When the subjects arrived at the  destination,   four people were waiting.One    was a very successful entrepreneur .  

The lucky subjects were  attracted to the rich entrepreneur and even engaged him in conversation. When  all  the subjects were   asked how the day went,  the unlucky ones said  nothing special  happened. The lucky subjects saw the day as very lucky and mentioned  finding the  money and talking to a person who might offer some business opportunities.

Not only were lucky people more  observant,  they also had their radar especially attuned to potential opportunities. Overall they were more open to the possibility  of   positive experiences.

 In another study  Wiseman asked  lucky and unlucky people to look through a newspaper to determine how many photographs it contained.  Unlucky subjects took about  two minutes to count  the photographs, but  lucky people averaged only a few seconds.  On the  second newspaper page was a  message printed in two inch letters which said  “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”   Invariably unlucky subjects overlooked  it, while the lucky subjects easily  spotted it.  Such opportunities for good luck may be  constantly staring all of us  in the face,  but  we are  too inattentive to recognize them.

Wiseman  posited   that unlucky people are generally more anxious, which supports  research that suggests  anxiety interferes with the ability to notice the unexpected.

Lucky people also engage  their environment more actively,  thereby increasing the possibility of positive outcomes. Unlucky people  are more  passive,  as if they expect a hostile reception to any overtures they might make.       

  Wiseman concluded  that people could be taught to be luckier and devised what he called LuckSchool. InLuckSchool people practice exercises that encourage them to think and behave like  lucky people.  Wiseman  found that about 80% of his graduates said that they felt luckier and more satisfied with their lives.   

The curriculum was based on four principles. First, lucky people believe that the future holds  good fortune for them. This  becomes   self-fulfilling  and helps them persevere  in difficult times. Psychologists believe that optimism is the major factor underlying luck.  

Second, lucky people are very good at  recognizing and talking advantage of  unexpected opportunities. Being relaxed  helps them do this.

Third,  they  trust their instincts in making decisions and they focus  exclusively on the issue under consideration. If your intuition is consistently wrong,  then maybe you should do the exact opposite,  like George Constanza did on a  Seinfeld episode.  

Finally, lucky people have superior coping skills that help  them weather  adversity. In fact they seem to thrive on it.

People may also do things that diminish their luck.  Unlucky  actions are not only foolish things, like walking down a dark alley with  100 dollar bills  hanging out of  your  pocket, but also more subtle  behaviors  like   walking around aimlessly looking vulnerable.  

When it comes to certain  crimes, perhaps we occasionally make our own bad luck. It has been said you can’t cheat and honest man. In the 1997  film Grosse Pointe Blank , John Cusack stars as  a professional  hit man, who says,  “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there.”  But we should also be careful about  blaming  innocent victims and turning into Job’s comforters, who wrongly assumed Job did something wrong to merit his misfortune.

In tough times perhaps  we can all improve our  luck  a little by being more mindful of opportunities.  As for  the existence of luck?  French poet Jean Cocteau said,   “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?

A Gander at Comic Books

17 Sep

            

              The other day I was  explaining the origin of the comicbook character, Iron Man to my wife Diane. Iron Man first developed the high tech armor that gives him his powers in Viet Nam. His major adversaries originally were communist villains, like  The Crimson Dynamo. In the more recent  films, Afghanistan supplanted Vietnam and the sequel introduces a new Russian villain, although his motives are personal rather than political.    

            Being a girl, Diane lacked this vital information, and was unimpressed by the fascinating story.  Girls just don’t seem to grasp the importance of super-heroes.  Maybe this is because,  as comedian Jerry Seinfeld observed, all  men view themselves as sort of super-heroes. Seinfeld says as boys grow up,  Superman, Spiderman, and Batman are not just juvenile fantasies— they’re considered real  options.

            In 1842 Rudolph  Toppfer published a collection of newspaper comic strips in what is considered to be  the first comic book. But everything changed in 1938 when Action Comics introduced Superman, establishing the still dominant super-hero genre.   

            In the  1950s, comics came under attack,  as  congressional hearings charged them with the corruption of youth. The star witness before the  Senate Judiciary committee was psychiatrist Fredric Wertham.  Wertham  testified that comic books were  “an important contributing factor  in many cases of juvenile delinquency”.  He claimed that Batman was “homoerotic”, Superman promoted “sadistic” impulses, and Wonder Woman was about “sadomasochism”.  Ironically the creator of Wonder Woman was Harvard psychologist William Marston, who wanted a hero who used love, as readily as force, to fight crime.

            Fearing governmental intervention,  comic book  publishers voluntarily formed a self-policing organization. Works that complied with standards about crime, bloodshed, occultism, and sex, were awarded the Comics Code Seal.   As comics moved from mass media to niche markets, the importance of the code waned.

             Richard Kyle coined the term “graphic novel” in 1964 to describe European works that he considered more sophisticated than the  typical American fare. The term is now applied to “serious” comic books,  with quality bindings, that are sold in comic shops and bookstores.  They have been the basis for numerous movies.

            In the  1970s  indie publishers produced  underground comics  reflecting the prevailing counterculture. Many adults found the uninhibited styles of artists like Robert Crumb (the “Keep on Trucking” guy), shocking and offensive–  pretty much as intended.   “Alternative Comics”  represented by Harvey Pekar‘s American Splendor  came next  and are still popular.    

            According to Diamond Comic Distributors,  Marvel Comics currently holds a 45% market share compared to the 33% share of their chief rival, DC Comics,  which owns the Batman and Superman  franchisees. None of the smaller publishers have more than a 5% share.

            There are over half a million American comic book readers and  top selling issues exceed 120,000 copies a month. For years my friend Scott, has subscribed to several comics.  He seals each one in a Mylar bag and treats his collection as if it were his 401K. Truthfully, it  has done much better than the market.

            The first Spider-Man  is  worth over $75,000.  Iron Man #1  has been selling for  about $600, but the  movies promise to drive the price to over $1000.   At the very  upper end, the first Batman sells for about $400,000 and the “Holy Grail” of comicdom, Superman’s  first appearance,  is priceless, but  lists for over a half a million dollars.

            I owned first editions of Spiderman and Iron Man,  as well as  other Marvel comics from the 1960’s. Had I held on to them, I might be writing this from my villa on the Riviera. It is said that R. Crumb traded his early sketchbooks for a house in the south of France.   Unfortunately my older brother Norman, ever the wheeler-dealer,  traded my prized comics, without my knowledge. In return he got a box of old Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost,  and Ritchie Rich comics from the  kid down the street. These comics were in terrible shape and were mostly the unpopular Charelton and Harvey brands.  

            I can’t blameNormantoo much, since I personally ruined my only other   childhood opportunity for riches.  As a boy I came into possession of hundreds of old baseball cards. I wasn’t a fan and had no idea that they would ever be valuable.  So, I used them all for target practice with my BB gun. It makes me ill to think about it, but I probably would have plugged the Mona Lisa between the eyes, were it in my possession back then.

            My father was always a big fan of  Donald Duck comics. In the 1940’s, Carl Barks,  Disney’s “duck man” created Donald’s lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander, and my father’s favorite, Donald’s uncle, Scrooge McDuck, “the World’s Richest Duck”.    My father was always attracted to the notion of luck and I think he really liked the idea of  “swimming in money” as Scrooge often did, in his money bin.    

            Louisvilleartist Don Rosa is one of Barks’ most famous successors. In 1995 Rosawon the Eisner Award (the “Oscar of Comics”)  for The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,  series. The series second installment begins inLouisville, complete with a depiction of the Galt House and an exaggerated Falls of theOhio.     

            My whole family grew up as Scrooge fans, as did our kids. Normanonce visited us and when he saw a stack of Uncle Scrooge comics on the bedroom bookshelf, he started referring to his room as the “luxury suite”.          

            Perhaps this all culminates with our youngest son. In the fifth grade he drew a poster with   ducks on it. They were so animated that they seemed to come alive.   Diane immediately sensed that the talent that eluded me, may have found expression in David.  He recently finished art school inManhattanand is now drawing graphic novels inNew York City.   

            David was always fascinated by big city life. When the admissions counselor at the Art Institute of Chicago looked at his portfolio, he said David had a “gritty urban thing” going in his artwork.  When David  painted a mural in the children’s Sunday school classroom at church,  Diane and  I were concerned that Jesus might be smoking a cigarette or resemble Lenny Bruce.  David, however, managed to show some restraint.  

            Although much of his work is still gritty and urban,  he  continues to  paints and draw ducks. It’s in his blood. Diane and I saved all his elementary school sketchbooks. We haven’t given up on the Riviera yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doodle All the Day Long

16 Sep

                                                                                                                                                     

  At a   business meeting the other day, my attention began to wander as I sat there doodling. I don’t know if it was the topic, or all the antihistamines I was taking, but the meeting room gradually melted away and there I was in a boat with a refreshing breeze in my face. I heard my name in the distance, and suddenly I was yanked back, as if a bungee cord was attached to the boat. Evidently I was being asked to make some sort of decision. Everyone was looking at me so earnestly that I was too embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. My notes were no help. They were the minutes from the last meeting with all of the “o’s” and “e’s” filled in and some poorly drawn palm trees in the margin. Hoping that I hadn’t been asked to past the bowl of pretzels, I said that I would have to consider the issue and get back to everyone. They all nodded and seemed satisfied.

                 Daydreaming and doodling are closely related phenomena. Doodling, which has been found in early Mesopotamian clay tablets, has been called the world’s most common and ignored art form. Anthropologists once theorized that certain strange stone-age cave paintings must have been created by early humans, while under the influence of indigenous drugs or possibly primitive music. However, one researcher examined the classroom doodles of college students and found artistic elements identical to the Paleolithic productions. This should come as no surprise to any parent of a college student. Doodling is technically the spontaneous production of drawings or markings, when one’s mind is preoccupied with something else. Doodling most often takes place in meetings, classrooms, while on the phone, and on napkins in restaurants. English psychologist Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth found that doodling actually improves memory and attention on certain tasks. People who doodled while listening to a dull phone message remembered 29% more than people who did not doodle. Everyone in England, however, isn’t convinced of its benefits, as a convicted rapist was released from prison when it was discovered that a juror was doodling sketches of the judge during the trial. The case has been appealed on the grounds that the juror was not paying enough attention to the evidence.

               When our brains lacks sufficient stimulation, they may manufacture their own content, like doodles and daydreams. For many people doodling provides just enough activity during boring tasks to prevent escape into full-fledged daydreams. Because doodling is largely unconscious, many believe it can provide insight into personality functioning. After the 2005 World Economic Forum, a reporter was snooping around the seat occupied by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and found papers with elaborate doodles of triangles, rectangles, circles, and words in boxes. The reporter had these drawings analyzed by a graphologist and newspapers throughout Britain gleefully reported that the doodles revealed that Blair was “struggling to concentrate” and “not a natural leader”. One journalist went so far as to call the prime minister “a closet vicar with a death wish”. But Blair had the last laugh when it was revealed that the doodles were actually made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who had inadvertently left them at Blair’s seat. David Greenberg a professor of history at Rutgers recently published a book on presidential doodles, showing that even the father of our country wasn’t above decorating his notebook with checkerboard designs. And the tradition continues today. A doodle by Barrack Obama recently sold for $2,500 on e-Bay.

                  Like the Rorschach test, there is little agreement about the specific meaning of doodles. For example, some authorities believe crosshatching and repeated patterns suggest a methodical approach to tasks, while others see it as an indicator of obsessive compulsive behavior. A house with smoke coming from the chimney means a welcoming fire for some experts, while for others it may signify sexual problems. While doodling represents a minor retreat from reality, daydreams are fully developed visual fantasies experienced while we’re awake. Research by University of Minnesota psychology professor, Eric Klinger, revealed that most daydreams are actually about ordinary events. They help remind us of everyday tasks. Less than 5% of daydreams involved sexual thoughts and violent daydreams are quite uncommon. Klinger’s research showed that over 75% of people with “boring jobs”, such as lifeguards and truck drivers, frequently use daydreams to ease the tedium of their workday. Daydreaming has often been judged as a non-productive pastime.

                    When I was growing up some psychologists even cautioned parents that persistent daydreaming could lead to a break with reality and even psychosis. But daydreaming has also been associated with major creative break-throughs in many disciplines. For example, in 1862, German chemist Friedrich Kekulé discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule in a daydream about a snake seizing its own tail. Walt Disney was well know for his frequent day dreaming and even today the Disney Corporation recognizes outstanding young people with its “Dreamers and Doers Awards”. Star athletes have long employed visualization as an effective training technique. For many practicing in imagination is as good or even better than real life and visualization is essentially the same state of mind as daydreaming. Of course day dreaming can be detrimental when a task demands our full attention. A Wisconsin survey found that daydreaming was second only to fatigue as the cause of auto accidents.

                     I once found that doodling can also be hazardous. I had just started a job and my new boss was briefing me about the employees I supervised. As he gave me the rundown, I idly doodled on the back of a stack of papers. He cautioned me about one of the women, describing her as “not a team player”. Later that day I met with all the employees and passed out a memo about supervision times. It went very well, but an hour later I got a phone call from the woman my boss warned me about. She demanded to know what the doodles on the back of her memo meant. She said she recognized palm trees, but she wanted to know why her name was written in what looked to be a traffic caution sign and why it was next to a box that contained the underlined words “Not a team player?”

 

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