Monthly Archives: December 2009

"Climb Every (effing) Mountain"


Did you know that the actor who starred in the movie version of The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer, found it so insufferably mawkish and goody-two-shoes, that he referred to it as “The Sound of Mucus”? Fact. The “mountain” depicted in this picture is really just a hill on our daily woodland walk; but, even though I do 50 minutes of aerobic training at home each morning before tackling this “ascent,” it always leaves me dizzy and gasping for air. [Humiliation in addition to a brief bout of pain & suffering.] So, why do I do it? That’s an Existential question, for another post. How do I do it? I apply the Premack Principle.

This is one of those robust, game-changing, life-enhancing concepts I learned about in grad school [back in the day], that has been completely watered down, in modern textbooks. Here is Ray Corsini’s definition, in The Dictionary of Psychology (2002 edition): “David Premack’s contention that given two behaviors with differing likelihoods of occurring, the behavior more likely to occur may be used to reinforce the less likely behavior.” [Yawn]

Here’s how we learned it: “Faced with two tasks, one of which is short & simple, and the other of which is long & complex, an individual is more likely to choose to do the short, simple task.” Our example for teaching this to our Intro Psych students @ USNA was to ask them, “During which two weeks in the academic year are Midshipmen’s belt buckles the shiniest?” Answer: “During the Pre-exam Reading Periods of 1st & 2nd semester.” Why? Because, faced with the tasks of Brasso-ing one’s belt buckle or studying for an Electrical Engineering exam, one will choose the simple but gratifying task of banishing tarnish from a belt buckle (and any other other metal surface) first. (Then, polishing one’s shoes…)

So, here’s the power of this principle. In order to increase the likelihood of tackling a long & complex task, you should “Premack” it into short(er), simple(r) little steps. If a grown-up says to a kid, “Pick up your room,” (and it’s not a scene from a Disney movie), the likely result will be…not a picked up room, I’m tellin’ ya. If the grown-up says, “First, gather up all the used towels in your room,” it will be (more likely to be) done.

When faced with that most onerous and complex of tasks, “Finish your doctoral dissertation,” my classmates & I resorted to all manner of short & simple tasks, such as finishing the NYTimes crossword puzzle, or at least filling in all the S’s for the plural clues. This was mid-70s, mind you, when a search of the relevant literature meant hunting down journal articles by pawing through tomes of indices, and then reading the articles on microfische…oh, it exhausts me even to tell you. So, I would Premack it: “I’ll sit in the library, scribbling on my little index cards, until I have filled 10 of them, and then I’ll rest from my labors (for the day). I’ll come back tomorrow and do 10 more.”

That’s how I get up the hill each day. I Premack it: by keeping my eyes steadfastly fixed on each day-glow-orange-painted tree root, like the rungs of a ladder, just a short distance apart; and avoiding looking up the hill, to see how many, many more “rungs” are left ahead of me. [Also, to distract me from the agony of so many expended Therbligs, in my head I “sing” a song of non-lexical vocables, such as “Nana Window” or the “Ying Tong” song.]

So, do ya see, this could be a strategy to keep from being consumed by the Zeigarnik effect. “I’ll think of 3 new places to look for those missing forage balls. I’ll look, and then I’ll rest from my labors.” (That is, I’ll move on to something completely different, also on my list of self-assigned tasks.) Between the push-me-pull-you of Premack & Zeigarnik, I get a surprising number of things done each day, especially considering that I am a cognitive Kangaroo. Not everything, mind you. But there’s always tomorrow…

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Filed under Premack principle, therbligs, Zeigarnik effect

Task, Interrupted


Remember the line from George Harrison’s 1966 song, “I Want to Tell You,” (off of Revolver), “I feel hung up but I don’t know why”? Well, a psychologist living in Russia at the time, Blyuma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, did. (…know why George Harrison felt hung up.) When she was a graduate student in Berlin in the 20s, her dissertation adviser, Kurt Lewin (father of Field Psychology, as in “If I don’t get my way, I’m going to leave the field, possibly taking my football with me”) noticed that a waiter who had not yet received payment for a patron’s order remembered it more accurately, than the orders for which he had been paid. “BFD,” I hear you remark. “Why remember a fait accompli?”

Not the point. Why is it, that we do remember (obsess about, have nightmares about, dump cortisol about) even trivial bits of unfinished business?

Here’s an example from last week, that is still intruding on our domestic tranquility, humiliating me for my failure to solve the mystery, and making me fear for my sanity (a bit). A few months ago I read about forage balls for overweight or fast-eating cats. Originally designed for pigs, to simulate rooting about for food in the wild, these plastic globes with adjustable slots must be batted about by the forager, for each ort of food to be released. Zanizbar is fed in a bathroom, which sounds like a bowling alley as he biffs his ball from wall to wall. Napster, however, is fed in a former-bedroom-now-box-room, full of nooks & crannies (as they say in English muffin ads). It’s like an Easter egg hunt each morning, trying to find where he’s hidden his ball. First an orange one “disappeared.” After expending more Therbligs trying to find it than the task deserved, I gave up and substituted a pink ball (that we had bought for Ruth, before realizing that she was too old, blind, and thin, to be required to forage for her supper).

Then the pink ball went missing…along with my skepticism regarding the fairies, who hide objects, just to create chaos. The room, though cluttered, is finite. The door is only shut during feedings, however. Perhaps the balls had made their way to another upstairs room? Believe me, both Chris & I have searched. Maybe they rolled downstairs? Let me check behind the piano, again. We eagerly await the holiday return of our daughters, so we can put them on the case.

Having gone out and spent another $8 on a blue forage ball has not, as hoped, loosened the grip of our compulsion to hunt for the Two That Got Away. We are in thrall to the Zeigarnik Effect.

Serialized books & movies, cliffhanger season-enders on TV, crossword puzzles & that Japanese number game I can’t even pronounce, much less get into, all rely on this powerful need for closure. Oddly enough, “difficulty sustaining attention in…or finishing…tasks” is listed as the hallmark symptom of Kangaroo Brain (as I fondly refer to my ADD); but clearly, there is a missing qualifier here: “assigned (tasks).”

For the interrupted tasks that we assign ourselves, there is no “forget-about-it.” Just ask Lili, at the window, as she awaits the next sighting of those interloping Goldens, whom a locked front door prevented her from interdicting this morning.

You’ll have to excuse me, now. I’ve just thought of another place to look…

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Filed under magical thinking, Zeigarnik effect

"I’m wild again, beguiled again…"


Lorenz Hart’s original lyrics to the hit song of the 1940 musical Pal Joey, “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” were so risque that Bowdlerized [watered-down, Disney-fied] phrases are usually substituted, to mollify modern, Tipper Gorean sensibilities. Even if you are familiar with the song, bet you haven’t heard this opening gambit, sung by a girl, already: “After one whole quart of brandy, like a daisy I awake, with no Bromo Seltzer handy…” [Talk about “Tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘no, no, no.'”]

Sportsfans, I tell ya, simply pretending that you have no wolf [no temptation to behave recklessly and regrettably] doesn’t stop your wolf from going wild. Beguiled, we’ll get to in a moment.

When, in another part of the forest, I used to interview young people whose misuse of alcohol had come to the attention of the authorities, I encouraged them to recapture their [pre-bust] enthusiasm for their beverage of choice. [See the post, “Crazy Like a Fox.”] To cut to the chase I would ask a young man, “Tell me what’s better about an evening spent with Ethyl.” [Young ladies were asked about an evening with Fred. As in Mertz. Nar’mean?] Protestations of “Nothing! Nothing was good about it! It was stupid! I was led astray by my so-called friends,” were dismissed as unhelpful stonewalling. Until any of us can look back on our shenanigans from the Crazy Fox’s point of view, as “seeming like a good idea, at the time,” we are none the wiser about what makes us tick, and no less likely to try it again.

Even when granted amnesty [or confidentiality], though, most of my “drunken sailors” were initially reluctant to “go there”: to let the Crazy Fox explain what it was trying to accomplish. The heroine of the Rogers & Hart song goes there. She tells us she is wildly, hopelessly attracted to an off-limits guy, so she spent the night with Fred [a quart of brandy]. Her Crazy Fox beguiled her into believing that Fred would take her mind off Mr. Wrong, at least temporarily. The song is a morning-after lament: “Well, ‘going wild’ didn’t work. I’m still bewitched, bothered & bewildered by this guy, only now I have a hangover, too.” I’ll let you look up the original lyrics, to find out if she ever wises up, or comes to a bad end.

Trouble is, insight into the Crazy Fox’s motive comes at a cost: humiliation. [Sometimes, also pain & suffering.] Not everyone is prepared to pay that price, until all other options have been exhausted. How ’bout a bit of denial? “I’m just not like that.” Or rationalization? “I don’t have to try to understand this, because it’s a one-time-deal, not a pattern.” Or projection? “I didn’t start this. S/he did provoke [beguile] me.”

Recommended reading: the mid-section of DFW’s Infinite Jest, featuring the AA meetings.

Imagine what Lili & Zanzibar are saying in this picture. Actually, there were no shenanigans going on here, for once. Peaceable kingdom. But doesn’t Lili look guilty of something?

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Filed under ambivalence, understanding shenanigans

Gingerism Is No Joke


Centuries before those wiseguys, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, wrote Episode 911 of South Park [“Ginger Kids,” which was first aired on 9 Nov 05], individuals with red hair were the objects of fear & loathing, as well as assault & murder. The ancient Egyptians used to sacrifice them regularly, “for good luck.” In Medieval Europe, red-haired individuals were feared as vampires. In Czarist Russia they were all regarded as insane. Frank McCourt wrote that in the Limerick of his youth, redheads were assumed to be of Protestant [Scottish] descent, and therefore hated. In the UK in 2003 [2 years prior to South Park 911, mind you] a 20-year-old youth was fatally stabbed in the back “for being a Ginger,” according to his assailant.

When Rosie received solo-tour orders to Shanghai, 3 months into Myrna’s pregnancy with my older sister, they made a red-haired-girl contingency plan, to “give her a name with its own nickname reference to her hair color,” to spare her Rosie’s fate. In the Chicago of his youth, red-haired children were jeered, “Redhead, gingerbread, 2 cents a loaf.” Thus, in the fullness of time, his shipmate [“Blood” Doner, speaking of onerous monickers] handed Rosie a telegram: “Baby Virginia Darling.” Rosie wired back, “So it’s a red-haired girl; but why the Southern middle name?” [His idea of a little joke.] As often happens with babies, Ginger’s flaming red hair fell out, grew back in blonde, and then morphed into a subtle bronze, like an old penny, not a new one. [For rufus boys, the head-’em-off-at-the-pass name was Russell, so they could be called Rusty, ya know. These days, apparently, it’s Rufus.]

So, what is up with all this ancient & modern “gingerism” [as the Manchester Guardian dubbed this form of discrimination, in 2003], anyway? I shall now [color]blind you with [some genetic and social] science. The rarest of hair colors, red is the result of a [recessive] mutation in the MC1R gene. Because it is highly correlated with pale/freckled skin, it offers the survival advantage of higher absorption of Vitamin D [a protection against Rickets] It is expressed in 13% of the Scots and 10% of the Irish. [Not all of dem, d’ya see, now.] It is “very common” in Ashkenazi [European] Jews. [Think Woody Allen.] Currently in the US, [natural] red hair is found in “2 to 6% of the population.”

Professor Cary Cooper, a British psychologist, opines that redheads are a convenient target of malice, because they are “a visible minority, not protected by law.” Without presuming to know their motives, I speculate that Messrs. Parker & Stone chose “Ginger Kids” for their parable about baseless prejudice, because they had no idea [at the time] that “gingerism” was a real problem. They might just as well have chosen sinistrality [left-handedness, with which red hair is significantly correlated]. Nevertheless, their lack of response, so far, in the face of recent Facebook-mediated, South Park inspired “Kick-a-Ginger-Day” assaults among middle-schoolers, is not very Menschlich [stand-up], in my opinion. Their disclaimer, that no one under 17 [unable to discern Poetic Speech reliably] should have watched the episode, misses the point.

Let’s do a little wolf-work. [Way] back in the day, aggression against the rufus was prompted by fear: of vampires and lunatics. In Limerick [if McCourt’s red-hair-means-you’re-a-Prod association is right], the anger stemmed from the intrusion and humiliation that Irish Catholics felt/feel at the hands of their Scots-Irish [British] overlords. The common association of red hair with a short temper may prompt others to dread that a red-haired person is more likely to inflict pain & suffering [although the scientific evidence suggests that they are, themselves, more sensitive to (thermal) pain than others].

What I wanna know is, what about redheads got up the noses of Parker & Stone, and their media outlet, Comedy Central? Their current silence has the whiff of Unacknowledged Wolf.

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Filed under attribution theory, gets right up my nose, semiotics, sharks and jets