Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Pot & Kettle Situation

Our theme today is Freud’s charging horses, back at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. They of his hypothetical question, “Would you rather be pulled apart by two horses, or charged by two horses?” To be less Poetic and more Metaligual about it, we’re talking the defense mechanism of projection. Here are some of Ray Corsini’s definitions [in The Dictionary of Psychology, 2002]: “attributing to others what is actually true of the self, often used to justify prejudice…the process by which impulses, wishes, or aspects of the self are imagined to be located in some external object.”

Thus, the premise behind Projective Tests is that the subject will see in ambiguous visual stimuli, unconscious aspects of himself. You may recall from an earlier post that, unlike most “subjects” who think Lili looks like a wolf, a municipal workman thought she looked like a bat. Two more recent “responses” [as they are called on the Rorschach]: this summer a general contractor for the school, taking smoke breaks in a shady passage to the playing fields, would routinely greet Lili with, “There’s my bear!” More bizarrely, a middle school boy, rambling in the woods with his science class to collect leaf specimens, asked “Is that a mountain lion?”

Instead of the deadpan “yes” I gave him, I could have said [in my best Cockney accent], “Oooh! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!” but that archaic expression has long since been shortened to the title idiom. It would have been an obscure joke, anyway, like the recurrent SNL sketch where two dorky Bostonians keep saying, “No, you ah” to each other. But that’s what projection is: saying “No, you ah” to the “charging horse,” rather than owning the “wolfish” aspects of oneself. Remember the middle school retort, to being called something negative [like a bat, or a bear, or a wolf, or a mountain lion]? “Takes one to know one.”

Well, precisely. That was Freud’s point. Well spotted, you middle schoolers and SNLers! Be a detective of human nature with me, and notice, on any given day, who is screaming the loudest imprecations against the “despicable” behavior of his/her foes. Wait one news cycle, and behold the hideous portrait [or skeleton] hidden in said screamer’s own closet.

Less fun, but more to the point, we might ask ourselves why a friend’s or relative’s Highly Inconvenient behavior is Driving Us Howling Mad. Whatever else is “up our nose” about their shenanigans, there might just be a whiff of humiliation, as we grudgingly recognize in our own sweet selves a similar impulse to be beastly.

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Filed under attribution theory, Freud meant...

"Dai-jo-bu!" ["Everbody cut footloose"]

Where would the business based rom-com [from The Pajama Game to MadMen, which, don’t kid yourself, is a comedy, whatever its Emmy category] be, without the office party, or better yet, the off-site office picnic? Nowheresville, that’s where! (Hold that thought.)

How do drug/bomb/corpse-sniffing dogs learn their trade? Through rewards for accurate scent detection, sure; but what’s the most commonly used reward? Why, play time with the “Boss.”

In the Navy, we mice learned at “salute school,” there are 3 basic postures, in the presence of the Boss Cats: “Attention on deck” [stand up straight, “eyes in the boat,” and don’t move]; “At ease” or “Fall out” [you are free to mill about smartly]; and (for me) a useless middle-ground position, because it was less comfortable than standing to attention [hands folded at the small of one’s back, as if handcuffed] “Parade rest.”

Lili’s trainer [a former Marine] taught us to tell her “Zen-zen” [literal translation, “Never”] for the “Don’t move” command, which we were encouraged to extend, for distance and duration, as we left her in the “Down/stay” position in an open space. The release command, “Dai-jo-bu!” [literally, “All right!”] is more festive than merely “At ease,” or “Fall out.” It means “Party time!” It’s an exhortation to “cut footloose,” to do a little dance of joy, to “play with the Boss Cat,” not just to follow orders.

And therein lies the conundrum. In the Navy, a junior officer used to parse a “command performance” [an “invitation” to a social event that one could not refuse, without negative consequences], using a Germanic funny voice, “You will come! You will enjoy it!” So, too, do some reluctant attendees to the company party/picnic mutter to themselves, “Aye, aye, sir. Three bags full, sir. It’s not ‘play’ if it’s required, no matter how much booze is on offer.” The well-meant but ham-fisted proclamation of the Boss Cat(s), “Let the revelries begin!” is experienced as an intrusion into one’s private time off. Worse, if one “befriends Ethyl” [gets drunk] to get through the event, one risks humiliation or even the fear of the Boss Cats’ displeasure.

So, what’s the upside of such jollifications? Well, believe it or not, they work best if the captive merry-makers are divided [randomly] into teams, to compete in a bit of low-stakes zero-sum-gaming [ranging from silly, pseudo-athletic events to charades and Trivial Pursuit]. To promote the “We’re all in this together” spirit, the Boss Cats have to muck in with the mice [at least one per team], thereby showing what Jolly Good Eggs they are, really. To encourage reference group cohesion, each team should devise a clever name for itself [not necessarily by democratic means]. If all goes well, the use of the Poetic Speech function [jokes, plays on words, mimicry, and general Mick-taking] will increase, and laughter will follow. Stress will decrease. Cortisol production will be slowed.

The “play drive” in dogs has long been recognized and used strategically by their Boss Cats, to increase on-duty “productivity.” [“All work and no play makes Jack a burnt-out, distracted dog.”] It is also a powerful motivator in humans, as taught in Management Courses for Boss Cats. No matter how deadly serious the mission we’re on, inside of each of us there is a Party Animal, waiting for a moment of comic relief. Waiting for the release command, “Dai-jo-bu!”

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Filed under comic relief, reference group, stress and cortisol