Category Archives: attribution theory

Consider the Source

In all the stage, telly & film versions of Shakespeare’s play Richard III I’ve seen, he wears a gaudy, gold piece of bling: a heavy chain necklace with a wild boar pendant. Now, why is that? “Cuz that was his heraldic emblem, innit?” How come? “Cuz he was a hunchback, all bent over like a wild boar, innit?” How do we know that? “Cuz that’s how Shakespeare had Richard describe himself, right at the opening of the play, innit?” But Shakespeare wrote the play more than 100 years after Richard’s death. How did he know what Richard really looked like? “Cuz, clever clogs, a Yorkshire school master, name of John Burton, wrote in 1491 (within living memory of Richard) that he was ‘an hypocrite, a crouchback, and buried in a dike like a dog.’ Innit?”

Well, it’s clear that Burton was no fan of the last Plantagenet king (nor was Shakespeare, who was kissing up to his own monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, of the rival gang, the House of Tudor). But his research was a bit dodgy. “Crouchback” was a family name in the House of Plantagenet [not a diss or a diagnosis], referring to the family’s right to wear an embroidered cross on the back of their formal wear, cuz their ancestor, Henry Plantagenet, fought in [and funded] the Crusades. Ya see how these urban legends get started?

Do you believe everything you read [or hear] in the media about Hollywood’s “royalty”? How can you, when every week two adjacent tabloids at the grocery check-out are contradicting each other? Do you believe in the genuineness of paparazzi photos, or have you twigged to the magic of PhotoShop, by now?

If you are female, do you believe that Barbie’s proportions represent the Platonic Form of Absolute Feminine Beauty? If so, you have something in common with the not-so-ancient Chinese, who bound infant girls’ feet, to keep them from growing [also, alas, keeping them from supporting the weight of the unfortunate girl, when the rest of her body grew up, so that she had to be carried around, like…um…Barbie].

See where I’m going with this? Be very careful in your choice of Body Image role models, for yourself or for those in your care. Ask yourself, who gets to decide what size [of foot, or body] is The Right Size? If you know someone who looks like a runway model, regard them with pity, not envy; for such cadaverous thinness [usually] comes at the cost of long-term health. A male cousin of mine [who studied at a famous UK ballet school in the 70s and danced professionally], gave us a glimpse into the grim reality behind those fairy-princess-looking girls. That ethereal look was [most often] achieved through the imposition [before the legal age of consent] of a forced choice: the humiliation of constant criticism for weight gain [soon followed by fear of dismissal from the school or professional dance company], or the pain & suffering of a life-long battle with Eating Disorder.

Last year, after the death of 3 South American models in their quest to compete with their European “colleagues” for angularity, there went out an international hue & cry, to insist that runway models must have a doctor’s certificate of “healthy Body Mass Index” before they could work in the fashion industry. Didn’t happen. Fashion designers refused to provide attire sized to fit the “certified healthy” models. Think about the priorities of such people, and those in the media who allow them to dictate what will be The Look for this Fall. Before you buy into their hype, that their Look is the Only Acceptable Look for this season [“Wear It or Be Square”], consider the source.

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Filed under attribution theory, body image, semiotics, sharks and jets

Lili the Rorschach

This morning’s walk through the woods was a harbinger of Fall: cool, blustery, intermittently overcast, with a forecast of rain. I put on a waterproof, fawn-colored riding jacket, and off we set. At the midway point of the trail through the woods, I heard my least favorite sound: gunshots, very close. I happen to know that deer hunting season is weeks off, so neither Lili nor I were wearing our day-glow safety vests. In fact, obscured by the leafy trees, we might have been mistaken for a wolf and a deer. Spurred on by fear, not to mention the intrusion of [let’s just hope] hunters jumping the gun, we picked up the pace and headed for the relative safety [because of our higher visibility] of the playing fields. But just as we approached the turn off, we heard police sirens near the school, and decided to stay on the lower-viz, wooded path. By the time we reached the paved road that leads back to where the car was parked, both the gunshots and the sirens had stopped, so we relaxed the pace to a brisk, dog-show trot.

When we reached the car, it was blocked by two county utility vans. “Oh, swell!” I thought. “Having dodged bullets in the woods, now we’re going to get hassled on the open road.” The driver of one truck rolled down his window and asked, “Where’d you get that dog?” “In Virginia,” I said with a smile [projecting my best not-your-victim-not-your-enemy subtext]. “I’ve never seen anything like it! What’s ‘he’ weigh?” Going into my Lili-is-not-your-enemy mode, I said, “She’s a girl, and she only weighs 71 pounds, under all that fur. Soaking wet, she looks like a greyhound.”

To which he replied, “It looks like a bat! Never seen anything like it! Have a nice day!”

And the point of this little vignette? Scary is in the eyes [and ears] of the beholder [listener]. Unless I hear on the news about a gun battle in my local woods [which is not unprecedented], my amygdalar arousal was as much of a false alarm as was the initial reaction of our new friend, “Bat man.”

But I think we’ll start wearing those safety vests again, in any case.

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Filed under attribution theory, limbic system, semiotics

Bad Fairy at the Christening

Backstory to Sleeping Beauty: two Good Fairies offer upbeat predictions for baby Aurora; then a Bad Fairy [name of Maleficent] predicts that on the girl’s 16th birthday, she’ll prick her finger with a spindle and die. A 3rd Good Fairy softens the malediction from “die” to “fall asleep.” Then they put the baby into a witness protection program [changing her name to Briar Rose]. You remember the rest.

So here’s the malediction du jour from BMC Medicine 2009, 7;46: based on a decades-long study of 16,496 kids, all born in the UK, in the same week of April, 1970. When they were 10 years old, several tests & measurements were administered. Less subjectively, their Body Mass Index [as well as that of their parents] was obtained by “a qualified nurse.” The Social Class of their parents was calculated, based on Dad’s line of work [if any]. Their teacher filled out a “modified Rutter B” questionnaire [which assessed each kid for how “worried,” “miserable,” “tearful,” and/or “fussy” they were]. Hands up, if you ever were assigned Robert Rosenthal’s 1968 educational classic, Pygmalion in the Classroom. If so, you already know how this study is going to turn out; but don’t spoil the surprise for the others.

Then these UK 10-year-olds were given 3 read-it-yourself-and-fill-in-the-answers surveys. The so-called Self-Report test had just 2 items: “I worry alot,” and “I am nervous,” to which the kid could answer “Not at all,” or “Sometimes,” or “Often/usually.” [Let’s cut to the chase on this one, and say that it predicted nowt, bupkes, nada.] Ah, but there followed the 12-item LAWSEQ [“yes,” “no,” “don’t know”] to assess Self Esteem; and the 16-item CAROLOC [“yes,” or “no/don’t know”] to assess External/Internal Locus of Control. The scoring on each test was like golf [not basketball]: lower was better. Did you ever study the “Yea-sayer Effect”? [As the name suggests, some folks Just Cain’t Say “No” on questionnaires. That’s why well-designed surveys throw in some “Yes, we have no bananas” type of questions, just to catch out the “yea-sayers.” Not these two tests, though.]

Okay, so fast-forward 20 years. Of the original cohort, less than half the 30-year-olds [mostly women] chose to contact the researchers, with their self-reported Body Mass Index. Now for the high-concept title of the article: “Childhood emotional problems and self-perceptions predict weight gain in a longitudinal regression model.” And now, for what the data actually show. “The strongest predictors of weight gain were BMI @ age 10 and parental BMI.” “[For women only] External Locus of Control and Low Self Esteem predicted weight gain on a par with Social Class.” “The Rutter B predicted increased BMI [for women].”

So–before we all start wringing our hands like the guests at Aurora’s Christening party, at the “Statistically Proven Fact” that highly-strung 10-year-old girls [or those who Just Cain’t Say No on questionnaires], whose teachers have already pigeon-holed them as Nervous Nellies, are doomed to become overweight 30-year-olds–let’s consider an unexplored bias in the data. As Rosenthal’s [much more robust] results have shown, a teacher’s subjective assessment of each student has a powerful effect–for good or evil–not only on the teacher’s predictions of that kid’s academic and social success, but on the kid’s actual success.

So, here’s my advice to concerned parents of young girls. Listen carefully at those parent-teacher conferences; and if you’re getting the vibe that the teacher has your kid in “negative halo” mode, either change the teacher’s attitude or change which teacher your kid has. I have no doubt that my father’s move-in-October Navy schedule fortuitously rescued me from some toxic negative halo situations [inasmuch as I was an Exceedingly Highly-Strung, ergo annoying, young pupil]. And twice, my parents insisted that I switch teachers, even when we weren’t blowing in or out of town.

Ya gotta be your kid’s Press Agent, and package ’em, like an Oscar nominee. Ya gotta win the Bad Fairies over, and get them to revise their own predictions of your kid’s prospects. Also, it couldn’t hurt to coach your kid to charm it up a little, no? And for those of you waiting for the Up Your Nose nexus here, say it with me: Childhood humiliation [at not being one of the teacher’s faves] leads to anger [often, directed against oneself] and to dumping cortisol, which leads to weight gain…along with other forms of pain & suffering.

But watch out for that 16th birthday, anyway. It’s a risky time for most girls.

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Filed under attribution theory, body image, confounds, locus of control, murky research, stress and cortisol

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

Many Happy Returns

I first heard this British expression for “Happy Birthday” in 1960, upon turning 12, in London’s answer to FAO Schwartz, Hamley’s, while being bought a life-sized [plush-toy] parrot, who is still with me. Two months into our English sojourn, I was stuck in my homesick-for-the-States phase; and my two associations to the shop assistant’s remark were: “Yankee, go home,” and “Keep your receipt, in case you want to bring the toy back.”

This Sunday was both Lili’s and my husband Chris’ birthday. [I am authorized to say that Lili turned 6.] It was, indeed, a happy day, except for my having so recently returned from a California visit to the “other daughters” [and therefore missing them all the more], and our having lost both phone & Internet connectivity, so the birthday boy & girl could not receive “Many happy returns of the day” messages from their Loved Ones. Normal service returned by the evening, though; and greetings were duly exchanged.

How sentimental we humans are about observing the anniversary of our birth! A young & trendy BBC 1 presenter was offering to send [by ground post] Birthday cards, on behalf of stranded Brits in the States [whom she dubbed VAVs: Volcanic Ash Victims] to their sweethearts back in Blighty. Not enough, apparently, just to pass on a “shout out” over the airwaves. A timely, mailed & received, piece of festive stationery was required. We’re just as soppy over here. No less than 5 times during one fair-to-middling meal at a “family-style” Italian restaurant in oh-so-cool LA, my girls & I were “strongly encouraged” by the management to sing a song of Birthday greetings to total strangers at other tables. In the spirit of Casablanca, we stalwartly demurred [although we didn’t bust loose with The Marseillaise in counterpoint, either].

Here’s my point. Lili the dog [who is blissfully unaware of the AKC registration of her date of birth] probably had a happier day [sans cards, calls & cake], than her human owners, because all she expected [and received] was her food, her walk-in-the-woods and our love. She avoided all the potential for humiliation that custom & Hallmark imposes on the rest of us: “You’re nobody til somebody fetes you…in a timely manner, on the very date of your birth.” That was the entire plot of Sixteen Candles, remember?

My own birthday often falls on Labor Day weekend, which is Highly Inconvenient, if one has just had one’s purse snatched and all one’s friends who could have lent one money are out-of-town [which happened twice in NYC in the 70s]. So, I have a lower bar than many for what I consider a Good Enough Birthday: something to eat, the liberty to walk about outside, and the knowledge that my Loved Ones wish me well, wherever they might be.

Although, I must say, that 40th in Vienna was pretty swell…

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"Keep a Civil Tongue in Your Head!"

Did you hear about the [latest] set-to between the Australian actor Russell Crowe and a member of the media [Mark Lawson of BBC 4]? There’s an audio clip, if you’re interested, with expletives prissily deleted. During an interview @ the Cannes Film Festival, the mercurial actor took great umbrage at Lawson’s [repeated] observation that he heard “a hint of an Irish accent” in Crowe’s Robin Hood, and ultimately walked out, in medias res. Apart from mild [Poetic] sarcasm, when Lawson asked him if the accent had been “more northern English,” [to which Crowe retorted, “No. I was going for an Italian, yeah. Missed it? F@#k me. Anyway…”], he used the Referential speech function. Nothing went airborne except a few Emotive phrases. Wolf held in check, compared to past form.

More to the point, what do we think got up Crowe’s nose, about the attribution that he sounded slightly Irish? Humiliation of some sort, one gathers. His bio says he spent his youth pinging between New Zealand & Oz; and that apart from one indigenous ancestor, his heritage is [like most Anglo-Antipodeans] Welsh, Scottish, English and (ahem) Irish. Much was made of the film’s efforts to be more historically accurate than previous versions, and a dialect coach was mentioned. Was there an implied slur on that person’s accuracy or efficacy? Or on Crowe’s capacity for mimicry? Or was the presenter insinuating that the actor was playing Robin Hood as a crypto-Fenian [out to overthrow the English monarchy]? I’d go see that film, now.

“Anyway…” [to quote Crowe], here’s the point of this post. Which would you prefer: to be told something offensive, or to be told a lie? The Indigenous American expression for the latter, is [for a European incomer] “to speak with forked tongue.” After several incidents in which East Coast tribes of Indians were schmized into “peace talks” with colonists, only to be massacred, they came to fear them, having before only resented their intrusion.

For my part, as much as it angers [humiliates] me to “get panned by the critics,” it is far more infuriating [as in, frightening] to be deceived. When a dog is barking at you, or a horse is pinning its ears, you know just where you stand with them [if possible, out of strike range, until their limbic system has chilled]. When poor old Russell was being interviewed by a presenter “notorious for being oleaginous and obsequious,” how could he tell if the guy loved the movie or hated it? Especially if, rather than just giving him a thumbs up or down, Lawson made himself obscure, with a forked-tongued, passive-aggressive. a propos of nothing “question” about “a hint of Irish.” Like Lili would have, Crowe rose to the bait and barked. But he didn’t bite. He chose to disengage, to leave the field; but as he departed he was still trying to clarify whether Lawson had intentionally dissed him or not: “I don’t get the Irish thing, by the way,” he murmured, as he left the room. Now, that was civil enough, wasn’t it?

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, lesser of two evils, limbic system

"A Penny for Your Thoughts"

In 1966, a year after the Rhine Research Center [more commonly known as the Institute for Parapsychology] decamped from the East Duke campus [and curriculum] to a semi-spooky-looking house across Buchanan Street in town, I paid a visit and had my psi [telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis] tested. Guess how I did? [Feeble parapsychological joke.] Tell you later.

Incidentally, the first citation for the penny-for-your-thoughts idiom was in Sir Thomas More’s book, Four Last Things. [He, who naively believed that “you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking”; yet he not only went to the Tower, but lost his head, for what Henry VIII thought More was thinking.]

Mind reading is not the exclusive domain of professional psychics, ya know [or do ya know?]. Except for the truly solipsistic [and/or autistic], all of us behave as if we had “the second sight.” We blithely attribute thoughts and motives to others, quite often accurately, on the basis of subtle [or even subliminal] cues. That’s why when a 20th Century psi subject had to pick which card the examiner was holding [square, star, circle, cross, or squiggle], the two people had to be in separate rooms. [Now, it’s ever-so-much-more high-tech, don’t ya know.] My own low-tech “research” suggests that the ability to “receive” such “messages” diminishes with age. To while away long car trips with my kids and their various friends, I made up a game called “Gypsy,” using an ordinary deck of cards, thoroughly shuffled. Each girl in turn had to guess whether the next card would be red or black; and if she was right, she collected the card. The one with the most cards at the end of the game was the “Gypsy.” It was always the youngest kid in the car. “Ooh!” the others would predict, “You’re going to clean up at the Windsor Casino!” This was back in Detroit, in the early ’90s.

Speaking of which, back in the day, on the crosstown drive from our house to our horse’s house, we would pass Madame Rosa’s Psychic Parlor, with a neon sign saying “Call [a telephone number] for an appointment.” My already skeptical older daughter would quibble, “Why would you have to call? Wouldn’t she just know when you were coming in?”

For most of us, success at mind-reading is a sometime thing. But, as casino operators know, nothing is more compelling than Intermittent Reinforcement. One wonders how often the punter’s Beginner’s Luck at a game of chance is contrived by the “house.” One even might wonder how many of my fellow subjects were found to have “significantly high psi,” as I was. Bet you already guessed that, eh?

Almost 40 years of trying to “guess what’s on the mind” of my clients has convinced me that I do not have “significantly high psi” [anymore, one might say]. What I do have is a Miss-Marple-like tendency to pick up on subtle [even subliminal] cues, from which I try to “get a clue” as to “what the deal is.” In my line of work, the chilling motto is “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Talk about fear of the unknown…you don’t know the half of it.

Next time, telepathic communication with animals.

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Filed under attribution theory, murky research

Looking for Dr. Dolittle

On Mother’s Day, no less, this expectant squirrel appeared on the “Juliet balcony” of my daughter’s Chicago apartment, and chose it as her nesting site, despite the presence of a fascinated ginger cat, right on the other side of the screen. Her babies arrived, and lively visits from other mother squirrels with their slightly older offspring ensued.

All very Beatrix Potter meets David Attenborough, eh? But how did this urban Mrs. Nutkin negotiate an understanding with my daughter, that the not-always-sleeping-Seamus would be kept securely on his side of the window? Don’t kid yourself for a minute, that All Creatures Great and Small inhabit a Peaceable Kingdom these days, especially in cities. There is a chilling news story from last night, of 9-month-old twin girls in East London, attacked in their cribs by an urban fox who apparently came in through the bedroom window. It was “so bold,” reports their horrified mother, that it didn’t immediately scurry away when she turned on the light. [Assuming it wasn’t neurologically impaired with rabies–which would be my first guess about a Maryland fox behaving so bizarrely–its startled limbic system probably chose “freeze” as a first response, followed by “flee.”]

The authorities partially blame the careless [or naively sentimental] humans who leave out food for the foxes, the semiotics of which betoken: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” As of today, in that district of London at least, each little back garden has a baited Have-a-Heart trap, beckoning: “Step into this parlour.”

Apart from the obvious carrot & stick methods of trans-species communication, how do most of us talk to the animals? Often, we give them to understand what’s on our minds by teaching them our “secret code” of words and gestures. When they guess our thoughts correctly [and obey our command], they get a reward.

Yeah, yeah, but what if we want to guess their thoughts? If the animal in question is right in front of us [like the balcony squirrel], we can go all Jane Goodall, and observe it closely for subtle changes in limbic arousal: pitch variation in vocalizations, fur standing on end, and so on. Even so, we may not understand just what got up its nose. So, we do what we do with what Piaget termed “cognitive aliens,” pre-verbal babies: we make it up. We attribute a plausible subtext to their howling or chortling. “He’s hungry.” “She loves her Uncle Neddy.” After all, who’s going to contradict us?

The NYTimes ran a pre-Preakness article about two high-priced “psychic diagnosticians” [also known as “animal communicators”], both ladies, as it happens, who will tell you what’s up your horse’s nose from “anywhere in the world.” A consultation costs $500. Once again, who’s going to contradict the Doctors Dolittle? The horse?

A brief digression, for an apocryphal anecdote, attributed to Henry VIII: “A king once commanded his farrier, ‘Make this horse talk in a year’s time, or I’ll have you killed.’ The farrier comforted his distraught family, ‘A year is a long time. Anything might happen. The king may die, or the horse may die, or the horse may talk.'” My kids were so taken with this vignette, that whenever an improbably wonderful thing seems on the verge of happening, we say, “The horse is clearing his throat.”

Wanna know the relevance of animal telepathy, to those of us who haven’t hung out our equine psychic shingle? Couldn’t be clearer. It’s about communicating with the Wolf in Our Head, to figure out what’s up its [our] nose. If you feel confident that you can “read” your baby [or your beloved pet, or the squirrel on your deck] “like an open book,” so, too, might you venture to “read your inner Wolf.”

Go on, have a go. The alternative is to spend $500 on a long-distance “reading” from a total stranger.

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Filed under attribution theory, ethology, limbic system, semiotics

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...

"Howl": But Is It Art?

Didn’t see the movie, having met the man in the flesh, in the 1960s at Duke, wolfing down Oreo cookies at a classmate’s off-campus kitchen table. (Allen Ginsberg, not me, eating the Oreos.) Made a nice change from all the narcotics and hallucinogens, I suppose.

I always thought it was a pity Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia [for writing an ironic rude message in the grime of his unwashed dorm window, addressed to his “slatternly” maid, yet], before he read James Joyce. Well, I assume he hadn’t read Joyce, or else he wouldn’t have taken credit for “inventing” stream-of-consciousness prosody. Nar’mean?

Consider the social contract, concerning listening to the non-linear musings of another. If you forked over whatever the admission price was, to see Howl in an art film house, it’d get right up your nose if the projector broke down in the middle of reel 2, and the rest was silence. But if, on the subway ride to the art cinema, a raving loony inflicted his own brand of stream-of-consciousness “performance art” on you and your fellow straphangers, you’d be likely to regard it as a bloody intrusion, and to wish he would shut up, already.

How come? Possibly, because [unless you mistakenly thought the James Franco vehicle was yet another werewolf flick] you were expecting to hear poetry, and therefore perceived it as such. [Poetic speech: the “just kidding; don’t take this literally” speech function.] Whereas, the unknown [if not uncommon] loony on the subway might be spouting Referential [fact-giving] speech (“The aliens are coming!”), or even Conative [orders-giving] speech (“Get on your tinfoil hat!”), either of which could trigger the “Fear!” message in our amygdala, since this guy might not be “just kidding”; and he just might get up in our grille for emphasis.

Same sounds; different attribution, as to what they betoken. Sometime over the holidays, I just bet you were in a public place where you heard the howl of a young child. How did your amygdala process that? Merely intrusion? [Not my kid, not my job, man.] Vicarious pain & suffering? [Ah, the poor wee mite! Or, perhaps, those poor parents!] If you sense that the howl is strategic [a Poetic simulation of distress to manipulate the public], and you initially “fell for it,” you might even feel humiliated at having been schmized.

We pay for, and expect, to be “deceived” by the artistry of professional performers. Not by the artifice of amateurs, whether they be cunning children, subway soliloquists, or even that “difficult” family member, who always seems to tune up for a long, loud howl, just as the entree is taken out of the oven. Nar’mean?

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Filed under attribution theory, limbic system, non-linear thinking, vicarious trauma