"Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair"


In the latest issue of Spin magazine, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner explains how a song was “born”: “We were in the studio and I pulled someone’s chair out.”

Do ya see, now, he was trying to circumvent Gestalt psychologist Edward Tolman’s Expectancy Effect, defined in The Dictionary of Psychology [ed. Ray Corsini, 2002] thus: “a tendency for an expectation to cloud a person’s ability to observe or reason, that may lead to an error or bias in the direction in which the person expected the results to go.” Or, to apply Occam’s Razor, we are all creatures of habit. We expect a chair to be where it usually is.

When I say “all,” I include Tolman’s lab rats, who were trained to run a maze, at the end of which they had come to expect a High-Value Treat. When the fiendish experimenter substituted a Treat of Lesser Value, “the rats displayed disgust.”

There is a British idiom, “Sick as a parrot!” Maybe its corollary could be, “Disgusted as a rat!”

The Expectancy Effect does not always result in disgust [or a pratfall from sitting down where a chair no longer is]. Sometimes it causes a better-than-it-really-is distortion [called a Positive Halo Effect in Educational Psychology, where certain students are given the benefit of the doubt & inflated scores, while others (under a Negative Halo) are expected to do badly & downgraded accordingly].

Get this, from yesterday’s London Evening Standard. A man [who had recently quit taking his meds] fatally stabbed a perfect stranger in the street, because he “mistook him for a Zombie.” See? If you’re expecting Zombies, you’re likely to “see” them everywhere.

Oh, come on. Who hasn’t done it? Your beloved black cat has died, and now every dark sweater or towel, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, “is Midnight!” It’s only delusional if you open a fresh can of FancyFeast for “him.” In certain cultures, not even then.

Returning to the Zombie hunter example, hands up if you expect all rich Frenchmen [or rich Italians, for that matter] to be lechers. Or all mothers to be paragons of virtue.

Oopsie daisy! It ain’t necessarily so. Rules of thumb concerning human nature, like chairs, are subject to change without prior notification.

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory

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