THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 13

Subject:  Motivated Reasoning – The Dreyfus Affair

Event:  Publication of Emile Zola’s open letter, J’Accuse, 1898

On January 13, 1898, a front page letter was published in a Paris newspaper by the French writer Emile Zola.  Zola’s letter was addressed to the president of the French Republic and was written in defense of Alfred Dreyfus.  In his 4,000 word letter, Zola accused the French government and military of a cover up and of falsely convicting an innocent man of treason (1).

Front page  of the newspaper L’Aurore for Thursday 13 January 1898 (Wikipedia)

The events discussed in Zola’s letter began four years earlier.  In 1894, a torn-up document was found in a wastepaper basket that caused the French military to suspect that someone in their ranks was passing military secrets to the Germans. After a brief investigation, French officials found no solid evidence to convict anyone; however, one man, Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the General Staff, was accused on highly circumstantial evidence.  In a time of heightened anti-semitism, Dreyfus’ Jewish heritage made him an easy scapegoat. Even though Dreyfus had a sterling record and did not fit the profile of a spy, a case was built to incriminate him.  Despite the fact that experts disagreed, army authorities declared that Dreyfus’ handwriting matched the writing on the memo. When a search of Dreyfus’ residence yielded no evidence of espionage, they concluded that he was crafty enough to hide anything incriminating.  Also, the fact that Dreyfus studied foreign languages was interpreted as evidence of his desire to conspire with the enemy.

Not only was Dreyfus found guilty of treason, but he was also court-martialed.  In a humiliating public ceremony, his sword was broken in two and his military insignia were ripped from his uniform.  Next, he was shipped off to Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of South America.

Zola’s letter brought public scrutiny to the Dreyfus Affair.  It revealed that the French authorities knew the identity of the actual culprit and that they were covering up evidence to save face.  Zola’s accusations were not without consequence for him; he was convicted of libel and sentenced to one year in prison.  However, his courage resulted in eventual justice for Dreyfus, who was eventually pardoned by the President of France and went on to serve with distinction in World War I (2).

In a 2016 TED Talk entitled Why You Think You’re Right — Even When You’re Wrong, Julia Galef presented the Dreyfus Affair as a case study in the dangers of motivated reasoning. Like the French military in the Dreyfus Affair, we sometimes employ emotionally-biased reasoning to produce the verdict we want to be true in favor of the actual truth. We cherry-pick evidence that supports our side, and we rationalize to make a case sound better than it actually is.  Galef calls motivated reasoning the soldier mindset and argues that it is an unconscious cognitive bias that needs to be exposed and rooted out.  Galef also prescribes a more sound, reasonable approach called the scout mindset.  Instead of seeing what we want to see or being defensive, we need to seek first to understand.  We should be skeptical of our own conclusions and value the pursuit of truth over our fears of being right or wrong.  The pursuit of the scout mindset means testing your own claims and understanding that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness (3).

One powerful way to understand motivated reasoning is to see it through the eyes of a sports fan.  Imagine you are watching a basketball game, a game where your favorite team is competing for a championship against a longtime rival.  Imagine your reaction when your team is charged with a foul that results in points being taken off the scoreboard.  What would be your honest reaction?  Would your emotions motivate you to find immediate fault with the referee’s call and begin to construct rationalizations for why the call was wrong?  Or would you calmly accept the call and defer to the referee’s indifferent judgment?  Most honest fans — short for “fanatics” — will admit that their emotional investment in their team prejudices them and blinds them to objective judgment.  In addition, they are rarely even consciously aware of their own bias. To further understand the impact of motivated reasoning, compare the reaction you have when your team is called for a foul versus when your team’s opponent is called for a foul?  In the latter case, do you spend any time or emotional energy scrutinizing the fairness or justice of such a decision?

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did motivated reasoning result in the injustice of the Dreyfus Affair, and why is it so hard for the average person to practice the scout mindset?

Challenge – Open Letters:  Zola’s open letter is just one of many examples of this unique genre of communications.  What makes the open letter interesting as a form is its dual audience:  the addressee and the general public.  The content of an open letter is targeted at a specific individual or group, yet the letter is published in an “open” public forum.  One of the most famous open letters ever written, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was itself written in response to another open letter.  In his letter dated April 16, 1963, King was responding to a letter published in the Birmingham Post-Herald in which eight Alabama clergymen challenged his presence in Alabama and his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism.  Research open letters, and find an example of one that you find interesting.  Explain the letter’s rhetorical situation:  who was the writer, what were the target audiences, when and why was it published?

Sources:  

1:  Zola, Emile. I Accuse 13 January 1898.

2. Harris, Robert. The Whistle-Blower Who Freed Dreyfus.  The New York Times 1 January 2014.

3. Galef, Julia. Why You Think You’re Right — Even When You’re Wrong.  February 2016.

January 13: Language Myth Day

Legend has it that on this day in 1795, the U.S. Congress voted on a bill that would have established German as the official language of the United States.  The legend continues by claiming that the bill failed by only a single vote, a vote surprisingly cast by a man of German heritage, the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg.

As is usually the case, the truth behind the legend is much less astonishing.  There was in fact a language bill considered by Congress on January 13, 1795, but instead of giving the German language any official status, it would have merely mandated the printing of federal laws in both German and English.  In the course of debating the bill on January 13th there was a casting of ballots that failed by a single vote, but that was merely a motion to adjourn, and there is no evidence that even that vote was cast by Muhlenberg.  The final vote on the translation of the federal laws was rejected by Congress one month later, and there is no record of the final vote numbers (1).

The whole truth is that the German language never came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the official language of the United States.  Furthermore, although there have been attempts to make English the official language of the United States, the truth is that the United States has never had an official language.

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Verdict?

What are some examples of language or writing rules that you have been taught in school?  Are the rules valid, or are they merely myths?  Like the myth of the German Language Bill, various myths have been perpetuated through the years regarding the use of the English language.  Although there may be some kernels of truth in each of these rules, a true investigation will reveal that the rules themselves are fallacious.  Investigate one of the English language rules below, or one you have encountered from your own experience, and research the validity of the rule.  Write up your verdict using evidence and examples that reveal the rule’s validity or falsehood.

Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.

Never use the passive voice.

Never split an infinitive.

Use the article “a” before words that begin with consonants; use the article “an” before words that begin with vowels.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Only words in the dictionary are real words.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. -Joseph Campbell

1-Do You Speak American?  Official American.  English Only.  Pbs.org. http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/#baron.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – JANUARY 12

Subject:  Imagination – “To Build a Fire”

Event:  Birthday of American author Jack London, 1876

It seems appropriate that the American author Jack London (1876-1916) was born in the middle of winter  — January 12, 1876, to be precise.  His best-known works take place in winter settings, specifically in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.  His best-known novel The Call of the Wild (1903) recounts the adventures of a sled dog named Buck.  London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” one of the most anthologized stories ever written, is also set during a typically ice-cold Yukon winter.  

The only human character in the story is an unnamed man who is making a trek on foot to a mining camp, accompanied only by a husky dog.  Like thousands of others who migrated to the Yukon territory in hopes of striking it rich, the man in the story is a newcomer to the region, inexperienced in surviving in such a harsh landscape.  While the dog’s instincts make it aware of the dangers of the extreme cold, the man is not fully conscious of the potential peril of traveling alone in such extremely low temperatures. 

The man prepared for his trek by dressing in warm clothing and by packing some food and matches.  But as London explains early in the story, the man lacked one vital thing necessary for survival:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.  He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.  Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost.  Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all.  It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.  Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks.  Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

This paragraph foreshadows the man’s downfall.  He knows how to build a fire, but he fails to fully imagine what might happen if he builds his fire in the wrong location.  (Spoiler Alert) The man dies from the cold in the end, but it was a lack of imagination that was the true culprit, not the cold (1).

Imagination is the human species’ superpower:  the ability to create pictures of future possibilities and to explore ideas in the mind that are not currently present.  London’s story reminds us that failures of imagination aren’t just dangerous, they are sometimes fatal.

In a case of fact being worse than fiction, in October 2019, a 47-year old man decided to live-stream his climb up Japan’s Mount Fuji.   Even though he titled his video “Let’s Go to Snowy Mt. Fuji,” this man lacked the imagination to prepare for the climb and to anticipate what might go wrong.  Wearing only street clothes and no gloves, he struggled to climb as the trail became more and more slippery.  His tragic, but predictable, final words were, “Wait, I think, I am slipping!” After online viewers contacted authorities, searchers began looking for the man.  He had almost reached the 12,389-foot summit of Mt. Fuji; however, his fatal fall took him down to the 9,800-foot altitude (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can a failure of imagination be fatal?

Challenge – Demise of the Witless:  The Darwin Awards are a catalog of real-life failures of imagination.  The failed attempt to summit Mt. Fuji won the 2020 award.  The Darwin Awards website entitled it “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”  Research another Darwin Award candidate or “winner,” and explain what happened and how it showed a failure of imagination.

Sources:

1-London, Jack.  “To Build a Fire.” 1908.

2-2020 Darwin Awards.  “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”

January 12: Onomatopoeia Day

On this day in 1966, the TV series “Batman” premiered.  The success of the series can be traced to its appeals to a broad audience.  For kids, the show was a must-watch action-adventure, following the exploits of Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo from the DC comic books.  For adults, the show was campy comedy.  Airing twice a week, Batman was wildly successful.  The show was also notable as one of the first to cash-in on merchandising.  Fans could buy a Batman lunch pail, a Batman T-shirt, Batman trading cards, and even a Batman board game.  

The show included a nod to the classics.  In Bruce Wayne’s private study, on a desk next to his red Batphone, sat a bust of William Shakespeare.  The bust was a vital prop, for beneath the hinged head of the Bard was a hidden button.  When Wayne pushed the button, a sliding bookcase opened revealing two Batpoles, giving Batman and Robin immediate access to the Batcave.

Batman ran for three seasons, and in each of its 120 episodes, one plot element was inevitable:  Batman and Robin would confront one of their arch-villains, along with his or her henchman, and engage in a climactic fistfight.   This is where the rhetoric device called onomatopoeia was employed for effect.  To remind viewers that these were comic book characters, each punch was punctuated by words superimposed in bright colors on the screen.  The words “POW!,” “BAM!,” and “ZONK!” entered pop culture (1).

Onomatopoeia is the use of words to imitate or suggest sound. Imagery in language is largely about how words create vivid images, but we should not forget that we can also create imagery via sound effects like onomatopoeia.  For example, if we were to describe a car accident, we might say, “The two cars hit each other.”  This creates the image of two cars coming together; however, notice how the image becomes more vivid when we add a verb that has a sound effect:  “The two cars smashed into each other.”

The results of a psychological study conducted in 1974, shows just how important vivid verbs can be. Subjects in the study were shown a film of a traffic accident and then were asked questions about the accident.  Some of the subjects were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” Others were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”  The subjects who were asked the second question (smashed), gave a higher estimated speed than the subjects who were asked the first question (hit).  

When the subjects were brought back to the lab a week later and shown the film of the accident again, they were asked if they had seen any broken glass.  In reality, there was no broken glass in the film, but several of the subjects reported seeing it. Of those who were asked a week earlier how fast the cars were going when they hit each other, 14 percent said they saw glass; of those who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other, 32 percent said they saw glass (2).

This experiment not only shows the fallibility of human memory and perception, it also shows how the right word, especially the right verb, can create a powerful impression on a reader.  That impression can be in the form of a vivid image, but it can also be auditory, as in “smashed” or “crashed.”  The lesson here is to select your verbs carefully, for their sense, but also for their sound — for their visual effect, but also for their volume effect.

The following are some examples of volume verbs:

babble, beat, bellow, blare, blast, bubble, buzz, chatter, chug, cackle, click, crackle, crash, clang, cry, crush, drip, dribble, explode, fizzle, groan, growl, gurgle, hiss, hum, jingle, knock, moan, murmur, plink, plop, pop, purr, rasp, rattle, roar, rumble, rustle, scream screech shriek, shuffle, sing, sizzle, slurp, snap, splash, squawk, squeal, strike, sweep, swish, swoosh, thud, thunder, trumpet, wheeze, whisper, whistle

Today’s Challenge:  Turn Up the Volume

How can you use verbs to add sound effects to the imagery of sentences? Select three of the basic, boring sentences below, and breathe life into them by revising them, adding volume verbs and other vivid, detailed imagery.  As you revise, read them aloud, listening for each sentence’s soundtrack.

For example:

Basic Sentence:  The teacher raised his voice.

Revised Sentence:  The teacher’s voice thundered through the classroom as he barked at the students to sit down.

The car was old.

The children played.

The rain fell heavily.

The new day dawned.

The cat looked friendly.

The children were excited.

The student worked busily.

The restaurant was packed.

The fireworks were displayed.

The student woke to his alarm clock.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Listen to the sound of your language. Read your words out loud.  Pay attention to their rhythm and cadence and flow. Consider the way they reverberate in your head, how they stir your heart. Ask how your reader would respond to ‘farewell’ as opposed to ‘goodbye,’ or to ‘mockingbird’ as opposed to ‘crow.’  -Stephen Wilbers in Mastering the Craft of Writing

1-Hanks, Henry.  Holy Golden Anniversary, ‘Batman’! Classic TV Show Turns 50.  Cnn.com. 12 Jan. 2016.

2-McLeod, Saul. Loftus and Palmer. Simplysychology.org. 2010.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 11

Subject:  Thin Slicing – The Warren Harding Effect (Halo Effect)

Event:  Publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, 2005

On January 11, 2005, Malcolm Gladwell published Blink, a book that examines the psychology of quick decision making. The book includes a fascinating critique of “thin-slicing,” the cognitive process of drawing broad, swift conclusions based on small bits of specific evidence.

While Gladwell explains that the type of intuitive judgment required for thin-slicing can be developed by experience and training, he also argues that it often leads to erroneous hasty generalizations based on prejudice and stereotypes.  

Warren G Harding-Harris & Ewing.jpg
Warren Harding (Library of Congress)

One specific cognitive bias that results from thin-slicing is illustrated by the biography of the 29th president of the United States, Warren G. Harding.  

Gladwell explains that there was nothing that distinguished Harding as a great leader or politician.  He was not highly intelligent, nor did he have any significant legislative or policy achievements.  From the beginning of his political career at the turn of the 19th century until his successful run for the U.S. presidency in 1921, besides winning elections, Harding accomplished little else.  Harding did have one thing that distinguished him, however — his regal appearance.  He was a handsome man with a rich, resonant voice.  

As Gladwell explains, it was Harding’s attractive appearance that short-circuited the public’s thinking:

Many people who looked at Warren Harding saw how extraordinarily handsome and distinguished-looking he was and jumped to the immediate — and entirely unwarranted — conclusion that he was a man of courage and intelligence and integrity.  They didn’t dig below the surface.  The way he looked carried so many powerful connotations that it stopped the normal process of thinking dead in its tracks (1).

What Gladwell calls the Warren Harding error is a more specific brand of a broader psychological phenomenon called the halo effect.  Anytime we allow a single quality, such as physical attractiveness, social status, or celebrity to overshadow all other qualities, we have fallen for the halo effect.  It explains why companies pay star athletes large sums of money to endorse their products.  Michael Jordan may not be an expert in car performance, but Chevrolet can count on the halo effect to subconsciously influence consumers.  Jordan’s athletic prowess is so prominent that it outshines all other qualities.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can knowing the history of the 29th U.S. president help us avoid the halo effect and help us make better assessments of individuals?

Challenge –  Psychological Effect 101:  The Warren Harding error and the halo effect are just two examples of psychological effects that help us understand human thinking and behavior.  Research one of the effects below.  Then, write an elevator pitch explaining what the effect is and why it is important for better understanding the human species.

Barnum effect, Bystander effect, Contrast Effect, Cocktail party effect, Dunning-Kruger effect, Endowment effect, Framing Effect, False-consensus effect, Flynn Effect, Lake Wobegon Effect, Placebo Effect, Pratfall Effect

Sources:

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

January 11: Worst-case Scenario Day


On this day in 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States released the first report linking cigarette smoking with cancer. The report was based on over 7,000 articles that correlated smoking with disease.  Acting on the report’s findings, Congress acted, passing The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 which required cigarette packages to carry the following Surgeon General’s Warning:  “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health” (1).

Just as that first Surgeon General’s report on smoking caused Americans to consider the dangerous consequences of smoking, another event that happened on this day in 1918 led generations of people to apply prudent forethought when putting together a plan of action.

On January 11, 1918, Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr. was born, the man behind Murphy’s Law, which reminds us that, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong!”  

A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Murphy served as a pilot in World War II.  After the war, Murphy became an aerospace engineer, and in 1951 he was assisting U.S. Air Force scientists in California’s Mojave Desert where they were conducting tests to study the effects of the force of gravity on pilots.  To simulate the force of an airplane crash, the project team mounted a rocket sled on a half-mile track.  At first, the tests were conducted using a dummy, which was later replaced with a chimpanzee.  Then a physician named Colonel John Paul Stapp volunteered to ride the sled, nicknamed “Gee Whiz,” as it raced over 200 miles per hour across the desert floor and suddenly came to an abrupt stop.  

Murphy’s contribution to the experiment were sensors that were attached to Dr. Stapp to measure the G-force as the rocket sled braked.

Although Murphy’s name became attached to the law, the person credited with first uttering the law and spreading it was Dr. Stapp.  During a press conference after the tests, Stapp was asked how the team avoided any serious injuries during its experiments.  The doctor responded by saying that they were able to anticipate mistakes by applying Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Contingency Plans & Cautionary Notes

What are some mistakes you have made, some failures you have experienced, or some accidents you have been the victim of in your life so far? What specific advice would you give others to help them avoid these mistakes or accidents?  Write the text of a public service announcement (PSA) that focuses on a specific danger that might be avoided by exercising caution or by applying Murphy’s Law.  Give details on what specifically might go wrong as well as detailed steps on how to avoid it. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  A thousand people will stop smoking today. Their funerals will be held sometime in the next three or four days.  -Surgeon General C. Everett Koop

1-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. History of the Surgeon General’s Reports on Smoking and Health.

2-Hluchy, Patricia. The Man Behind Murphy’s Law.  Toronto Star. 11 Jan. 2009.

https://www.thestar.com/news/2009/01/11/the_man_behind_murphys_law.html.

January 10: Rubicon Day


On this day in 49 BC, Julius Caesar made a momentous decision that transformed a small Italian river into a powerful metaphor.  

Prior to 49 BC, Caesar served as conquering Roman general, expanding the Roman Empire as far north as Britain.  His most notable conquest came in Gaul, the area of Europe that today includes France, Belgium, and Switzerland.  By winning the Gallic wars, Caesar made Gaul a Roman province and established himself as its governor.  

Although Caesar expanded the territory of the Roman republic, his rivals feared his ambition and envied his success.  Caesar’s most notable foe was a rival Roman general named Pompey.  In January 49 BC, Pompey convinced the Roman Senate to send a message to Caesar, commanding him to leave his army and return to Rome.  

This message is what led to Caesar’s faithful decision to cross the Rubicon River.  He knew that returning to Rome alone without his army would surely lead to his demise, but to take his army across the Rubicon and into Italy was against Roman law and was essentially a proclamation of civil war.  Knowing the consequences of his actions and that there would be no turning back, Caesar boldly led his army across the river as he uttered, “The die is cast!” — a gambling metaphor that means once a player throws (casts) the dice (plural form of die), he has reached a point of no return.

Caesar’s bold gamble paid off.  He defeated Pompey, and when Caesar eventually arrived at the gates of Rome, he was proclaimed dictator for life (1).  (For Part Two of Caesar’s story, see March 15:  Ides of March Day.)

Today, “Crossing the Rubicon” has become a metaphor for any courageous commitment to moving in a bold, new direction for which there is no turning back.

Today’s Challenge:  Mapping Metaphors

What are some examples of geographical sites that evoke a universal theme, such as courage, failure, change, or nonconformity?  What is the story or history behind how this place acquired its abstract meaning?  Like the Rubicon, other geographical sites have acquired meaning beyond just a name on a map.  The history of what happened in each of the places listed below has made each site a metaphor for some abstract idea or universal theme.  Select one of the place names below, and research the story behind how it acquired its metaphoric meaning.  Write a paragraph explaining as clearly as possible the location of your selected site and the story behind its meaning.

Waterloo, Watergate, Alcatraz, Agincourt, Alamo, Bedlam Bohemia, Chappaquiddick, Damascus, Dunkirk, Fort Knox, The Bay of Pigs, Siberia, My Lai

(Common Core Writing 2:  Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast.  -Max Muller

1-Eye Witness to History.com. Julius Caesar Crosses the Rubicon.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 10

Subject: Decision Fatigue/Ego Depletion – Caesar Crosses the Rubicon

Event:  Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, 49 B.C.

On this day in 49 B.C., Julius Caesar made a momentous decision that transformed a small Italian river into a powerful metaphor.  

Prior to 49 B.C., Caesar served as conquering Roman general, expanding the Roman Empire as far north as Britain.  His most notable conquest came in Gaul, the area of Europe that today includes France, Belgium, and Switzerland.  By winning the Gallic wars, Caesar made Gaul a Roman province and established himself as its governor.  

Retrato de Julio César (26724093101) (cropped).jpg
Julius Caesar (Wikipedia)

Although Caesar expanded the territory of the Roman republic, his rivals feared his ambition and envied his success.  Caesar’s most notable foe was a rival Roman general named Pompey.  In January 49 B.C., Pompey convinced the Roman Senate to send a message to Caesar, commanding him to leave his army and return to Rome.  

This message is what led to Caesar’s faithful decision to cross the Rubicon River.  He knew that returning to Rome alone without his army would surely lead to his demise.  Caesar also knew that taking his army across the Rubicon and into Italy was against Roman law and was essentially a proclamation of civil war. Knowing the consequences of his actions and that there would be no turning back, Caesar boldly led his army across the river as he uttered, “The die is cast!” — a gambling metaphor that means once a player throws (casts) the dice (plural form of die), he has reached a point of no return.

Caesar’s bold gamble paid off.  He defeated Pompey, and when he eventually arrived at the gates of Rome, he was proclaimed dictator for life (1). 

Caesar’s Rubicon has become a metaphor in our language, but it has also become a subject of study by psychologists interested in how we make decisions.  In the modern world, it seems that each of us is making more and more decisions each day, decisions that require mental effort.  Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion,” to describe the way that making decisions saps us of mental energy. 

To understand the decision-making process, researchers break it into three phases:  the pre-decision phase, the decision phase, and the post-decision Phase. In a study done at the University of Minnesota, researchers looked at each of these phases by examining the way that subjects thought about computers.  The pre-decision group was tasked with studying the advantages and disadvantages of different computer accessories; however, they were not asked to make any final decisions.  The post-decision group was given the task of configuring a computer, based on predetermined specifications.  The decision group was tasked not only with determining the best features for a computer but also with choosing them.

After completing their tasks, all subjects were given tests measuring their self-control.  By far, the decision group was most depleted.  It turns out that the act of making the decision was the most fatiguing.  As John Tierney explained in his article in The New York Times

The experiment showed that crossing the Rubicon is more tiring than anything that happens on either bank — more mentally fatiguing than sitting on the Gaul side contemplating your options or marching on Rome once you’ve crossed. As a result, someone without Caesar’s willpower is liable to stay put.

Studies completed in decision fatigue and ego depletion reveal that we don’t have unlimited stores of mental energy.  The more decisions we make, the less energy and willpower we have for additional decisions; furthermore, the more decisions we make the higher the likelihood that the quality of those decisions will be reduced.  Just as running with our legs or lifting with our arms fatigues our muscles, decision making fatigues our mind.  You might consider this, for example, the next time you have a choice whether to make a doctor’s appointment in the morning versus the afternoon.  Chances are the quality of your doctor’s decision-making ability will be diminished in the afternoon as a result of the multiple decisions she made earlier in the day (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can knowing about decision fatigue and ego depletion increase the likelihood of making decisions worthy of a Roman emperor?

Challenge – Casting the Die:  Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon was a big one.  What is another major decision from history, and why would you argue it was so important?

Sources:

1-Eye Witness to History.com. Julius Caesar Crosses the Rubicon.

2-Tierney, John.  “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” The New York Times 17 August 2011. 

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.