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Indiana Jones vs. Goliath

2 Jan


“…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




Hat’s Off to Winter

13 Dec

“A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the

rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.”

P. J. O’Rourke

Although I agree with O’Rourke’s sentiment, how can I explain the fact that I keep on buying hats anyway. For me hats fall into that unique category of things that you buy, but seldom ever use— like Veg-O-Matics, stationary bicycles, and Salad Shooters.

For example I just bought a brown felt hat that I will probably never wear. I was at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant and I figured it was almost winter and kind of nippy, the hat was 80% off, so why not. The hat itself is very cool. It is just that when I put it on, I never look like Harrison Ford. Also when I visualize other acquaintances I have seen wearing similar hats, I always decide that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

I have also bought several of those English flat driving hats to no avail. I knew a very dapper psychiatrist in his 70s who could make those things look really good. But when I slide behind the wheel of my big old Mercury wearing it, I just don’t look all that sporty.

I think there is a serious amount of “Chapeau Envy” (you Freudians know what I mean) involved in hat purchases. At my last college graduation, I noticed that the stylish new university president was wearing a soft academic cap, rakishly pulled over to one side, instead of the usual stiff mortarboard. When my advisor, an older gentleman, saw it and said to me “I just gotta get me one of those hats.” I knew exactly what he meant.

Even in high school I was a slave to hat fashion. Several of the older and tougher boys began wearing berets, probably because of the popularity of the song, “The Green Berets”. I was too embarrassed to ask my folks for a beret (they would never understand) and too broke to buy one, so I rummaged through all of the old clothes in our attic and eventually found an old moth eaten beret. It was quite small, but sort of green in color. It had some sort of cloth badge stitched on it which I carefully removed. With some effort I could pull it on, although it really squeezed my cranium. Like the beret described by writer David Sedaris, it fit my head like the top of an acorn. I wore it around school for a week or so until some kid got a close look at it and announced to the whole football team, “Hey Stawar is wearing a Girl Scout hat, it’s just like my sisters”. I should have known that it was one of my older sisters’ hats– what was I thinking. I didn’t wear a hat for at least three years after that.

Although I always liked the idea of wearing a hat, I never liked the feel of them on my head. George Carlin once said that hats are strange because after wearing them for a while you no longer feel it on your head, but then when you take it off, it feels like you’re wearing a hat. I never liked that flashback hat feeling and hats make my head itch.

There are times however, when you have to wear one. Several years ago we visitedYellowstoneNational Parkin the wintertime. Before we left we went to an expedition store and I bought a fur cap, that they called the “Mad Bomber”— not very politically correct today. I imagined my self looking like Sergeant Preston of theYukon, but a glance in the mirror quickly disabused me of that notion, as the name Elmer Fudd came to mind. This fur hat is Russian looking and emphasizes my Slavic ancestry. I look like I should be plowing a beet field in some gulag, rather than arresting enemies of the Crown. I still wear this hat whenever the weather gets cold enough. It is very warm and itchy and people frequently complement me on it, although I always wonder if they are really laughing behind my hat.

As I think about it my new winter hat has “poseur” written upon it too boldly to wear in public. I am afraid it will soon be joining the Stetson Cowboy hat, the Dickensonian top hat, and the rest of the gang in the hall closet.