THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 9

Subject:  Priming – The Florida Effect

Event:  Birthday of psychologist John Bargh, 1955

We tend to think that our actions are a result of free will and that the decisions we make are based on conscious reasoning.  Could it be, however, that we are influenced, or primed, by elements of our environment, such as words we read, an image we see, or even by the colors of the walls of the room we are in?  

Social psychologist John Bargh, who was born on this day in 1955, would answer the above question in the affirmative, and his research on priming proves it.

In one famous experiment, Bargh asked New York University students to form four-word sentences from a set of five words.  Half the students were given words associated with the elderly, such as “Florida,” “bald,” “wrinkle,” or “forgetful.”  After the sentence constructing task was completed, the students were asked to walk down the hall to complete another experiment in a separate room.  Bargh and his fellow researchers unobtrusively timed how long it took each student to walk down the hall from room to room.  The results revealed that the students who created sentences with elderly-themed words walked more slowly than those who were given no elderly-themed words.  After discovering this fascinating phenomenon, Bargh dubbed it “The Florida Effect” (1).

When you prime a lawnmower engine, you pump fuel into the engine’s cylinders so that the engine will fire when you attempt to start it. Bargh’s studies showed that the human mind can also be primed.  The words Bargh used in his experiment primed the students’ thinking about the elderly; the thinking of the students then resulted in their walking more slowly than usual.  The most shocking aspect of the study was that the students seemed totally oblivious to the priming.  When asked if the words they used in the sentence had influenced their behavior, they insisted that there was no correlation between the words they read and their walking speed. 

Is it possible to employ priming toward an admirable goal, such as helping students perform better on a test?  Dutch researchers tried it out with questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit.  Before testing, one group of students was primed for intelligent behavior:  First, they were asked to imagine a typical professor; second, they were asked to list the behaviors or images that came to mind.  Another group was primed in a different way:  they were asked to think about soccer hooligans.  

Following the priming, the individuals in each group answered 42 trivia questions:  Students primed with the “professorial” frame of mind averaged 55.6% correct answers, while the “hooligan” mindset averaged 42.6% (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How were the students in Bargh’s study primed to walk slower, and what does this say about our concept of free will?

Challenge – Prime Yourself With the Professorial Mindset:  Write a PSA for students that explains how they should prime themselves for tests.  Explain how they can prime themselves using the professorial mindset, and contrast it with the less effective hooligan mindset.

Also on this day:  Thomas Jefferson writes a letter to Charles Thomson, secretary to the Continental Congress, on January 9, 1816, in which he praises Epicureanism as “the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects.”

Sources:

1-Kahneman, Daniel.  Thinking, Fast and Slow.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

2-Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

January 9: Pamphlet Day


On this day in 1776, one of the most influential pamphlets ever written was published, a pamphlet that convinced the American colonists to fight for their independence from Britain.  The pamphlet was Common Sense, and although it was originally published anonymously, today we know its author was Thomas Paine (1737-1809).

Born in England, Paine spent his early years struggling to make ends meet in a number of jobs:  corset maker, sailor, English teacher, and tax collector.  Paine’s fortunes changed, however, when he met Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774.  With a letter of recommendation from Franklin, Paine traveled to Philadelphia where he began work as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine.

Even though the colonists fired in anger at the British at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, full-fledged rebellion was not inevitable.  Many favored reconciliation with mother England.  Paine, however, called for full-on rebellion.   Paine’s pamphlet published on January 9, 1776, presented his argument for independence, not in the legal or philosophical language of previous treatises, but in the plain, forceful language of the common man:

For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is (1).

Paine ends his argument by asking his readers to stand up to tyranny and to fight for freedom:

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind (1).

Common Sense was a publishing sensation, going through 25 printings in just its first year of publication.  It sold at least 75,000 copies, making it America’s first bestseller (2).

Today’s Challenge:  No Paine, No Pamphlet

What are some examples of revolutionary ideas from the past or present, ideas that either have changed the world or possibly may change the world in the future?  In the era in which Thomas Paine was writing — the 18th century — challenging the divine right of kings was a revolutionary idea.  Research other revolutionary ideas from the past or present, and create a pamphlet making your argument for or against one of these ideas.  Like Paine, make your argument in clear, forceful language. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  No pamphlet, no book, ever kindled such a sudden conflagration, a purifying flame, in which the prejudices and fears of millions were consumed.  To read it now, after the lapse of more than a hundred years, hastens the blood. It is but the meager truth to say that Thomas Paine did more for the cause of separation, to sow the seeds of independence, than any other man of his time. –Robert Ingersoll on Paine’s Common Sense in 1892

1-Paine, Thomas.  Common Sense.  U.S. History.org.  http://www.ushistory.org/paine/commonsense/sense4.htm.

2- Prothero, Stephen.  The American Bible:  How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2012.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 8

Subject:  Rogerian Argument – Steel Man

Event:  Birthday of Carl Rogers, 1902

Today is the birthday of American psychologist Carl R. Rogers (1902-1987), who was born in Oak Park, Illinois.  

Carlrogers.jpg
Carl Rogers (Wikipedia)

As a psychologist and therapist, Rogers was interested in improving human relationships.  For Rogers, the major factor in healthy relationships was clear communication, which is often hindered by the tendency of people to judge each other. Roger’s mission was to help people set aside their evaluations of one another and to instead truly listen to each other.  For Rogers, truly listening was more than just trying to understand another person’s point of view; instead, it involved climbing into that person’s skin and trying to not only see the world from that person’s perspective but also to achieve an understanding of what it feels like to hold that person’s point of view.

Roger’s work in psychology and communication spilled over into the field of rhetoric and argument in 1970 with the publication of the book Rhetoric:  Discovery and Change by Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth Pike.  This book introduced the Rogerian model for argument.  

Unlike the long tradition of adversarial argument dating back to Aristotle, Rogerian argumentation is about finding the truth and about finding common ground.  Instead of combative debate, the goal of a Rogerian argument is to acknowledge the validity of the opposing side’s position, setting aside emotional appeals and instead working to reach agreement (1).

While there is no specific structure that must be followed in a Rogerian argument, the following basic moves should be included:

-State the issue or problem using neutral, nonjudgmental language, including the impact of the issue on both sides.

-Describe the opposing side of the argument as objectively and fairly as possible, acknowledging the validity of its support and evidence.

-Present your argument, support, and evidence in dispassionate language, striving for a fair and balanced tone.

-Find common ground between the opposing sides, considering alternative solutions and achieving a beneficial compromise (2).

The Rogerian perspective is reminiscent of the lesson that Atticus Finch tried to teach his daughter in the classic book To Kill a Mockingbird.  When Scout comes home from her first day of school in tears because of an argument she’s had with her teacher, Atticus tries to get her to see the situation through her teacher’s eyes:

 . . . if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. 

Rogerian argumentation might just be an antidote to the political gulf that divides so much of our culture.  So often our first instinct is to create a straw man of our opponent’s argument by exaggerating or distorting its claims, its assumptions, or its premises.  We love to create a narrative that helps us frame the argument in the way we see it.  For example, say you’re in a debate about gun control, and your opponent believes that there should be some new laws to prevent accidental gun deaths. It might be tempting to build a straw man by saying, “You won’t be happy until the government breaks down every citizen’s door and confiscates all their guns!”  

Instead of distorting our opponent’s argument with a false narrative, the Rogerian argument challenges us to create a narrative that accurately reflects the way our opponent sees the issue.  Instead of a straw man, we should try to create a steel man: the best form of our opponent’s argument.  Before debating an issue we should be able to state our steel man clearly enough that our opponent agrees that it is accurate.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How does the steel man differ from the straw man and which of these approaches would Carl Rogers prefer?

Challenge – I See Your Point:  What is a current issue or contemporary problem that you could present in a Rogerian argument?  How would you in a fair and balanced way summarize the side of the argument that is opposite to yours?  Select an issue that you feel strongly about. Instead of writing your side of the argument, attempt to summarize the opposing side of the argument as fairly and objectively as you can.  As you write, maintain a tone that is fair and balanced.  Strive to truly capture the arguments that run counter to yours. 

Also on this day:  Theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking — who said, “Science is not only a discipline of reason but also one of romance and passion” — was born on this day in 1942.

Sources:

1- Brent, Douglas.  Rogerian Rhetoric.  An Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric.

2-Moxley, Joe.  Rogerian Argument. Writing Commons. 17 Dec. 2010.

January 8: Rogerian Argument Day


Today is the birthday of American psychologist Carl R. Rogers (1902-1987) who was born in Oak Park, Illinois.  

As a psychologist and therapist, Rogers was interested in improving human relationships.  For Rogers, the major factor in healthy relationships was clear communication, which is often hindered by the tendency of people to judge each other. Roger’s mission was to help people set aside their evaluations of one another and to instead truly listen to each other.  For Rogers, truly listening was more than just trying to understand another person’s point of view; instead, it involved climbing into that person’s skin and trying to not only see the world from that person’s perspective but also to achieve an understanding of what it feels like to hold that person’s point of view.

Roger’s work in psychology and communication spilled over into the field of rhetoric and argument in 1970 with the publication of the book Rhetoric:  Discovery and Change by Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth Pike.  This book introduced the Rogerian model for argument.  

Unlike the long tradition of adversarial argument dating back to Aristotle, Rogerian argumentation is about finding the truth and about finding common ground.  Instead of combative debate, the goal of a Rogerian argument is to acknowledge the validity of the opposing side’s position, setting aside emotional appeals and instead working to reach agreement (1).

While there is no specific structure that must be following in a Rogerian argument, the following basic moves should be included:

  • State the issue or problem using neutral, nonjudgmental language, including the impact of the issue on both sides.
  • Describe the opposing side of the argument as objectively and fairly as possible, acknowledging the validity of its support and evidence.
  • Present your argument, support, and evidence in dispassionate language, striving for a fair and balanced tone.
  • Find common ground between the opposing sides, considering alternative solutions and achieving a beneficial compromise (2).

Today’s Challenge:  I See Your Point

What is a current issue or contemporary problem that you could present in a Rogerian argument?  How would you in a fair and balanced way summarize the side of the argument that is opposite to yours?  Select an issue that you feel strongly about. Instead of writing your side of the argument, attempt to summarize the opposing side of the argument as fairly and objectively as you can.  As you write, maintain a tone that is fair and balanced.  Strive to truly capture the arguments that run counter to yours. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.  -Atticus to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

1- Brent, Douglas.  Rogerian Rhetoric.  An Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric. http://people.ucalgary.ca/~dabrent/art/rogchap.html.

2-Moxley, Joe.  Rogerian Argument. Writing Commons. 17 Dec. 2010.

http://writingcommons.org/open-text/genres/academic-writing/arguments/318-rogerian-argument.